The end-of-year massacre at a crowded nightclub in Istanbul by Daesh marked the close of a turbulent year. It was also a clear reminder of the challenges posed by Daesh (even as it sustains territorial losses) and more broadly, radical Islamism and extremism.
Outside the region, populism raged as the world was shaken by economic shifts, political realignments, and rising tensions in Asia. No one expected last January that within 12 months Britain would vote to leave the EU and American voters would choose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.
Syria — a pyretic victory
The end-of-year agreement between Russia, Turkey and Syria to bring “peace” at least to the parts of the state they control is a substantial turning point in the conflict, which has cost over half a million lives and displaced a generation or more of Syrians. President Bashar Assad’s survival, underwritten and now owned by his patrons in Moscow and Tehran with Ankara’s acquiescence, is a pyretic victory.
Assad now rules a kingdom of rubble and dislocation. The nation-state that his father built is destroyed, and his own long-term survival is an open question mark. The hundreds of billions of dollars needed to rebuild Syria are not available in the coffers of his patrons.
Damascus will soon face the hard reality that it is one thing to fight a war and tend rubble, but a greater challenge to govern a state effectively (a failure of his own original governance that helped bring about this conflict in 2011).
Under present conditions, it is hard to imagine the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank extending credit to Assad. This year will likely be the year when he faces global creditors and their demands for actual reforms if he does seek to turn Syria into a functioning state again.
Daesh’s global reach
Beyond Damascus’ territorial reach, Daesh continues to be a challenge. US President Barack Obama leaves his successor an unfinished conflict. While Daesh is losing ground in Syria and Iraq, it and other radical groups continue to launch attacks around the world. This has further fueled the populist backlash against immigrants and refugees across Europe.
The year 2017 will unlikely see the abatement of Daesh and other extremist groups in taking advantage of state collapse in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, and in plotting attacks in the Gulf, Turkey, Africa, Western Europe and the US.
However, Trump brings a new set of eyes, new leadership, and new resolve to root out and destroy these groups. Regional states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Turkey will need to take this as a moment to enhance their cooperation with Washington to more effectively counter these groups. While Riyadh’s anti-Daesh coalition is an important step forward, the substance of what this coalition does in practice beyond the military in Yemen needs to take shape.
Libya’s ongoing civil war and turbulent political reconciliation will only heighten in 2017. The absence of a sustainable governance program means Cairo, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Ankara will need to find common ground. The region cannot expect Washington alone to address this.
A NATO role in Libya may also need to be considered to secure the future of a country at the heart of North Africa’s challenges, and one that directly impacts Europe’s security. From Cairo to Algiers, North Africa faces crumbling political institutions, decaying leadership, economic turbulence, and an increasingly volatile domestic security situation.
Yemen’s crisis (this latest incarnation) also needs to find a settlement. It has not only torn at the stability of the country, but also that of the broader Arabian Peninsula. Iran has heightened the conflict further by arming and training the Houthis in their contest with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Al-Qaeda has also found space to thrive, and the Saudi border is vulnerable.
The conflict’s humanitarian impact has frayed the relationship between Washington and London and Riyadh. The war’s economic cost has made Yemen a large elephant in the room for any conversation with the new administration and new Congressional leadership.
Trump will bring a fundamentally different mind-set and approach to America’s foreign relations. This year will be the one to watch to see how the new administration confronts these challenges. Will they make the difficult choices needed to set the US on a better course?
Regional states such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran and others will have to adjust to this new reality. Global powers such as Russia and China will have to come to terms with a new leadership in Washington that will not accept business as usual, nor necessarily be as amicable as some in Moscow hope Trump will be.
Washington will also expect more from its regional allies. There are great perils in testing this leadership. The days of un-enforced “red lines” look to be sun-setting on Jan. 20. This year offers to be one of renewal if the difficult choices are made.
• Andrew Bowen, Ph.D., is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.