Author: Mehmet Ozalp
Publication Date: Tuesday, 28 Feb 2017
Associate Professor of islamic Studies, Mehmet Ozalp reviews the ramifications of current and proposed actions of local and international players in three Middle East hotspots - Syria, Iraq and Turkey.
This year may be a critical turning point for Syria and the five-year civil war, at least for the Assad regime, which is poised to regain full control of the country.
After the crucial Aleppo victory, Russian-backed Assad forces have besieged al-Bab in tandem with Turkish forces already involved in a bloody battle, with Islamic State (IS) suffering heavy casualties. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is keen to push Turkey out of the equation and claim a victory at al-Bab, a critical gateway town on the way to the de facto IS capital in central Syria, Raqqa.
The capture of al-Bab will be followed by a full assault on Raqqa. Smelling an opportunity for glory, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already declared he would be involved in the battle for Raqqa.
The biggest wild card is the direction US President Donald Trump is likely to pursue in Syria. His inauguration speech promised complete eradication of "radical Islamic terrorism". That is likely to translate into a full declaration of war on IS, the embodiment of brutal violence and terrorism.
If it comes to pass, this will have two major consequences. First, Trump will approach Syria with a cost-benefit analysis of the quickest and cheapest way of eliminating IS. He will have no qualms about outsourcing the Syrian problem to the Putin-Erdogan-Assad trio. This, in turn, will serve to legitimise the Assad regime and its collaboration with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan.
Secondly, and counter-intuitively, the excessive measures and reckless rhetoric of Trump will provide much needed help to IS in promoting the line that US and Russia are collaborating with local puppets, Assad and Erdogan, to eradicate Islam.
IS social media machinery will campaign hard to attract a fresh supply of gullible young recruits. IS will also actively ramp up its brand of remotely orchestrated terrorism in Europe, the US, Russia and Turkey.
We could well see Raqqa falling to an unlikely coalition of major players in 2017, signalling an end to IS's political existence in Syria. IS will almost certainly continue to exist as a hybrid movement of violent insurgents and terrorists.
Domestically, the Assad regime will produce a constitution legitimising Assad as president. Meanwhile, the country will remain partitioned as a federation divided along ethnic and religious lines. Sadly, while Assad regains the upper hand, the Syrian civil war is likely to continue beyond 2017.
Iraq is an important country to watch in 2017, as a source of instability in the Middle East since the 2003 invasion.
Iraq is a political quagmire. The Iraqi Parliament is made of Sunni, Shi'ite (who make up 70% of parliament), Kurdish and secular political blocs controlled by more than 20 minor groups and patronages. These constantly jockey Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for ministerial positions and privilege. Governance is extremely difficult.
Further, Al-Abadi faces constant threat of protests and Green Zone sit-ins from powerful pro-Iranian Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who pressures al-Abadi to appoint a government of technocrats. In recent months, the protests have gained intensity and frequency as people demand faster reforms and an end to corruption.
Al-Abadi's lifeline is his struggle against IS and the current battle to liberate Mosul, the biggest city in northern Iraq with rich oil reserves. In November 2016, US-supported Iraqi government and Kurdish forces launched an attack to recapture the city.
In northern Iraq, the leader of the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government, Masud Barzani, has been building a self-sustaining state for the last decade. He has frequently threatened to declare independence to gain concessions and cooperation from the central Iraqi government. Yet, Barzani knows he needs the Iraqi government and the US-led coalition to liberate Mosul.
For the Kurdish region a liberated Mosul will bring northern Iraq back under the full control of Barzani and one step closer to independence. Barzani also intends to expand his territory by not handing over any region his forces liberate from IS. Barzani may even surprise the world by declaring the independence of Kurdistan in 2017.
Not if Prime Minister al-Abadi can help it. The liberation of Mosul will be a lifeline for his two-year government, especially when he knows that the fall of the city brought down the previous prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
Mosul is the only Iraqi city remaining in IS hands. Its recapture would mean an end to IS's political existence in Iraq. IS certainly will not give up the city as easily as it was capured. But, with increased support from Trump, Mosul may be recaptured in 2017.
Even if IS collapses as a political force, for as long as Iraqi Sunnis do not have a significant political voice, IS will be a force in Iraq similar to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Not only that, IS militants will shave their beards and spread across the world to unleash a new era of terrorism.
Turkey tops the list of countries to watch in the Middle East. Surprising shifts in domestic and foreign Turkish policy will have an important influence on the web of complex developments in the entire region.
Domestically, Turkey will be shaped by the campaign and aftermath of proposed constitutional changes being put to a referendum in April. The changes propose an executive presidency that in effect removes separation of powers and installs presidential top-down control mechanisms without any checks and balances.
The reality is that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is looking at legalising and perpetuating the emergency powers he is already enjoying while blocking avenues for credible opposition.
The result is not in the bag for Erdogan, as the "no" vote appears to lead in opinion polls. Accordingly, with more than 150 prominent journalists behind bars and independent media almost completely shut down, Erdogan-sponsored media will likely trump up the "yes" vote over the 50% mark.
Significantly, although fear politics and a plea for political stability won Erdogan elections in the past, the same tactics are likely to push voters to "no" rather than risk an uncertain systemic change.
If the proposed changes are rejected, Erdogan will hardly abandon his ambition for absolute power. Turkey will increasingly become a police state. The same changes, worded differently, will likely be put to another vote at the end of the year.
If the changes pass, Erdogan will claim it as the victory of democracy and use this as a pretext to end all political opposition, close down what remains of independent media and seize the properties of big businesses that sponsor political opponents. He will also take steps towards claiming leadership of the Muslim world.
Regardless of the referendum result, the Turkish economy will continue to decline as the inevitable outcome of authoritarianism. Erdogan will blame the decline on an international conspiracy of credit agencies, which have already dropped Turkey's credit rating to "junk" status.
As Turkey continues to drift away from the Western block, its foreign policy will largely hinge on new US President Donald Trump. Interestingly, Erdogan was silent on Trump's ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries to the US. Erdogan is wary of Trump's unpredictability, especially when the US court case of businessman Reza Zarrab has the potential to take corruption allegations about his government to the international stage.
Erdogan quickly orchestrated mass arrests of Islamic State (IS) supporters in Turkey days before the new CIA director's first foreign visit to Turkey. By positioning himself as a staunch enemy of IS, Erdogan aims to win Trump as a key ally to support his plans for leadership of the Muslim world.
Media contact: Mehmet Ozalp,