along the southern shore of the Mediterranean from Morocco in the west to the Levant and the Fertile Crescent, extending to the Gulf countries and Iran in the east. It is predominantly Muslim. The old Christian communities in Iraq and Syria have mostly been destroyed or dispersed over the past 15 years, but bigger groups remain, especially in Lebanon. Most of the Muslims are Sunni, but the Shia dominate in Iran, are in the majority In Iraq and have a large following in Yemen and Lebanon. The Alawites in Syria are also close to the Shia. Islam’s main holy sites are Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
Except for Morocco, Iran and parts of the Arabian Peninsula, the Ottoman Empire ruled the region for centuries. In the 19th century, the North African countries (except Morocco) were occupied by France, Italy and Britain. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the Middle East was arbitrarily divided between Britain and France. That shortsighted partition remains the root cause of the constant tension and conflicts in the area.
The contrast between the richly endowed oil-and-gas economies and the resource-poor countries is an important factor in the region. Its sensitive strategic location between the East and West, along with its energy wealth, make the area vulnerable to the divergent policies and interests of global and regional powers. The interests of the U.S., Europe and Russia all clash there, as do the pursuits of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt. Such interventions tend to exacerbate local conflicts and civil wars, which then escalate into proxy wars between foreign powers.
After over a decade of Western involvement in Syria and Iraq, the region remains unstable and vulnerable to Iranian interference. In Syria, the Kurdish conflict seems set to endure now that the U.S. military has been largely withdrawn from the area. Iraq is facing a wide-scale insurgency against its ruling class and, in the aftermath of the Soleimani assassination, the U.S. is unlikely to be able to play a role in eventual foreign-led negotiations.
Likud, Israel’s long-time ruling party, has been losing ground to a new coalition led by a fierce opponent of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This enmity, along with a small party’s unwillingness to join either side, has led to a year-long parliamentary standoff. If next March’s elections fail to break the deadlock, Israel could be facing unrest and mass demonstrations.
With the international community paralyzed by political strife, the Libyan conflict appears set to intensify in the weeks ahead. If the Libyan National Army enters Tripoli, the ensuing fight will be incomparably more brutal than previous battles. It is likely that Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his army will break through the city’s defenses, but Turkish support can still tip the scales in favor of the Government of National Accord.
For the better part of a decade, Islamic State was enemy number one for the United States, its allies and other countries across the Middle East. While establishing a quasi-state across a huge section of Iraq and Syria, the group also conducted terrorist attacks all around the world. Though it has now lost its territory and leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the organization could make a comeback. This GIS Dossier explores our experts’ analysis of the group’s origins and operations, and examines their scenarios for what moves it could make in the future.