Not that it will surprise anybody, but 2020 is expected to be tough for the Arab World, as old battles die out and new ones emerge. For starters, it's election year in the US. Meaning, little to no engagement from the Trump White House, making the region open space for Russian President Vladimir Putin to tailor-fit to his liking. That’s bad news for America’s regional allies, especially the Kurds of northeastern Syria.
With very little engagement from the US, Kurdish front is expected to witness major developments. Several benchmarks are high on the Russian agenda for 2020. Top on the list is dismantling of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their subsequent incorporation into the Syrian army.
That is what the Russians had agreed with Syrian Kurds back in October 2019. It never saw light of the day. However, due to Donald Trump’s last-minute decision to keep troops around the Syrian oilfields, Kurds found new confidence. The Russians, along with the Turks and the Syrians, want to sort the Kurdish problem out soon.
In exchange for cooperation on fixing the Kurdish problem, the Russians expect two things from Recep Tayyip Erdogan. One is revival of the 1998 Adana Agreement, which Putin had revisited in February 2019. That would jump-start security coordination between Damascus and Ankara. State-to-state relations between Syria and Turkey are difficult, and president-to-president contacts are impossible, due years of bad blood between Bashar Al Assad and Erdogan.
Secondly, Putin expects his Turkish counterpart to surrender the northwestern city of Idlib. Or to look the other way as government troops recapture it, just like he did with the retake of Aleppo in 2016 and East Ghouta in 2018. The battle for Idlib started in mid-2019 but fizzled down by early autumn, due to under-the-table agreements between Erdogan and Putin. It regained momentum last December. In early 2020, they are expected to retake Jisr Al Shughour, which has been under rebel control since mid-2015, followed by Idlib itself.
The Turkish leader would also have too much on his plate, as the battle for Tripoli rages on between Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated government of Fayez Al Sarraj, an Erdogan ally. Like Idlib it started in 2019 and will gain steam in early 2020. Syrian jihadists on Turkish payroll have already been transferred to the Libyan battlefield, complicating the battle for Tripoli.
Many powers won’t allow the Brotherhood to remain in control of Tripoli. That battle will outline Erdogan’s foreign policy for years to come, killing whatever support he still has within the EU, and straining his already troubled relations throughout the Arab World.
Economists are not optimistic with the current state of the Mediterranean country. Many believe that it is on the verge of a banking sector collapse, which will trigger default, bankruptcies, and chaos on the streets. Lebanon is already in shambles two months after a popular uprising erupted, aimed at toppling the current elite, doing away with sectarianism, combating corruption, and rehauling the entire political system.
With the exception of ex-Prime Minister Saad Al Hariri, who voluntarily resigned on October 29, none of the big players have budged, and they are all expected to stay at their posts throughout 2020.
A university professor, Hassan Diab, has been tasked with forming a new government. It will likely see the light in early 2020, given that it is supported by Hezbollah, but that does not mean that it will succeed and nor will it last long.
There too a revolt underway in Baghdad since October 2019. The pro-Iran establishment is cranking out one name after another to replace outgoing premier Adel Abdul Mehdi. The last of those names was As’ad al Eidani, the current governor of Basra.
None of them are able to provide the very basics that irate Iraqis had been demanding, like electricity, clean running water, and better job opportunities. Iran itself is in hot waters, as US sanctions bite hard and limit its ability to bankroll Iraqi proxies.
That only thing that could force people off the streets is an orchestrated Daesh comeback, right in central Baghdad. Authorities might use the case to argue against future demonstrations, and many would back down, fearing for their lives.
The eternal cause of the Arab World, Palestine, is scheduled to hold parliamentary and presidential elections this year, for the first time since January 2006. The 84-year old Mahmoud Abbas is expected to run for office, having been in office since 2005.
That might trigger a popular uprising within Palestinian territories, similar to the one that erupted against Algerian President Abdul Aziz Bouteflika in 2019. His nemesis, Hamas will milk anti-Abbas sentiment to death, already planning to challenge him at the polls, with the full support of its Turkish sponsors.
Fifteen years ago, they swept the Palestinian Parliament but have since then failed to deliver on all almost every single level in Gaza. The Hamas-led territory is a giant prison, sealed off by Israel and ruled with bad government, by Hamas. Will Palestinians vote for them again is yet to be seen when they go to the polls in the first few months of 2020.
— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is the author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.