When it comes to the contemporary Middle East few years can be termed "good," and 2008 was not among those. Iraq gave the appearance of calm as death tolls have fallen and American forces have increasingly been giving in to Iraqi prerogatives, but the country remains politically riven, and more than 4 million Iraqis are still refugees. Afghanistan was deteriorating in 2007. It is now in a state of war. Pakistan's Islamist militants are bringing Pakistan close to failed-state status. And tensions between Hamas and Israel have finally exploded in a seemingly merciless war. Welcome to the Inferno, Barack Obama.
Between 2001 and 2008, George W. Bush, for good or ill, set the agenda for the Middle East. War in Iraq and Afghanistan, radicalization in Iran and Gaza, simmering reform movements in Egypt and Jordan: Those were directly or indirectly a consequence of Bush policies. Who the United States elects president matters to the region. Barack Obama's election brings huge expectations. He promises to end the American occupation of Iraq, negotiate with Iran, ramp up military involvement in Afghanistan and make another push for peace in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He promises a different tone: less belligerence, more cooperation. But can he control the agenda?
Pakistan is arguably the greatest Middle East challenge for President Barack Obama. Pervez Musharraf's nine-year dictatorship ended in 2008, but it left behind a nearly failing state. Taliban Islamist militants allied with al-Qaeda control the country's tribal areas to the west. Their aim: to overthrow Pakistan's democratically elected government. Meanwhile, the Taliabn is using Pakistan as a safe haven for its insurgency in Afghanistan and likely masterminding terrorist attacks in India, such as the Mumbai attack in November 2008. Will the fourth India-Pakistan war since 1948 be nuclear?
In last year's Top 10 Middle East stories, "Losing Afghanistan" ranked 5th. It's moved up to 3. More American and NATO troops have died there in 2008 (293, 155 of them American)than in any year since 2001. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai is ineffective, his administration corrupt. Obama proposes a troop escalation there to beat back the Taliban resurgence and reassert control on the country that's been the graveyard of empires going back a few millenniums. Look for Afghanistan to make another bleak appearance in the 2009 Top 10.
It's easy to make too much of Iraq's hard-gained quietness. Fewer Americans and Iraqis are getting killed, but suicide bombers began a comeback in October, with bombings day after day in parts of November and December. More than 4 million Iraqis are still refugees. Iraq is still divided along sectarian and, just as destabilizing, tribal fault lines. Iraq successfully negotiated an agreement with the United States regaining control over much of Iraqi territory and even U.S. forces.
There was little hope that an Egyptian-brokered truce between Hamas, in the Gaza Strip, and Israel, would achieve much or last past its expiry in December. Hamas resumed its rocket attacks on Israel. In late December, Israel launched a fierce assault on the densely populated strip it has effectively besieged since 2005. There's little hope that Israel's strategy will achieve its objective--ending Hamas' rocket attacks. It's a stalemate of a different order, with both sides seemingly settling for a permanent state of violence.
6. Oil Hits $147 a Barrel Before a Price Collapse
On July 7, 2008, the price of a barrel of oil hit $147, a record even in inflation-adjusted dollars. By Dec. 31, oil was below $39. Never has the commodity known such a rapid swing--due to an overheated world economy and investors' speculation on the way up, and due to a worldwide recession on the way down. The high prices enriched Gulf states and yielded Iraq a surplus of some $80 billion. Collapsing prices give motorists a break, but they are usually the harbinger of political instability in oil-producing states.
Somalia is one of the world's poorest states--if it can be called a state. Anarchy rules on land. Piracy rules the high seas off the coast of Somalia, especially in the Gulf of Aden, where poor Somalis have taken to hijacking merchant ships, oil tankers and cruise liners. They take them back to a pirates' alcove on the Somali coast, then demand ransoms. Often, governments, feeling powerless, pay. In June, the UN adopted a resolution authorizing military force against pirates.
It's a Lebanese custom that presidential elections should be long, traumatic national events that paradoxically give this sectarian nation something in common. Lebanon went without a president for almost 19 months as a pro-Western coalition dueled with Hezbollah and its allies over a compromise. Qatar finally negotiated a settlement and Michel Suleiman was elected. But not before Hezbollah made clear who holds the real power in Lebanon.
This item isn't making the list of top Middle East issues of the year. It should. Turkey and Armenia have a long enmity and the Turkish genocide of Armenians during and after World War I to contend with. To this day the two countries' populations have little love for each other. Yet in September 2008, the Turkish president traveled to the capital of Armenia the Armenian President's invitation and attended a soccer match between Turkey and Armenia. The two heads of state promised more barrier-busting days ahead. In a region synonymous with conflict, the Turkish-Armenian handshake stands out as a sign of hope.
10. The Veil, and Turkish Democracy, Survive
Turkey's top court at the end of July 2008 said the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would not be shut down for supporting the wearing of the Islamic veil in public institutions. The court's decision staved off what could have been a severe constitutional crisis pitting Turkey's official secularism against its rising Islamic currents. The veil is at the heart of the struggle. The ruling gave Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP Party a chance to bridge the widening divide between the two sides.