The Middle East in 2019

By Jin Liangxiang
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, December 26, 2019
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Photo taken from Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar on Oct. 17, 2019 shows smoke rising from the northern Syrian town of Ras al-Ain during an attack launched by Turkish army. [Photo/Xinhua]

The year 2019 was marked by even more instability and insecurity across the world, particularly in the Middle East. The word "chaos" has remained top in describing the Middle East situation for many years. The year now ending has been even more chaotic. 

The three most defining features of the region in 2019 are as follows:

Firstly, it has featured growing competition for geopolitical influence among regional powers due to their efforts either to fill in the vacuum left by the U.S. or to expand geopolitical influence. 

Turkey for some years has bargained with the U.S. to establish a buffer zone along its border with Syria, and finally launched an operation named "Peace Spring" on October 10 with consent from President Donald Trump. As a result, Turkey gained a stronger standing in the norther part of Syria. 

And Turkey's ambition is not confined solely to west Asia. In December, it dispatched troops to Libya, establishing a military presence on the other side of the Mediterranean. These two operations were nothing new, but rather the continuation of Turkey's military behavior in Qatar in 2017 and operation Olive Branch in early 2018. Turkey seems determined to fill some of the gaps left by the American pullback in the region's hotspots.

Israel used to enjoy being protected by the U.S. in its rivalries with surrounding powers. Now, it has shown more willingness to do something on its own due to America's reluctance to engage in more military involvement, frequently launching military actions against Iranian or pro-Iran forces in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. 

Saudi Arabia became a little more restrained in its regional policy, perhaps partly attributed to a policy adjustment after Khashoggi incident. Despite this, the Saudis continued their involvement in Yemen, regarding it as one of the key fronts in confrontation with Iran. 

Saudi Arabia is also competing for influence with Iran in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, though in much more low-profile manner.

Iran had been the big gainer in geopolitical competition in the last decade. It was able to form the Shiite Arc after 2003 Iraq war, establishing greater influence in the Shia areas of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen since 2011, and achieving a military presence in Syria after 2012. 

The British oil tanker "Stena Impero" is surrounded by Iranian Revolutionary Guard near the Strait of Hormuz, Iran, July 21, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

This past year, it moved to further its ambition, strengthening its ability in controlling the Hormuz Straits in high-profile way by downing an American drone and capturing a British oil tanker.

In a word, geopolitical competition in 2019 became more intensive and fiercer. It seems that all these regional powers intend to maximize their geopolitical interests in the post-U.S. era, and have yet to realize the limits of their power, with very detrimental implications for regional security. 

Secondly, the region was marked by domestic turbulence in a number of countries. In early April, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, president of Algeria, announced his resignation under the demand of the army chief and pressure of street protests against him seeking a new term. 

In mid-April, Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, president of Sudan, was ousted in a military coup d'état, eventually transferring executive power to a mixed civilian-military Sovereignty Council under a civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, in September.  

In the second half of 2019, protests and demonstrations occurred in a number of countries including Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq. The Lebanese and Iraqi protests posed challenges to their sectarian political systems, leading to the resignation of their incumbent prime ministers.

People take part in a protest in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Oct. 20, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

Despite different domestic contexts, the problems of these countries can be attributed to one very fundamental reason: They have failed to establish political legitimacy against new global and domestic backgrounds. Most Middle Eastern countries, in the era of national liberation, created an incumbent political system, and the leadership proved charismatic for a time. 

Unfortunately, they failed to deliver economic benefits in the era of globalization, and failed to remove corruption and improve efficiency as public patience drained away.

Iraq is a slightly different story. Its political system was founded in the aftermath of America's invasion in 2003, with a system of division of powers among different religious and ethnic groups. However, this American-prescribed system proved unequal to the task. 

It might have created a system of sectarian balances and checks, but had been unable to deliver economic benefits to the people in a fair manner leading to insecurity and instability.

Finally, there is America's unreasonable policy toward the region that grew further in 2019. The U.S., in addition to withdrawing from the JCPOA in 2018, ratcheted up its Iran policy in 2019. Trump listed the IRGC, a regular army of a sovereign state, as a terrorist organization, and added Iran's Supreme Leader and foreign minister to his sanctions list, rare moves in the history of international relations.

Druze residents of the Golan Heights wave a Syrian flag as they protest against the remarks by U.S. President Donald Trump about Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, in the village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on March 23, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

The Trump administration also recognized Israel's annexation of one-third of the Golan Heights, taken from Syria by Israel in the 1967 war, posing a serious challenge to the foundational principle of international order. It also changed American policy about Israel's settlements in occupied Palestinian territories by actual recognition of their legality. Such moves set a very bad example for other parts of the region and beyond.

Trump might have enjoyed the pleasure of being supported by Jewish lobbyists for his forthcoming presidential campaign; however, it's an unreasonable policy with long-term negative implications on regional order.

Jin Liangxiang is Senior Research Fellow with the Center for West Asian and African Studies, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. For more information please visit:

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