The world in 2016: Politics

The Middle East’s political landscape will be defined in 2016 not by the refugees in Europe but by those closer to home, while an unshackled Iran will be flush with cash.

Syrian refugees crowd the Turkish border. Umit Bektas / Reuters
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The Middle East: Migrants and money to stay on our minds

In the Middle East in 2016, the two biggest stories will be of people and money, and where exactly they will go. Start with the people. The Syrian civil war is nowhere near a conclusion. Despite the adoption in Vienna of January 1 as the beginning of a ceasefire, it isn’t even clear who has agreed to adhere to this date, let alone what the chances of success are. Expect the war to continue rumbling along and perhaps even turn more decisively in Bashar Al Assad’s favour.

If the war in Syria doesn’t end, neither will the war against ISIL. The current push in the West for greater military action against the group in the aftermath of the Paris attacks will have some effect, but without concerted effort from Iraq’s government, from Turkey and from Syria, ISIL will survive into 2016.

For the region, then, the biggest story of 2016 will be the Syrian refugee crisis, but it will also be the story that is least told. The worst refugee crisis of this century is almost completely invisible. The thousands who have sought refuge in Europe have taken up most of the attention of the international press. But the majority of Syria’s refugees are living in the Middle East, with the Turkish capital hosting more refugees than the entire European Union. Those in Jordan, in Lebanon and in Iraq will continue their silent suffering.

The scale of this fallout from the Syrian civil war is incalculable. It affects everything: the politics of every country in the region; the society and economy of every country around it; the expectations of young people in the Middle East; even the very future of the international order. What happens to those people will determine the shape of the Middle East next year and beyond. Do they stay in the cities of Syria’s neighbours? Do they make the dangerous trek towards Europe? Can they return to Syria?

The second biggest story of next year will be a question of money, and where exactly it goes. When international sanctions against Iran are finally lifted in the early part of 2016, the country will begin to ramp up its production of oil. That will pour vast amounts of money into Iran’s treasury.

What will that money be used for? The concern is that Iran will put that money to military use, arming Hizbollah in Lebanon, Assad in Syria and the Houthis in Yemen.

On the other hand, Iran could expand its infrastructure investments, expand its education and healthcare sectors and even invest in its millions of young people. That would be a worthy success for one of the region’s oldest civilisations.

Faisal Al Yafai is chief columnist at The National.


US Republicans on suicide watch

Demographics are destiny. The unruly Republican scrum for the presidential nomination, which has veered between reality-show trainwreck and collective political suicide, has been an ongoing competition whose participants seek to demonstrate which of them is the least capable, in skill, intellect and sensibility, of being president of the United States.

The truth is, though, that Republicans are doing little that has not worked for them in the past. The tenor of these candidates – anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, anti-spending, and in favour of a vague flexing of military muscle in the Middle East – echoes winning Republican strategies from past elections.

The country, though, has changed. A party whose appeals are designed only to be heard by white voters is one with an ever-shrinking chance of success in presidential elections.

In the 2012 election, Mitt Romney carried a staggering 59 per cent of the white vote but still lost by a large margin. It is entirely possible that the carefully focused platforms of current GOP candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz will win an even-larger percentage of the white vote. But the white population of the US is shrinking, while its minority population (especially the Hispanic population) continues to grow. Does anyone think that these candidates, with hymns to border walls and screeds against imaginary Mexican terrorists, are likely to top Romney’s 27 per cent of the Hispanic vote?

Republicans know they must change, but simply prefer not to. There are no shortage of conservatives in the US of 2016, as the ratings of the Fox News channel and the crowds at Trump rallies bear witness to. But a conservatism fundamentally uncomfortable with diversity and intent on maintaining purity is one whose message is anathema to an even heftier percentage of Americans.

All of which is not to say that likely Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton cannot stumble on her path back to the White House. Barring scandal or health crisis, however, Clinton is likely to benefit from the facts of Obama’s America: more liberal, more diverse, less white.

A Clinton presidency will undoubtedly be far better for the country than a four-year term for Marco Rubio. But the country as a whole will be better off once the Republican Party realises that it must be capable of speaking to all Americans.

Saul Austerlitz is a critic and commentator based in New York and a frequent contributor to The Review.


Russia comes in from the cold

This year, Russia took its own military action in Syria. While president Vladimir Putin has claimed its target is ISIL, the country’s jets tend to pound all anti-Assad forces. Despite this, it has tried to position itself as a team player.

In Europe, 2016 will see a thaw in relations with Russia, even if a wholesale lifting of sanctions when they come up for renewal in January is unlikely. And while sanctions have undoubtedly been more painful for Russia, European farmers have also been hard-hit by retaliatory embargoes. Pressure from Italian, Polish and Scandinavian producers to strike a deal with Russia will grow.

The changing political landscape is also likely to give Russia leverage. Europe has seen a rise of anti-establishment, Euro-sceptic parties. Hungary’s Viktor Orban is a self-proclaimed admirer of Putin; Czech President Milos Zeman is widely viewed as pro-Russia. And while Poland’s Law and Justice Party is highly critical of Russia, its even stronger anti-German stance may help Moscow’s divide-and-conquer strategy.

Outside of the West, Russia will continue to ramp up its ties with China and India. The strong ties between Moscow and the “non-western” world have rebuffed American claims of Russian international isolation.

Domestically, Putin will remain strong, with one caveat. So far, the operation in Syria has been popular due to its low human cost. However, the terrorist attack on a jet of Russian holidaymakers in Egypt is a stark warning. Should the government commit ground troops, support may quickly wane. Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian warplane has also raised the stakes.

For now, things appear to be going well for Putin. Yet under the surface, tensions continue to bubble. “Russia, Russia my homeland is sick,” writes the radical poet Kirill Medvedev. “It is only on Facebook that everything is great.”

Vadim Nikitin is a journalist and Russian analyst based in London.