By Niu Song
Looking back on the year 2019, the numerous hot issues became a vivid description of the basic characteristics of the Middle East situation, that is, the old problems are difficult to solve and the new problems are always emerging. It is predicted that the situation in the Middle East will continue to evolve inertially in 2020 to a certain extent, but it will also bring about new changes as a result of its own development laws and the intervention of great power outside the region.
US-Iran confrontation will continue
The siege of the US embassy in Iraq by Iraqi demonstrators, the assassination of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani by the US, and Iran's missile attack on the US military base in Iraq, behind a series of chain reactions from the end of last year to the beginning of this year is the continuation of the complex game between the US and Iran in 2019. As a result, the situation in the Middle East has become increasingly tense and volatile.
Iran has gradually suspended part of its nuclear deal in response to US's withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and continued extreme pressure since May 2019. It is worth noting that Iraq's political system has been strongly reshaped by the US, and some members of its new regime have a strong American background. At the same time, the long-suppressed sectarian and tribal forces in Iraq have also been released. Shias, a sect with natural emotions with Iran, has become the country's leading force.
2020 is the year of the US presidential election and therefore, playing the Iran card will still be the core of the current US Middle East policy. Trump needs to maintain tension between the US and Iran without complete loss of control for the sake of election politics. Although the possibility of a direct military confrontation between the two countries is very low, the "violent cycle" under extreme pressure is still difficult to be stopped.
The Palestinian issue will continue to be marginalized
The continued marginalization of the Palestinian issue has become one of the strategies of the US government since Trump took office. Entering 2020, the escalation of the confrontation between the US and Iran will further deepen the panic and alert against Iran by the Sunni Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia. This may cast more shadow on the Palestinian issue. For major Arab powers such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the Iranian "threat" will intensify while the US acts unilaterally on the Palestinian issue. Based on realistic security considerations, they may have to make compromises and concessions on the Palestinian issue. The Arab countries’ pragmatic choice of "the lesser of two evils" will exacerbate the marginalization of the Palestinian issue.
On the other hand, the current US favoritism policy towards Israel is unabashed. Netanyahu, who was plagued by a series of corruption cases during the critical moments in 2019 elections, received successive "big gifts" sent by the US on issues including Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. These gross violations of Palestinian rights will continue to help Netanyahu in 2020. At the same time, the "Deal of the Century" proclaimed by the US as a high-profile solution to the Palestinian issue is difficult to come out. Currently, the political "duet" staged between the US government and Netanyahu on a series of core issues such as territory, border and capital is over-consuming the Palestinian issue, which will further intensify the marginalization of the issue.
The Syrian situation will move towards general stability
After 10 years of civil war and proxy wars, the development of Syria's domestic situation in 2020 is likely to display a relatively stable situation compared with other Middle Eastern issues.
In the new year, it is very likely that the status quo between the Syrian government's actual control zone and the opposition's control zone will remain the same. The withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria has accelerated the pace of reconciliation between Syrian Kurdish forces and government forces. The Turkish military's pressure on the Syrian border has also accelerated this pace to a certain extent. Although Turkey will continue to crack down on the Kurdish armed forces in Syria, it is more in Turkey's interest to maintain its "safe zone" on the border in northern Syria. The post-war reconstruction is expected to become a realistic strategic consideration for the Syrian government in 2020.
(The author is from the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University)