The Middle East was one of the most turbulent regions in the world in 2014. Here are the major events in the Middle East that impacted global security and created missed opportunities for U.S.-Russia cooperation in 2014.
Pro-Iraqi government fighters, some belonging to the Iraqi Imam Ali Brigade, take part in an operation to secure an area they seized from the Islamic State (IS) militants in Yathreb near Balad, about 75 kilometres (45 miles) north of Baghdad on December 29, 2014. Photo: AFP
2014 is destined to go down in history as an extraordinary year of large-scale international conflict and crisis. These crises and conflicts effectively realigned the entire system of international security and charged the leading world powers, especially Russia and the United States, with the specific responsibility of finding an urgent settlement.
Of particular concern is the situation in the Middle East. Russia Direct offers a review of the top political, economic and energy-related events in the Middle East in 2014 that impacted global security over the past 12 months — and could continue to impact it into 2015-2016.
1. The rise of ISIS
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), a quasi-state terrorist entity that in 2014 captured large swathes of Iraq and Syria in a brief space of time, is the main threat to security not only in the Middle East, but also in the wider world, too. There are reports that ISIS militants may have been involved in the recent terrorist attacks in Canada and Australia. It is possible, too, that they inspired the terrorist attack in Chechnya in early December.
The fight against ISIS could have formed the crux of potential cooperation between Moscow and Washington, since both countries are very much aware of the danger posed by the further spread of radical jihadism and its supporters around the world — including those in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, the Arab countries of North Africa, Europe, Russia and the United States.
Moscow is not officially part of the U.S.-led anti-terror coalition against ISIS, but it is supplying weapons to Iraq to help fight the radicals. Moreover, it should be no surprise to learn that, at the diplomatic level, Moscow supports America’s efforts to eliminate the threat from this terrorist organization. After all, ISIS is a more brutal and ideologically motivated global jihadist group than even Al-Qaeda, whose leaders have criticized ISIS for its extreme cruelty and fanaticism.
According to a top U.S. military leader, it will take three years to eradicate ISIS as a terror organization. Such a timeline is overly optimistic. Because the U.S. and Russia will be locked in confrontation over Ukraine for several years to come, the fight against ISIS will wax and wane — unless the international community takes more drastic measures and demands that all sides involved increase military support for Iraq and Syria.
2. Oil’s headlong drop
The second threat to world energy and political stability is the sharp drop in oil prices as a result of events in the Middle East and the surge of contraband oil onto the market from ISIS-held regions in Syria and Iraq. The question as to what steps the U.S. and Russia could take remains on the agenda.
Given that the latest energy crisis does not promise cooperation, and many players, including OPEC, Russia and the United States, will play for themselves, the likelihood grows that even cheaper oil could jeopardize the economy and stability of Russia as well as parts of Latin America and the Middle East. But predictions are pure speculation - all that can be done is to wait and see.
Today, viewed from the perspective of oil-dependent countries, the situation is indeed a crisis, and one whose consequences for the world in general, and Russia in particular, are even more acute than the 1973 energy crisis.
On the other hand, if we look at the situation from the perspective of some OPEC countries and the United States, the fall in oil prices is a cyclical downturn caused by factors such as the shale gas revolution in the U.S. The drop in oil prices is a result of shifting supply and demand and reflects necessary adjustments at this juncture for the energy market.
3. The changing dimensions of the Syrian conflict
Despite the fact that Russia and the United States differ significantly on how they view Syria (Russia supports Syrian President Bashar Assad, while the U.S. wants his overthrow), the signing of a treaty between Moscow and Washington to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons was one of the few achievements of 2014. It was above all a triumph of diplomacy, which also thwarted a U.S. strike against Syria and dampened U.S. desire for regime change in the country.
Moreover, the possibility for cooperation on Syria is being influenced by the threat from ISIS. That, in turn, has put off the prospect of regime change in Syria for the foreseeable future, since Damascus is also keen to destroy ISIS. Syrian government forces are helping the so-called anti-terror coalition, waging war against Islamic State militants on its territory. This renders any potential military intervention in the Syrian conflict by Washington less immediate than before.
4. Ongoing military conflict in Iraq
Given the threat posed by ISIS and the ongoing sectarian strife in Iraq, cooperation between Moscow and Washington in the region is also a key priority. Russia and the United States are assisting the Iraqi government to stabilize the country and confront ISIS, but their efforts are not allied and cannot be described as full-fledged cooperation.
5. NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan
The situation in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces is causing concern in both Moscow and Washington, primarily due to the threat of the return of the Taliban, terrorism and a narcotics trade, all of them stronger than before. Therefore, cooperation in the region is more pressing than ever.
No doubt, the sides have different political objectives and strategies in relation to the ongoing Afghan crisis, but a resurgent Taliban is not desirable to Washington and even less so to Moscow, which is in close proximity to the conflict zone. The security of the southern borders of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) against penetration by Taliban militants into Central Asia, where Russia has its own set of distinct national interests, is paramount.
6. Iran’s nuclear deal
November 2014 did not see the signing of a final breakthrough agreement on Tehran’s nuclear program in Vienna. Some think the diplomatic impasse could lead to even greater convergence between Iran and Russia, which will be detrimental to the United States in the growing confrontation between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine.
However, this challenge merely underscores the need for even greater diplomatic efforts from all sides, including Russia, the U.S. and Iran. Despite the fact that common ground will be hard to find (if any at all), Moscow and Washington are stakeholders in the ongoing talks with Iran within the P5+1 framework.
A new deadline for a final deal has been set for July 1, 2015, which provides an incentive to get the matter resolved and off the agenda in the near term. Given that Tehran believes that Moscow’s role in the negotiations on its nuclear program is insufficient, coupled with the geopolitical climate (namely the standoff with the U.S.), Russia — or at least its diplomatic service — will have its work cut out.
7. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict
A Palestinian protester uses a sling to hurl stones towards Israeli soldiers during a protest against the Jewish settlement of Ofra, in the West Bank village of Silwad, on March 28, 2014. Photo: AFP
The tragic events in Gaza developed according to a worst-case scenario in 2014. August saw a spike in violence and victims from both sides, with the warring parties (despite mediation by the UN and the United States) failing to reach agreement on a three-day cease-fire in order to provide humanitarian assistance to the civilian population. Soon thereafter, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) resumed fighting in the city of Rafah, in the southern section of the Gaza Strip, killing 30 Palestinians.
While Israelis and Palestinians accused each other of violating the truce, Russia and the West could have been more active in regulating the conflict. As members of the UN Security Council and the Middle East Quartet, Russia and the United States should both be keen to resolve the conflict and revive the peace process. Although 2014 saw some efforts to reestablish the negotiating platform, they did not yield any noticeable results.
It seems fairly evident that, in isolation, the U.S. and Russia cannot make progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor can the other members of the Middle East Quartet. Only through joint efforts can the conflict be resolved. Here Moscow can lend its weight, since it enjoys the advantage of being trusted by both sides of the conflict. In addition, it could promote the idea of setting up a contact group comprised of representatives of civil society organizations that would make appropriate recommendations.