If the Middle East were company, it would have filed for bankruptcy this December, declaring its inability to shoulder losses any further. But unfortunately, it is not a company that can liquidate itself out of existence but rather, a home to millions who have no choice but to carry on with their lives, against all odds, putting up with endless wars, corruption, and Covid-19.
Hosting some of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, the region today is nothing but a giant museum, where people can come to visit the past, but catch no glimpse whatsoever of the future.
The war in Syria
The war in Syria has come to a closure, but the country is far from being back on its feet. Millions of refugees remain displaced, both at home and throughout the neighbourhood, while entire cities and towns are still in rubble, pounding to dust during the ten-year conflict.
No reconstruction has started despite the war approaching its tenth anniversary next March, and none will before there is a political closure to the Syrian conflict, in-line with UNSCR 2254. There is no progress on the UN-mandated constitutional talks that was started in Geneva in October 2019, which ought to have delivered a new constitution for the war-torn country by late 2020. Instead, lawmakers have not even started debating the new charter, a task that they postponed until next January.
Five foreign armies remained embedded on Syrian soil: the Americans east of the Euphrates, Israel and Iran in the south, Turkey in the north, and Russia throughout the coast and in the interior. Iran remains on high alert in the Syrian south (which it was supposed to have evacuated in mid-2018), fearing an attack by Israel after two target assassinations knocked down two of its top figures, an army general and nuclear scientist, in January and November 2020.
Syrian oil remains in the hands of Kurdish and American soldiers, while Turkey continues to expand in its safe zone, illegally occupying an entire chunk of the country both along the border strip and within the Syrian interior in Afrin, west of the Euphrates.
Economically, the country is in shambles, suffering chronic shortages of wheat, electricity, and heating fuel. The two-month lockdown of mid-2020 further added to Syria’s economic woes, closing down 15% of remaining economic establishments and forcing another 50% to reduce their operations and lay off their staff. The Cesar Act added to the troubles of the war-torn country, pushing it further into the arms of Iran.
Arab states are trying to lure Syria out of the Iranian orbit and help Damascus end the Turkish occupation, appointing an Omani ambassador to Damascus in October 2020. Many hope that things will improve when/if Iran resumes its nuclear talks with the United States after Joe Biden enters the White House.
But Turkey remains a major problem for all sides, failing to cleanse the province of Idlib from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), as Recep Tayyip Erdogan had promised Vladimir Putin to do in March. It also remains firmly allied to the Muslim Brotherhood, a major component of the Syrian opposition in exile.
The Lebanese fiasco
Lebanon is in no better shape. The country’s cash-strapped economy plunged into free-fall in late-2019, resulting in meltdown of its once thriving banking and tourism sectors. The savings of ordinary Lebanese have been reduced to nothing but a number on their checkbooks, with banks unable to restore people’s deposits. American dollars are nowhere to be found in Lebanon and the local currency has dropped from 1,500 LP to the American dollar to 7-8,000 LP.
All hopes that the October Revolution would rid Lebanon of its ruling oligarchy have vanished, as all the political parties — and their chiefs — remain firmly in power. Talks with the IMF, aimed at securing a $9-10 billion loan for Lebanon are currently on-hold, and won’t see the light before there are much needed administrative and political reforms in the country.
Then came the port explosion of August 4, 2020, destroying Beirut and killing over 200 people. Four months later, accountability has been not achieved and none of the wrongdoers have been brought to justice.
Briefly, however, it seemed like a political breakthrough was indeed possible. Hours after the blast, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Lebanon, trying to talk local leaders — Hezbollah included — into a new political contract.
Then came the resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, after just eight months in office, and he now faces charges of “criminal negligence” by the port explosion probe, along with three former ministers (all part of the Hezbollah-led March 8 Coalition).
Two of them were slapped with US sanctions earlier in the year, along with Gibran Basil, son-in-law of President Michel Aoun and head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). The threat of sanctions has crippled the cabinet formation process, incapacitating Prime Minister-designate Saad Al Hariri, who was chosen to replace Diab in November. He fears that any pro-Hezbollah figure in his cabinet will be subjected to US sanctions, explaining why he is stalling with the cabinet formation until after Trump leaves the White House next month.
Iraq: a country in paralysis
Iraq too was expecting better days ahead, with the installation of a new prime minister in mid-2020. Mustapha Al Kazemi was hailed as a breath of fresh air, promising to address economic woes and bring justice to the hundreds of families whose children were killed by the security services since October 2019.
That has not happened, and seven months down the road, demonstrations return to the streets of Iraq, whipping up a new death toll. The people’s demands are still the same: better jobs, accountability, end of militia -rule, and compensation for government employees who have not been paid for months.
The country has faltered under the twin shock of Covid-19 and the collapse in global oil prices, leading to the miserable condition today. Shortly after coming to power Kazemi tried — with little luck — to crack down on the Iran-backed Kataeb Hezbollah militia, but under Iranian pressure, was forced to back down.
Iranian militias in Iraq remain on high alert — just like Hezbollah in Lebanon — armed to the teeth and expecting the worse from a possible confrontation between Iran and the United States, in what remains of Trump’s term at the White House.
— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.