Breaking News Emails
LONDON — This was the year of the unthinkable.
American, Iranian and Syrian warplanes in the same airspace, bombing a common enemy — an enemy that used U.S.-supplied tanks and guns to overrun a Middle Eastern army and take a major city in a matter of days.
This was the year ISIS burst into life as the region’s most feared killing machine and rubbed out borders that were drawn a century ago.
It was the year the Arab Spring finally died in the Middle East’s most populous country.
A year of turmoil, when Israel crushed Gaza and Iraq’s national army was exposed as a corrupt shell.
A year of horror, when beheadings posted online haunted the imagination of millions, when American, British and other hostages endured unimaginable suffering.
In this season of reflection when we assess the year gone by, few would argue that the Middle East is a better place today than it was a year ago. In fact, 2014 has been among its worst years, so deadly that few of its countries have escaped turmoil.
To highlight Syria might appear to state the obvious.
But the statistics from there are numbing, each one a life lost or destroyed. It’s not simply the 200,000-plus dead — a conservative figure compiled by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and undisputed by the United Nations.
Half the population of a country that prided itself as the beating heart of the Arab world have now fled their land or their homes.
It’s a biblical exodus and the worst refugee crisis the modern world has known. The U.N. can’t feed the millions it wants to.
It is not just Syria that is in chaos.
This was year when U.S. Army Special Forces landed in Iraq to halt a genocide, and American warplanes returned to Iraq’s skies three years after U.S. combat troops left.
The year ends with President Barack Obama reviewing a military strategy that may have stopped the rapid advance of ISIS but has failed to destroy it.
There is no question that the year’s most stunning development was the ISIS takeover of Iraq’s second largest city Mosul in June, an attack so rapid it met with almost no resistance.
In the post-mortem, it became clear that while Iraq’s army existed on paper, in the field it was a ghost army, tens of thousands of whose soldiers were drawing salaries but not fighting, their weapons and equipment long since sold off in corrupt deals.
Nearly 5,000 Western military “trainers” have been ordered to Iraq, most of them American. Combat troops may not be returning, but make no mistake, these are American boots on the ground in Iraq once again.
Foreign fighters, including Americans and hundreds of Europeans, are flocking to join ISIS, a group so attractive to militants that it has reduced al Qaeda and its leader Ayman al Zawahiri to near irrelevance.
An astonishing alliance is developing between old enemies.
It would be pushing the rapprochement between the United States and Iran too far to call it a full alliance, but their shared interest in defeating ISIS, in keeping Iraq together, and in a nuclear deal acceptable to most, means they have more in common than at any time since the Iranian revolution. Whether this develops into a broader deal that would reorder the Middle East is a question for 2015. After all, Saudi Arabia and Israel are desperate to keep Iran’s ayatollahs in check. In a region where solutions are in scarce supply, the gambit to involve Iran may prove productive.
This was the year that exposed the limits of U.S. and Western influence.
Libya had been hailed as a success story after allied air power helped topple dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. European leaders flew in to proclaim a new dawn.
This year, Libya’s government was driven out of the capital Tripoli by rebels. It is now sheltering in the city of Tobruk, watching the country fall apart into the tribal regions Gadhafi united during his four-decade rule.
Next door, the strongman and former head of Egypt’s armed forces Abdel Fattah el-Sissi is ensuring nothing of the kind happens in his country. The man who graduated from the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania just eight years ago is now a powerful president who this year killed off Egypt’s Arab Spring. The last nail in its coffin was the November acquittal of former President Hosni Mubarak of conspiracy to kill hundreds of protesters in the 2011 revolution.
Only in Tunisia, where the Arab uprisings began, does a remnant of the freedom and change the revolutions promised remain.
Elsewhere old faces and old disputes dominate.
In Syria, President Bashar Assad was re-elected, his forces now appear poised to retake the second city, Aleppo.
In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu is gambling on re-election as prime minister in March after Israel’s military attack on Gaza, which killed more than 2,000 Palestinians.
Israel won the battle against Hamas, which rules the enclave, but in 2014 it lost the argument in the eyes of much of the world. Accusations that Israel is engaged in collective punished of Palestinians, and the continued construction of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, has put it under intense international pressure.
At the same time, the Palestinian dream of statehood has moved closer this year, with more than 130 countries or parliaments voting to recognize it as a state. It’s a bandwagon that has a long way to roll.
Israel is feeling isolated and misunderstood, its very existence under threat in a deadly neighborhood. Powerful figures, led by the Netanyahu, are pushing for a law to make Israel a Jewish state, a move critics say will codify Arab-Israelis' status as second-class citizens.
Israel bombed Syria, Iran bombed Iraq — so did Jordan and some Gulf States — and the U.S. bombed both Syria and Iraq. Libya joined the ranks of failed states, while Yemen edged close to them. A third Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, threatens in Israel. And hundreds die every day in a brutal war with ISIS.
So the great battles between Shiite and Sunni Islam, radical Islamism and the West, Israel and the rest, remain unresolved, leaving few grounds for optimism in the region in 2015.
For its part, the U.S. will struggle to maintain its influence while trying not be drawn deeper into bloody regional conflicts. And all the while, hardliners from Tehran to Saudi Arabia to Jerusalem will be watching the changing battlefields of the world's most volatile region.