A year of failed hopes in the Middle East

Ksenia Svetlova*

From Damascus to Benghazi, from Qatar to Cairo, 2014 has been a year of upheavals. What will 2015 bring?

No Christmas trees in Baghdad, no festive decorations in Raqqah, no electricity in Yemen, no peace in Israel and Palestine, and hardly any better in the rest of the Middle East. One of the most turbulent years in the last decade has brought with it new names – IS, and old, barbaric traditions, beheadings. Many elections were held in 2014 – in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Libya, but little democracy and human rights resulted. A year of war, conflicts, disagreements and failed hope is finally over, but who will clean up the mess?


2014 has been the bloodiest year since 2007, statistics say. The Nineveh plain was emptied of its Assyrian Christian population and Mount Sinjar of the Yazidis who were murdered, enslaved and abused. Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed khalif of ISIS (later to become IS) conquered Mosul, and then many other Sunni cities, stopping only 60 kilometers before Baghdad. ISIS – one of many radical jihadi organizations - became a real threat to Iraq, a failing state born from the ashes of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. Internal disagreements and distrust between the Obama Administration and Nuri Al-Maliki, now the ex-prime minister of Iraq, created a power vacuum, empowering the radical Sunnis who hardly met resistance along the way. The only ethnic group to make political gains were the Kurds. They received significant assistance from Germany and other countries and were recognized as practically the only power able and willing to stand up to ISIS. It is highly unlikely that in 2015 the Iraqi nightmare will come to an end. The central Iraqi government is too weak to defeat ISIS without an external ground invasion, and tensions in the country are too high to die out naturally.


If 2012 and 2013 were mostly about the massacres of Assad's regime against civilians, including the use of chemical weapons and other forbidden substances, in 2014 the spotlight moved to another player – ISIS. The organization was established in Iraq in 2007, changing names and leaders over the years, but it was Syria that allowed ISIS to become what it is today. The chaos of the civil war, the weakness of Assad's army after three years of war and in desperate need of recruits – allowed ISIS not only to achieve military success, but also to create a political entity. First the organization relied on wealthy Gulf donors, then, when supporting ISIS became a liability, it found its way to vast amounts of money selling crude oil at rock bottom prices. Mass executions, torture and the resumption of recorded beheadings of Western and Syrian hostages – a gruesome practice in Iraq of 2004 to 2006 had a double effect: ISIS was now taken seriously in the West, and the local population, including soldiers who were supposed to fight it, were seriously intimidated. ISIS now controls roughly 25 percent of Syrian territory. It was also able to wipe out the border with Iraq, taking pride in "aborting the [2016] Sykes-Picot agreement".

But despite the establishment of the caliphate in Raqqah in 2014 , the year ended in stalemate and stagnation for Syria. For now the parties can't even agree on gathering a Geneva III peace summit, which probably will not be attended by IS ambassadors.


Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was chosen as the "man of the year" in many online questionnaries, including one conducted by the Russian-Israeli site. But even the seemingly almighty president who abolished the Muslim Brotherhood could not defeat Egypt’s 11th plague – terrorism. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a radical Sunni jihadi organization in northern Sinai, pledged loyalty to IS and continued its own murderous crusade of beheading and rocket fire at city halls, police stations and army bases. The Brotherhood was banned, but activists continued to gather in universities and central squares, and not a day went by without a report of clashes with police in Alexandria, Suez, Cairo, Minya and other cities.

During 2014 the relations between Egypt and Russia developed significantly, with Moscow planning to implement some important economic projects in Egypt. Al-Sisi also gained credibility in the US, being practically one of the last stable partners for dialogue on such issues as Libya, Sudan and, of course, Gaza. The relations between Israel and Egypt's security apparatus were never better, and during the summer war in Gaza, Israelis fell in love with the Egyptian president and the loyal media. In 2015 al-Sisi will have to deal with three important internal issues – the economy, security and parliamentary elections. For now, the seventh Egyptian president doesn't have the solutions to these troublesome problems.


Libya has effectively become a two-headed state with two parliaments and two governments. Egyptian and Emirati aircraft bombed Islamist positions close to Benghazi. Although this was later denied by Egypt, Cairo appears more than ready to assist almost any strongman who will put an end to Libya's internal fighting. General Khalifa Khanfar started this year as a promising star who was about to reconquer areas occupied by Islamists and to reunite Libya, but the mission proved harder than expected. And just as the Americans now are ready to send their drones and fighter jets to Syria, al-Sisi is ready to assist from afar, but is not ready to put his men on the burning Libyan ground. It's very probable, that the Islamists in Cyrenaica will further promote their bid for independence, and if the situation deteriorates further, some kind of international action might be expected.

The Gulf

The surprising end-of-year reconciliation between Qatar and the other Gulf states for the sake of "region's security" might reunite them in 2015, at least for a short time. It seems that the expansion of the pro-Iranian Houtis in Yemen, along with the possibility of an agreement between Iran and the West, influenced both Qatar and Saudi Arabia – two rival camps that had some major disagreements on Syria and Egypt during 2014, and made them reconsider and celebrate a "sulha": Qatar decided to close its Al-Jazeera Masr television channel, and Egypt declared a retrial of three Al-Jazeera journalists sentenced to seven to 10 years in prison.

The Palestinians

The failure of negotiations with Israel in April, the new wave of terror in the West Bank and Jerusalem, the war with Gaza and the resolution submitted to the UN Security Council calling for Israel’s withdrawal from occupied territories – so many things happened in the Palestinian Authority, and yet it seems nothing has happened. A transitional unity government was supposed to prepare for parliamentary elections in January, 2015, and for now there is no date in sight and the unity with Hamas proved superficial.

The Palestinian government appears willing to maintain the status quo, at least for now, fearing chaos that will most likely hit the Palestinians hardest. It's also quite clear that the "intifada of the individuals" in Jerusalem and other places will continue, for there is no political solution in sight. Even if a different government is elected in Israel, it will take time to resume negotiations, and with the Palestinians turning to the Hague, it might be too late for that.


For many western observers and politicians, Tunisia was the only bright spot in the grim end of the year landscape of the Middle East. A secular party won the parliamentary elections, and the victory of the anti-Islamist camp was cemented with the election of 88-year-old Beji Qaid al-Sebsi in presidential elections. However, despite the transparent elections and the triumph of the secular nationalist camp, Tunisia has its share of problems. The acute economic crisis is well felt in the peripheral areas, where young people feel that their revolution has been a huge disappointment, and in 2015 many Tunisian radical jihadi salafis will start to come home from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. The state will have to handle the security situation on the border with Algeria, which was easily breached by Islamists this year. It will also have to make a decision whether to accept the offer of the World bank and enslave itself to a huge debt in the future, or to try and overcome the crisis on its own. Either way, the achievements of Tunisian NGOs and political parties look quite impressive.

*Ksenia Svetlova is an Arab affairs analyst for Israel's Russian-language Channel 9 and a fellow at "Mitvim", the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.Ksenia Svetlova is an Arab affairs analyst for Israel's Russian-language Channel 9 and a fellow at "Mitvim", the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.