The 2016 year, especially the latter part, was full of important and significant events. Some of them has already changed the international agenda, others might assert even greater influence over international processes.
Some of top events are closely related to each other. For this reason it is much better to analyse them in conjunction than according to the calendar lay-out. In the first part of our annual review the most important events according to our opinion in the Middle East are described.
1) The Turkey’s foreign policy shift
It is known that one of Turkish foreign policy pillars was the “Zero Problems with Neighbors” principle. But then, Ankara began step by step alienated from this concept. Instead of that the Turkish authorities began to participate in regional processes and not only. Many experts began talking about so called “Neo-Ottomanism”, e.g. revival of Ottoman ambitions.
However, conflicts with neighbors shattered the national economic potential. Building of Kurdish federal region became even more serious threat for Ankara. A complex of problems along with other factors caused the reason why the Turkish authorities decided to recur the previous course starting with re-establishing wrecked relations. At that, this affected not only Russia, but also Iran, Egypt and even Israel.
Interestingly, this process runs amid degrading of relations with the European Union despite considerable steps made towards each other over the last years that could well reach the beginning of accession to the EU. On the other hand, there was an intimation that the Europeans do not want it at all. Therefore, any reason is good for delaying talks further. As the result, the negotiation process froze at all. In fact, Europe turned back on Turkey that moved the Turkish authorities towards East.
One of the results was re-launching of Turkish Stream pipeline construction talks. After all, if the project is realized it is hard to overestimate its importance – all countries wherethrough the Russian gas goes to Europe are losing their importance for the Old World. Influence of the USA on the Europeans is to be significantly decreased as well.
One more aspect to be noted. In some media one may quite often face a myth that Ankara had to change its policy due to coup attempt, but this is at odd with the chronology. In reverse, the coup was a result of the foreign policy course change, and this is evident chronologically. In late March, Turkish police arrested A. Çelik whom Moscow blamed to be responsible for shooting the Russian pilot O. Peshkov. At that time, R. Erdogan virtually the first time officially announced the necessity for resumption cooperation between Russia and Turkey. In early May, serving Prime minister A. Davutoglu declared his resignation, and Turkish President’s close ally B. Yildirim was appointed to his position. Yildirim was known by his negative attitude on the conflict with Russia, and afterwards he declared a new foreign policy vector for Turkey.
In late June, R. Erdogan sent to Russian President V. Putin a letter with deep regrets concerning shot down airplane and murdered pilot. Exactly after that, the coup d’etat attempt took place in Turkey, and this became another top 10 events in 2016.
2) Coup d’etat attempt in Turkey
The night military riot on 15-16 of July has become the fifth in the modern history of Turkey. But in contrast to the previous it failed completely. There are few basic versions explaining the reason why the coup has failed.
The first and the main version considers the immediacy and preparations deficiencies made by organizers and actors. That makes a sense if admit that the riot was provoked by the foreign policy shift of Ankara. In this case, there was a lack of time for preparation as transformation of Turkish foreign policy, and we can witness it nowadays, was very fast and caused serious political changes.
The second version (which collocates with the first one) is well-executed rescue of President Erdogan. The Turkish leader escaped death twice at least: a) in a plane which could be knocked down; b) and before that in Marmaris, a place which country’s leader managed to leave half an hour prior to the rioters’ arrival.
In the latter case according to media, the major role was played by Russian intelligence that informed Erdogan about assassination attempt. And taking into account that shortly after the riot Erdogan came to Saint Petersburg and signed important agreements, the possible help of Russian intelligence fits the logic of the events.
The third reason of coup’s failure (that results from the second one) is participation of ordinary people that responded call of the President, came out on the streets and spoiled the game of putschists. This evident shows one more time the importance of people’s support of authorities which quite hard to achieve in the modern world without justified social policy.
In addition, the last forth version (supported by a small fraction of experts) considers the riot staged or unobstructed by authorities themselves. Indeed, coupists defeat seem to be a gift for official Ankara. However, if it is possible to admit that authorities and intelligence services had known about the military march-off and did nothing to avoid it? To be honest, it is hard to believe it at all.
Anyway, the military coup failure caused significant changes inside Turkey and in foreign policy of the country. Colossal purges has begun in almost all spheres from politico-military to economic and educational. In the first place, they affected the main accused – members of FETÖ (the F. Gülen movement supporters) not only in Turkey but in other countries as well.
In foreign policy, the Turkish authorities became convinced even more in correctness of the course change as the putschists were evidently supported by certain ‘pro-Western’ powers. At least, Erdogan patently stated that the USA, the EU and supported rebellion Arabian monarchies “stuck a knife in the back of Turkey”.
Attempts to influence on Ankara did not come to end. On 19 of December, the Russian Ambassador in Turkey A. Karlov was shot dead in the Turkish capital (the murderer was the one who intended to be a bodyguard of Erdogan!). Before, this kind of violence act might bring to war. But political wisdom of both countries leaders kept out of falling for this provocation.
Indeed, the course of Ankara towards convergence with Moscow and Tehran led to significant changes in Syria, one of which was the military operation launched by Turkey.
3) “Euphrates Shield”
Turkish military campaign was named Euphrates Shield that unequivocally hints at principal goal of Ankara: prevention of two Kurdish enclaves merging in the North Syria and building of federal Kurdish region. The case that long now the Turkish authorities announced about so-called red line violation of which by Kurdish military groups is considered for Turkey to be unacceptable. And this line was indicated as Euphrates river.
Seizure of Manbij by Kurdish forces in mid-August, their plans to capture Jarablus and Al-Bab became a ‘trigger’ for Ankara. In fact, the Kurdish plan would open a road to Afrin, the capital of Kurdish enclave in the North Syria. That would mean the foundation of unified Kurdish autonomy under a control of “Democratic Union Party” (PYD) tightly bound with Kurdistan Workers’ Party and in immediate vicinity from the Turkish frontier…
Another goal pursuing by Ankara was removal of ISIL militants from region and creating so called buffer zone under control of Turkish allies from “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) and directed by Turkish military forces.
On the first stage of operation launched on 20 of August, the advancement was directed to Jarablus that was seized soon without a fight. Yet, on 3 of September the second phase of operation aimed at another two important towns – Al-Rai and Al-Bab – began. And if ISIL militant groups had been punched out from the first town quick enough, it was not possible to seize the second town at once. In the battle for Al-Bab Turkish military forces that provided before backups to FSA groups was involved in the fight properly. Here, the ISIL fighters decided to furnish a real resistance, and the battle for Al-Bab was crossed to 2017 year.
The most important aspect without which Turkey would not manage to launch its own military campaign in Syria was unofficial agreement with Damascus, Tehran and Moscow. This is confirmed by two facts at least: a) “Euphrates Shield” operation was launched after numerous visits of Turkish intelligence representatives to Damascus and in the light of convergence of Ankara and Moscow; b) the military operation was supported by Turkish air forces that had not crossed Syrian air frontier since 2015 after deployment of Russian anti-aircraft missile system.
And the last, the existence of an agreement is confirmed by the fact that the Russian Aerospace Forces supported Ankara in military assault of Al-Bab, and from the other side, Turkish authorities rather calmly reacted to the loss of eastern Aleppo by opposition forces, which became one of the milestones in 2016.
4) The battle for eastern Aleppo
Many specialists consider the battle for eastern Aleppo if not particularly a turning point then the very important and significant event from the whole Syrian conflict standing point of view. There are few reasons for that. For instance, this district was held by opposition since summer 2012, e.g. more than 4 years. Moreover, eastern Aleppo is not the biggest part of the Syrian “second capital”, but it even bigger than a number of other Syrian cities. Last, headquarters of many opposition groups and operation centers of different alliances and coalitions were located in eastern Aleppo.
One of evidences of the Aleppo battle importance is conclusion of truce between Damascus and the greater part of militant groups after the end of fighting in this city. (The ceasefire regime is also very important, but as it closely related to the Aleppo battle and came to effect only after 30 of December, so it is too early to mention about it). As for chronology, preliminary phase of the battle for the city began in late June and was completed through encirclement of opposition forces. Although in August, the siege was partly to break, it was only a temporary success – in early September, eastern Aleppo was surrounded once again. After a short respite, the new phase of operation began, which led to the consolidation of the government forces in several districts. On 20 of October, a humanitarian pause was declared through the intermediary of international forces. During the pause, special corridors was organized for escaping of civilians and members of armed groups who agreed with evacuation to the neighboring province of Idlib.
On 15 of November, assault of the last strongholds of anti-government forces in eastern Aleppo began. The turning point came on 25-26 November when opposition forces were driven out of Hanano district that split them in two parts. After that, almost all the experts have no doubt concerning the outcome of the battle. The fighting was ceased on 13-14 of December when the greater part of militant groups accepted terms of capitulation. Following that, they began evacuation to Idlib. Separate, the most irreconcilable militant groups, kept on attacking the troops a few days, but soon all armed foci were eliminated. The 22 of December is the end of the Aleppo battle.
It is obvious that the main component of success of Damascus and failure of opposition was the military factor. And it should be noted that not only army troops and Shiite militias were fighting for Damascus, but also Sunni groups from Palestinian refugees residing in Syria for a long time (members of some militant groups had been brutally terrorizing Palestinians including public execution of children which provoked a huge hatred towards them).
For all that, the diplomacy factor should not be ignored. Without diplomacy, the battle would have dragged on as it is well known that some militant groups sponsored by Ankara and Turkey itself did not lend support expected by the besieged. It is no coincidence, many consider that Ankara “ceded Aleppo” and the Arabian monarchies behind Turkey’s back blame Ankara in “betraying the interests of Arab countries”.
As it was mentioned before, many experts consider the Aleppo battle “significant in a context of the Syrian crisis”. Moreover, Israeli experts believe that a control over this important city means the victory of Damascus in the conflict. At that, others compare this Syrian process with the battle for Mosul, which started almost simultaneously in Iraq.
5) The Mosul advancement
The Iraqi authorities announced several times about the launching of military operation for the liberation of Mosul, but each time for some reason the operation had been reducing event before its beginning or the advancement of military forces had been halting far away from the city. Last year in March and in August, for instance, Iraqi military forces and Kurdish groups had been launched advancement to the “capital” of ISIL twice, but each time had been come to halt about 40-50 km away from the city.
For this reason, when in October there was an announcement on a new advancement, this was not seriously conceived. Besides, many of analytical experts and specialist on the Middle East had warned about diversity of advancing fighters.
Indeed, the government army, Kurdish “Peshmerga”, Shiite and Sunni militias along with an international coalition led by Washington, and even the Turkish troops who wanted to take part in the battle – all of them though united with a purpose to expel ISIL, but have their own interests, which often do not coincide with each other. On the other hand, amid Aleppo fighting and approaching of the US elections there was a feeling that the liberation of Mosul is more than real.
The first phase of the operation, which began on October 16-17, was going on wheels. On 31 of October, army units advanced to urban area, which has never been reached before in the fight against ISIL militants. And one might suppose that the liberation of Mosul is a matter of time.
Having said that it seemed to be a pre-written scenario according to which the second large city in Iraq should be conquered before Aleppo. This was evidence by the fact that according to the US military “the capture of Mosul is considered by leaving the White House democrats as a trump card in presidential election; H. Clinton’s victory was at stake. However, there was only one chance to achieve this goal – the extremists had to cede the town either capitulating or retreating to Syria. If this version is correct, the tricky plan was overset. And not least because this leaked information, following which the routes of retreat were taken under control of Iraqis militias. Moreover, there were Russian who also declared the necessity of controlling the Iraq-Syria border, alluding therefore to possibility of airstrikes on ISIL not only in Syria but in Iraq as well.
As a result, the battle for Mosul seriously delayed and smoothly passed into 2017. However, on December 29, a new phase of the operation had begun, and during the recent fighting, the government forces have made significant progress. But we should not forget that combat operations are conducted only in eastern part of the city, which larger than the western part but less populated. In this regard, the Mosul battle could last for several months more, if something extraordinary did not happen once again. For example, ISIL will be advised to throw reinforcements from Raqqa, and exhausted yet Iraqi army could not stop the advance of extremists to Baghdad. The Kurds, of course, will not interfere, and a coalition led by Washington would go to the side using radicals to carry out far-reaching plans for Iran. Is it possible taking into account that elite units of US marines come back to Afghanistan? Unfortunately, it is.
Unexpected twists in the Middle East paradoxically became everyday’s routine. In Iraq, for instance, a new political crisis has come. This time in Baghdad, reappearance of detached Prime-Minister N. al-Maliki, who came to power at the point of American bayonets, is quite expected in mainstream politics. And amid a sudden blitzkrieg of ISIL he might be able to return to power.
Landmark events in 2016 took place not only in the Middle East, but in other regions as well. Some of those events were related with serious political changes in governmental structures of many countries. These and other crucial events are disclosed in the second part of our annual report.
6) Weakening of the “Red belt” in Latin America
Recent years have been characterized for Latin America as a deep transformation of political regimes, particularly in so-called countries of «Red belt». The government in Argentina was changed, and a representative of “conservative liberalism” became a president. In April 2016, it became clear that power in Peru also transferred to liberal ideology adherents. But the main goal for opponents of socialism was the largest country in the region – Brazil. The result of a long political campaign was an impeachment of Brazilian President D. Rousseff and her removal in August.
Over the last year, H. Chavez successor, the President of Venezuela N. Maduro, found himself in a very difficult situation. In the background of low oil prices and weak economy undermined by internal and external forces, the position of Maduro becomes even more vulnerable. Last May, opposition managed to file a petition on referendum to ouster the President. Yet, Venezuela authorities have managed turning to bay, it is not unlikely that in 2017, Caracas will face much more challenges.
Significant changes took place in Cuba. The B. Obama administration managed to establish quite good relations with Havana and enhanced it till maximum level over the course of modern history. Experts avoid decisive forecast on which direction will follow the Freedom Island. Especially, after irreplaceable leader of Cuban revolution F. Castro died in November 2016.
What is the reason of these metamorphoses in almost “red-colored” region? The only explanation is that Washington got stuck in Latin America. Of course, every country has its own economic and political problems, which one has not? But here, a process of distribution of “carrot” for some anti-American regimes and “stick” for others began, as if by magic. Isn’t it whimsical coincidence? Taking into account that the administration of B. Obama blamed G. W. Bush for prioritizing the Middle East and missing Latin America.
In this regard, it is not a surprise that under Obama’s presidency a priority had changed, namely main forces were redirected from the Middle East to Pacific Region (to bring pressure on China) and Latin America to avoid straighten of anti-American Bolivarian alliance.
It is hard to guess should this policy be continued after Obama. It might get weaker or, vice versa, intensify. Thus, with great probability one can forecast that problems of some Latin American countries unlikely just disappear. Energy commodities price might help to overcome some problems. Here, some optimism inspire agreement concluded by OPEC countries and some other biggest oil exporter last year…
7) Petroleum Agreement
Long-term negotiations and high-level meetings preceded the agreement on decline of oil output. The first serious progress in this matter took place last year when Russia announced readiness of coordination with OPEC countries. In February, representatives of OPEC and the Russian Federation came to preliminary consent and thought positively on signing the agreement. It seemed that the April meeting of OPEC members and other countries would dot the i’s and cross the t’s, but no such luck. The agreement signing was frustrated and one might think that resumption of negotiations will never happen again.
Nevertheless, in September, this idea was voiced by Russian President V. Putin after which on the sidelines of summit the agreement on petroleum market recovery was signed with Saudi Arabia. The economists consider that this gave an impulse to further discussions of the issue. In the same month, the critical meeting of OPEC members was held in Algeria, and in November, in Vienna they signed corresponding official document. And the last, on 10 of December, OPEC members and 11 other countries signed the document committing to reduce oil production.
Experts called this agreement the historical one and, to some extent, unique because the first time the largest producers and exporters of petroleum entered a joint agreement. Previously, such agreements were entered only within OPEC. The main initiators of the petroleum agreement were Russia and Saudi Arabia as budgets of both countries suffer more and more. Riyadh, for example, had to cut wages, impose new taxes and cancel major projects. Moreover, it began speaking of financial credits.
Meanwhile, it was the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia who was one of the initiators of the oil price “war”, which began in 2014-2015. This situation seems absurd at first glance but according to an opinion the explanation is quite easy – the Saudis forced to take this step by the Americans. Both sides had own interests. The first wanted to weaken Iran, the last wanted to weaken Russia; to some extension and within the Syrian conflict both sides were satisfied. But safety margin of Riyadh had been slowly coming to end, and the plan was not succeeded. Thus, the Kingdom authorities came to conclusion that this self-destructive policy should be rejected.
The Russian government played its role. First, Moscow agreed to reduce oil production which was demanded by Saudi Arabia and without which the agreement would hardly be signed. Moreover, representatives of the Russian Federation did not give up after April fail and, in fact, became one of the main standard-bearer of this process. The role of Russia was recognized on the level of OPEC Secretary General.
After the Petroleum Agreement conclusion, oil price rapidly went up. And though sometimes (for some internal and external reasons) it plays back, the tendency of the growth is evident. Who benefits from this? Almost all oil-producing countries. Those powers lost who were trying to repeat the scenario of 1980 year, when because of a similar manoeuvre the economy of the USSR had lost ground.
To some extent, oil buyers became lost as well. Some to a greater degree, others to lesser, but more problems became evident. The EU is not an exception, and 2016 year became a real test.
The last year has brought developments previously considered impossible at all. The Great Britain decided to leave the European Union. It is remarkable that the decision was made not by the Royalty or political elite, but by common people.
Referendum on exiting from the European Union or staying in was one of campaign promises of Prime Minister D. Cameron, and therefore he could not just forget about it. At the same time, the Prime Minister was for retaining of the Great Britain in the EU and made his every effort for this. Nevertheless, the Britons decided differently and Cameron had to resign, and the political regime has been changed in the country. There is nothing left for London as to begin a procedure of exiting from the European Union. (By the way, as for the Great Britain, there is a version that powers behind the Democratic Party of the USA plan to implement policies by means of this kingdom since they lost levers of power in the United State for several years at least).
As for the European Union, exit of the Great Britain from this supranational structure is not destructive. London always stayed aside. Suffice to recall about adherence of national currency unlike other European countries that changed their francs, marks and other national currencies with euro. But the British Prime Minister introduced a Brexit fashion (“Britain” and “Exit” was the name of referendum in the UK). This event gave a new impulse to supporters of national states and at the same time opponents of “obsolete bureaucratic and corrupted (as they consider)” system led by Brussels. Some European politicians have already announced the necessity of this kind of referendums in their countries, and in case they come to power, indeed referendums might take place.
Which way shall the Europeans follow? This question concerns the future not only of Europe, but of the whole world as influence of European region on world’s processes hard to overvalue. May be the answer to this question will be clear in 2017, especially after the European major overseas ally launched a new era – the “era of Trump”.
9) The Trump’s victory
The D. Trump’s success in presidential election in the USA that took place on 8 of November, became perhaps the most important and at the same time unexpected event in 2016 year. It seemed like if all ways go to another candidacy – H. Clinton, but Democrats believed in their victory too early underestimating common people’s mood.
There are too much to say about reasons of Clinton’s defeat: fatigue of Americans from the same families in power; dissatisfaction with democrat Obama’s rule; simplicity of the “right guy” Trump; and many other reasons. But representative of the Democratic Party explained the failure by activities of Russian hackers never realizing that even if they manage to advance this explanation it will not answer the questions related to WikiLeaks publications. And published documents were so serious that even FBI, the Democrats backer, had to deal with them.
But now all these inter-American problems do not interest an expert community much. One of the issues raised by analytics is working efficiency of the “Trump’s team” considering the diversity of individuals and their ideological vectors. And nominated Trump the Republican Party itself looks like “vinaigrette”. Where the new President smooth out the contradictions within his team. Much is riding on this.
Nevertheless, the key issue that specialists concern is how the new US President is going to build policies. Would that be a policy of isolationism or an alliance with some against others, or even both combined? Yet, all leading to the third variant. In this scenario, the friend will be Russia and China will be the enemy. Iran will be designated as one more enemy whereas Israel will become the closest ally. The new scenario looks attractive, but no one should forget where a free cheese can be found.
Interestingly, at the time of Obama governance it was all the way around. In first Obama’s term the main “democratic” mastermind Z. Brzezinski was trying to make a reality the so called “Chimerica” (China + America) project stacked against Moscow; the second presidency term Obama was trying to become a friend of Iran and in every possible way “quarreled” with Israel.
10) Historical resolution
The last “quarrel” between Obama administration and Tel Aviv was the adoption on 23 of December 2016, by the UN Security Council of the resolution on condemnation of Israelis settlements on occupied Palestinian territories. The word “quarrel” is taken in quotation marks not accidental as “Obama’s team” quarrels not with Israel, per se, but with regime of B. Netanyahu. The Democrats are just like Republicans are allies of Tel Aviv, and they never made any steps that suffer Israel in general.
Another thing is that parties see in different ways further Israel’s development. Republicans (especially conservative wing) mostly support Netanyahu trend towards ignoring the problems of Palestinians and forcing them out of their land including through new settlements. Democrats, on the other hand, consider these steps escalating Arab-Israeli conflict, so they offer to settle the conflict by creating a separate State of Palestine. Both parties have own supporters in Israel among common people and political elites. However, positions of the hardline supporters regarding Palestinians as much stronger that every negotiation in this manner is perceived as a “betrayal” and might cause an assassination of officials as it had happened with Y. Rabin who had been shot dead by a far right extremist in 1995.
It should be understood that pressure of Obama and European allies on Tel Aviv had been exercised not so much to support Palestine as in the hopes of changing the Israelis regime. And running the course of adopting the resolution clearly fall within this scheme. (It’s not a coincidence that after resolution, Netanyahu was called for interrogation on suspicion of corruption). The Israelis Prime Minister reacted on the decision of the UN Security Council as dramatically as in fact declared a war to the world and even urged the Jews to leave France just because France was one of the initiators for promoting the document at the UN.
As for uniqueness of the resolution, indeed, it can be called a historical as the last time this kind of document had been accepted in 1980, e.g. more than 35 years ago. Since that time, projects of resolutions simply failed even before a voting begins or the USA steadily used veto for blocking almost every document that condemns Israel.
No double, adoption of resolution is not able to change situation of Palestinians. However, firstly, as it was mentioned before, this event may cause a great pressure on the Israeli regime from inside, right up to resignation of the Prime Minister. Secondly, adopted document can complicate diplomatic contacts and become a cause for sanctions. And the last, from now the process of recognition of Palestinian state might be well under way which will be a serious diplomatic and political defeat for Israel.
The new 2017 year will show how real these scenarios are. In any case, we are going to face what have not happened before, although, as some people say, everything new is well-forgotten old…
Agency for geopolitical research “Manara”