It seems like every day reveals a new crisis gripping the Middle East. Today's news media (and the average news consumer) have the attention span of a developmentally challenged goldfish. The perpetual media cycles of today's clickbait driven society often fail to show the wider trends in developing issues. This week, we are launching a new initiative designed to take a look back at each month's major developments, with a little more long-term analysis thrown in for fun.
Tensions rising in Israeli politics
The first major development which started gaining widespread U.S. attention in May is the growing divide between the government and military forces in Israel. It may come as a surprise, but the Israeli army is often seen as a more moderate force than its counterpart in the government. Military service in Israel is mandatory for all civilians, so it takes in a wide variety of people (including Israeli Arabs, yes they do exist). Their close proximity to the Palestinians (as in practically a police force) means that they also interact with Palestinians (for both better and worse) in a much more direct way.
So it's probably no surprise that as the average Israeli is more and more separated from contact with the average Palestinian, their views would likely become more conservative. To make matters worse, a wave of recent knife attacks has reignited the tension between the government and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The increasingly hard-line positions taken by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led to the resignation of Israel's defense minister Moshe Yaalon last month. Several other members of the IDF have begun publicly speaking out about this strained relationship as well. Now, the country is becoming embroiled in discussions about the role of the military in politics, escalation of force, and the possibility of prosecuting several police officers accused of excessive use of force. If America's debate on these matters is any indication, we probably won't see a true resolution anytime soon.
more progress against isis in iraq and syria
The long, warm days of summer tend to bring a revival in military operations throughout the world's active war zones. The battle against ISIS in Iraq is no exception. Last month, the Iraqi military (with substantial support from the United States and other allied powers) launched a major initiative to retake the city of Fallujah from ISIS control. So far, the battle has been going well for the Iraqi military forces, and the death of ISIS's commander in Fallujah certainly hasn't hurt the effort either. Across the Syrian border, Kurdish forces also launched an offensive in preparation for a later battle to take the ISIS stronghold in Raqqa. With each passing month, ISIS has been losing more and more ground, so it is only a matter of time before they are eventually defeated.
However, the battle is far from over. ISIS still controls Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. These two cities together hold hundreds of thousands of people and ISIS itself proclaims to have at least 20,000 - 30,000 fighters (though this is probably exaggerated). The progress has been slow, but deliberate. But it is clear the the reformed Iraqi army (and its strong U.S. and European support) is working for now. Still, the situation is complicated by protests and tension within the Iraqi government itself. If the government experiences a drastic shake-up, or the next American president substantially changes course, Iraq would likely experience another seizure of instability (which is exactly what ISIS needs to rebound).
A tenuous truce holds in Syria
Fortunately, the Syrian Civil War hasn't flared up to the extend of the battle against ISIS. The years of brutal and bloody fighting which have plagued Syria since 2011 have finally drawn all sides into an intractable stalemate. The primary fighting forces (Syrian government and rebel forces) have been maintaining a tenuous ceasefire which was brokered with the help of the United States and Russia at the start of this year. Though small violations of the ceasefire are reported nearly every day, the scale of the fighting has been greatly reduced.
Whether this ceasefire will continue to hold is another matter entirely. The most radical forces (ISIS and a group called the Al-Nusra front) were intentionally excluded from the ceasefire. This means that airstrikes can still be launched against some targets, as long as either Russia or the United States can pretend there were ISIS fighters nearby. Naturally this exception has been abused in recent months. Still, both Russia, the United States, the Syrian government, and a faction of various rebel forces all appear to be working to turn the ceasefire into a lasting peace agreement. America's commitment to end the conflict has been obvious, and Russia showed a clear indication of its desire for an end to the war when it drastically scaled back its Syrian campaign in March. This leaves at least some hope that a long term solution may yet become viable in the coming months.
Refugees problems continue to increase
But even as things appear to slowly improve in Syria, the refugee crisis continues as strong as ever. There are two main avenues for refugees from the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia crossing into Europe: the land route via Turkey and the sea route over the Mediterranean. Since Europe all but shut its doors to refugees from Turkey (and Turkey agreed to take back the refugees who are caught crossing into Greece), the main avenue now is the much more dangerous crossing from Libya. Libya has yet to fully recover from the instability brought about from the brief civil war which overthrew its leader Muammar Gaddafi. This instability has created the ideal situation for smugglers who take large sums of cash to crowd desperate refugees onto small boats bound for Italy. This last week, several of these journeys ended in disaster.
Unlike the situation with Turkey, the European Union will find it very difficult to negotiate a deal with Libya to end this human trafficking. The barely functional Libyan government has neither the military ability to stop boats from leaving, nor the resources to maintain and house refugees who are returned. The navies of the European Union are already working to intercept and rescue these boats, but it is unlikely that Italy will continue taking in so many people. To end this crisis, Europe must confront the root causes of instability not just in Syria, but throughout the region. But if their agreement with Turkey is any indication, that nations of the European Union will probably opt for the quick, easy, and altogether wrong long-term solution.