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A year to remember, a year to forget

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

There are no dull years in the Middle East and 2013 was no exception. Unfortunately, too many years are remembered for all the wrong reasons such as conflict, bad governance, and disregard for human and political rights; all of which are rife across the region.

Next year the world will commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the World War I, whose aftermath laid the foundation for the modern Middle East. The emergence of the modern Middle East during and after WWI was to a large extent the brainchild of the colonial powers of the time, Great Britain and France.

In their quest to control the region they caused, both deliberately and inadvertently, much of the region’s political and social discords of our time. For nearly a century many of the domestic and international conflicts and developments derive from the way the Middle East emerged from the ashes of the war.

The Arab-Israeli conflict, the ongoing political strife in Iraq and Lebanon, and the Arab Spring are only few examples of residues of the unresolved fault lines dating back to the political order created after WWI.

Only three years ago, a wave of revolutions, commonly known as the Arab Spring, swept the Middle East and instilled hope among many that the region was on the road to liberating itself from oppression and authoritarianism. This sense of optimism has almost vanquished in the three turbulent years.

Long serving dictators were indeed removed, but the alternative which has emerged thus far has left people across the region disillusioned about an emergence of a better future for them.

One step forward, one step back

The counter-revolution in Egypt, the breakdown in law and order in Libya and above all the catastrophic civil war in Syria, which shows no signs of abating, cast a long shadow on the direction these countries and the region would take in the next months and years.

Even in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring was triggered, the prospects for progressive change had looked more promising, but the struggle between moderates and radical Islamists left a very fragile society and political system.

By the end of 2013 Syrians can see little hope as the death toll in Syria exceeds 125,000 with some 6 million people displaced and 9 million desperate for humanitarian aid with no end to the civil war in sight. The only silver lining of 2013 in Syria was the regime’s acceptance of an international program to dismantle its chemical weapons.

Nevertheless, even this happened only in the aftermath of the abhorrent use of these weapons by the regime against its own people.

Breakthrough with Iran

The Iranian nuclear saga seems to have provided better news towards the end of the year, after nearly a decade of stalemate; even if there is still a very long way to go until Iran and the international community reach a long term settlement concerning Iranian uranium enrichment.

However, at the beginning of last year, any progress on the issue would have been unthinkable and a military operation to stop Iran from developing her nuclear capability was not out of the realm of possibility. The newly elected pragmatic cleric Hassan Rowhani as president, instead of the bellicose Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, quite dramatically changed the atmosphere between Tehran and the major powers, especially the United States.

The interim agreement set a framework in which Iran agreed not to pursue nuclear military capability in return for recognition of her right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes, and the lifting of some of the sanctions imposed on her. Not surprisingly this agreement encountered considerable skepticism, especially from Israel, the Gulf States and certain quarters of American politics.

Doubts stem mainly from great distrust of the regime and Tehran’s commitment to refrain from enriching uranium to weapon grade and suspicion that Iran was merely biding her time and deceiving the world about her true nuclear military intentions.

This should not lessen the magnitude of the achievement of kick-starting a process which looked almost impossible only a few months earlier and potentially averting a war which might have engulfed the region with unforeseeable lethal consequences.

2014 big year for Middle East

The challenge for 2014 is to establish a watertight verified process which would not only ensure that Iran is standing by its commitments vis-à-vis uranium enrichment, but also allows her a path out of her isolation into re-joining the international community, as long as she adheres to acceptable international norms of behavior.

As always, no end of year review is complete unless the Arab-Israeli conflict is addressed. The passing year has witnessed the resumption of peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, engineered by Washington.

Since peace with Syria, and by extension with Lebanon, are out of the questions in the foreseeable future, it leaves peace between Israel and the Palestinians potentially as the only realistic option. But is it? The renewed negotiations came about mainly thanks to American Secretary of State John Kerry’s sheer conviction and determination that a peace agreement between the two is possible by the coming spring.

The very fact that both sides are engaged in some sort of negotiations should be credited to Kerry’s persistence and dedication or as some might say, naivety, as the odds are very much stacked against him.

Both sides do not trust each other, and doubts are high as to whether after so many years of failed attempts there are enough people on both sides who are sufficiently committed and convinced that a two state solution is still a realistic option.

A hundred years after the beginning of the First World War, the region is still caught up in the legacy of the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Balfour Declaration and the League of Nation’s mandate system.

Yossi Mekelberg

The signs are far from promising, as violence has flared up in the last few weeks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, with a third intifada not improbable. Moreover, Israeli insistence on expanding settlements, or suggestions to annex settlements along the Jordan Valley, in complete disregard of worldwide condemnation, casts a genuine doubt on whether the Netanyahu’s government is negotiating in good faith. It seems more an exercise in appeasing her main international backer the United States.

The Israeli government’s insistence that there is no viable partner is further damaging any prospect for peace. Needless to say, the disunity among the Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank, and the renewed firing of Qasam rockets on Israel from Gaza, are also harming the cause of peace.

A sincere peace agreement requires also the inclusion of all Palestinian factions in the occupied territories and the Palestinian diaspora. Both sides’ public statements feel more like preparation for exonerating themselves from a failure in the peace negotiations rather than a genuine attempt to make sincere progress.

Kerry’s only hope for success relies on mobilizing the international community to send a clear message to both sides that the world will not tolerate any obstruction in reaching a two state peace agreement. A united international front in addition to an active peace-supporting civil society in Israel and Palestine could provide the only ray of hope for reaching a peace agreement in the coming year.

The first few months of 2014 may prove to be a decisive one for the future of the Middle East. There are major issues to be resolved, with the hope that common sense will prevail and consequently further violence and misery will be prevented.

A hundred years after the beginning of the First World War, the region is still caught up in the legacy of the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Balfour Declaration and the League of Nation’s mandate system. A century later, as the nations of the region are fighting for their rights and major issues are dealt with around the negotiations table, maybe, just maybe, there is a flicker of hope that the region is reaching maturity in the way it addresses disagreements.

Should we all hold our breath?

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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