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Looking back at the Middle East’s 2019: Surprises from Trump, Saudi power moves, protests and more

Here are 5 takeaways.

- December 29, 2019

2019 was a tumultuous year in the Middle East. A new wave of protests swept through the region, challenging governments in Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan. The United States pulled back its forces in Syria as the civil war there took an ominous new turn. Tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia rose to new levels. The United States killed the leader of the Islamic State. Here at The Monkey Cage, we’ve been busy analyzing the explosions of news to help you understand what’s going on behind the headlines. Here are some highlights and expert analysis from 2019.

The Trump administration’s surprising announcements and foreign policy shifts

President Trump made numerous foreign policy announcements that left U.S. and foreign officials scrambling. Perhaps the most consequential, as Morgan L. Kaplan explained here, was Trump’s October decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, leaving Kurds vulnerable to Turkish and Russian attacks — and possibly enabling Islamic State fighters to regroup and return to the fray. As Turkey invaded Syria, polling data from Anna Getmansky, Tolga Sinmazdemir and Thomas Zeitzoff showed that most Turks supported the invasion and have turned against Syrian refugees.

That was just one of many. In March, Trump tweeted that the United States would recognize Israel’s authority over the Golan Heights, territory that Israel annexed from Syria after the 1967 war. This move probably “undercut efforts to build a lasting peace with the Palestinians and may even unsettle Israel’s treaties with Egypt and Jordan,” Stacie Goddard explained here.

In April, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — in a first for the United States — designated a foreign government entity, an Iranian military unit, as a “terrorist organization.” Afshon Ostovar argued that the move would hurt already fraught U.S. relations with Iran. Meanwhile, Jason Brownlee wrote about new survey data suggesting that U.S. military confrontation with Iran would be unpopular with Americans.

Protests erupted across the region

Protesters took to the streets around the world in record numbers, including in numerous Middle Eastern countries in 2019. Monkey Cage editor Marc Lynch wrote about the significance of the protests in Sudan in December 2018 and Algeria in February.

In early 2019 — after a nine-month impasse — Lebanon’s political elite agreed to a new government. Jeffrey G. Karam explained the challenges and opportunities facing the country, foreshadowing both the reforms called for by protesters and possible changes to U.S. aid. Christiana Parreira and Kelly Stedem explained that Lebanon’s unprecedented protests spread across the country. Bassel F. Salloukh wrote about how a proposed government tax on the free WhatsApp messaging service could have sparked the protests, given simmering outrage over an extended lack of basic services. Karam explained why the protests continued even after the prime minister resigned.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, anti-government protests continued for months, even after Iraqi militias attacked and killed protesters — attacks that Renad Mansour, Thanassis Cambanis and Michael Wahid Hanna explained are supported by the Iraqi government. Despite 300 protester deaths, Munqith Dagher explained, new survey data showed why Iraqis continue to demonstrate: Although these protests haven’t yet changed the system, he argues, they’re transforming Iraqis’ belief in themselves.

In Algeria, protests began early this year over structural changes to the country’s government — and continued through the end of the year for reasons Rayane Anser explained. Nonpartisan research network Arab Barometer and Michael Robbins brought us new survey data that revealed, as Robbins wrote, that “ordinary Algerians appear less concerned about specific political and institutional arrangements than they are about having a responsive government that provides for their basic needs.”

In November, the Iranian government reacted quickly and violently to anti-government protesters — killing more than 100 people and shutting off the Internet to the entire country for a week. Mohammad Ali Kadivar argued that while the Iranian government’s crackdown may have quelled protesters, such tactics may not work if protests continue. The region’s widespread ongoing protests probably prompted Iran’s government to crack down, as Dina Esfandiary wrote: “Tehran is both confident regarding the weakness of its population … and less confident of its standing in the region because of ongoing protests in Lebanon and Iraq.”

Saudi influence abroad

U.S. influence in the Middle East wanes, as Marc Lynch wrote, because of U.S. retrenchment in the region during the Trump administration. Filling this vacuum, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continued to push an ambitious foreign policy around the world — including in key economies in Asia, which Jonathan Fulton said showed “an ongoing structural shift in geopolitics.”

For the past 30 months, Arab countries in the Persian Gulf have been boycotting Qatar. But Saudi Arabia appeared to be trying to find a solution, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen wrote, when it held a Dec. 10 summit with Qatar. He wrote that while there was no breakthrough, “dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Qatar will probably continue alongside the ongoing Kuwaiti mediation attempts.”

In September, Twitter took down thousands of troll accounts linked to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. But these accounts are a small portion of those suspected of belonging to Arab governments, used to sow disinformation — which token efforts like these won’t curb, according to Marc Owen Jones.

The Syrian civil war continues

The year started with Trump touting the idea of a “beautiful” safe zone in Syria, which Sara Plana explained is extremely difficult to create successfully. In fact, as Lionel Beehner wrote, safe zones can actually escalate violence.

Jesse Marks explained that Syrian refugees faced growing pressure to return to their still-embattled homes. Gerasimos Tsourapas wrote that nations hosting Syrian refugees are trying to receive funds from other “state or nonstate actors in exchange for maintaining refugee groups within its borders.”

Terrorism around the world

During an October raid by U.S. Special Operations forces in Syria, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — one of the most wanted terrorists in the world — killed himself by setting off a suicide bomb. But what did the raid achieve? “The caliphate may be weakened,” wrote Jenna Jordan, “But Baghdadi created a highly resilient bureaucratic organizational structure capable of withstanding the loss of leaders.”

Researchers Isak Svensson, Jonathan Hall, Dino Krause and Eric Skoog drew on new data to show how ordinary Iraqis resisted the Islamic State — some in surprising ways.

After a right-wing terrorist killed 51 people in a Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque, Peter R. Neumann wrote about the factors fueling far-right terrorism around the world.

And since the 2020 news will surely continue to surprise, sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date with more analysis.

Stephanie Dahle is an associate editor with The Monkey Cage.