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News > World

Smoke and Tears: A Decade of War in the Middle East and North Africa

  • The rise of ISIS, the Libyan civil war and the conflict in Yemen have taken millions of lives in the past decade.

    The rise of ISIS, the Libyan civil war and the conflict in Yemen have taken millions of lives in the past decade. | Photo: Reuters

Published 31 December 2019

As the decade ends, teleSUR looks back to the ten most important events that have shaped the lives of millions across the region.

The 2010s can be described as a decade that began with hope with popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, but that quickly turned to despair as political turmoil, foreign interventions, and war pushed the region into crisis.

10 Trends and Events that Marked the Decade in Europe

As the decade ends, teleSUR looks back to the ten most important events that have shaped the lives of millions across the region:

1. The Arab Spring: Tunisia and Egypt

The 2010s began with what became known as the Arab Spring when a wave of protests rocked several Arab countries. In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire and died after police officers’ tried to shut down his small business. The self-immolation stirred mass protests against the government, corruption, and the country’s autocratic president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who then fled to Saudi Arabia.

Tunisia’s uprising was echoed and shared through social media and spread to neighboring countries including Egypt and Yemen among others. In Egypt, tens of thousands of people got together during days in Tahrir Square to demand the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak who was eventually forced out of the office in February 2011, after 30 years in power. 

Throughout the decade, however, the aspirations of many protesters have been denied as autocratic governments regained power. 

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood-led government was removed after a military coup in 2013, with former general Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi retaking control over the country. More than 800 people were massacred near Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo in the aftermath of the coup. The mass killing - the worst in Egypt’s modern history - is seen by many as the symbolic end of the Arab Spring.

2. NATO’s Intervention in Libya and the Civil War

Libya’s ongoing conflict began in 2011 in the context of the Arab Spring uprisings. In this North African country, however, it led to a deadly civil war, a United-States NATO military intervention under the “Responsibility to Protect” justification, and the ousting and killing of former leader Muammar Gaddafi. 

A week after the February 2011 civilian demonstrations to demand more civil liberties, most of Libya was under the control of groups hostile to the government, and a National Transitional Council had established itself in the northern city of Benghazi. But once Gaddafi organized a response, his forces took back about half the country. But it was NATO’s aerial bombing soon reversed the trend of the events.

Yet the NATO intervention in Libya was far from being a success as the country has been marred by instability, war, violence, and poverty for almost a decade. The war’s aftermath and proliferation of militias led to inconceivable chaos, which erupted into renewed civil war in 2014 between armed groups battling for the control of different parts of the country, which has also become the transit zone and the purgatory of African migrants and refugees.

From 2014 and on, Libya has had two political power centers, the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, that is having a hard time governing the capital city and some western areas, and another government in Tobruk, an eastern city which has remained under Libya National Army's (LNA) forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar. 

3. Syria’s Ongoing Conflict

The ongoing Syrian war has been a complex conflict involving several countries, rebel groups, as well as terrorist organizations. It started as sporadic protests with demonstrators demanding more civil liberties in March 2011, but quickly escalated into complicated warfare that has devastated the entire Arab nation, leading so far to more than 500,000 deaths; over one million injured and some 12 million refugees, a number equalling half of the country’s population before the war.

Syria’s situation took a decisive turnout in 2011 when defectors from the military announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group aiming to overthrow the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The conflict then started to surface sectarian divisions, as most Syrians are Sunni Muslims while Syria's establishment has long been dominated by members of the Alawi sect, of which Assad is a member.

Foreign intervention has also been playing a crucial role in Syria's war, as the governments of majority-Shia Iran and Iraq, as well as Lebanon-based Hezbollah, have supported Assad, while Sunni-majority countries, including Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia supported the anti-Assad rebellion, now often embodied by militants from Al Qaeda and ISIS.  

The conflict also became a sort of proxy war between Russia and the U.S. as the first began military operations in September 2015; while the latter under the pretext of fighting the Islamic State group began its operations in 2014, attack pro-government forces. In 2019, the U.S. began to pull out of northeastern Syria but it was later reported that it is building a large military base within the al-Omar oil field in the province of Deir Ezzor.

4. Osama is Killed

One of the most known names throughout the world for nearly two decades, Osama Bin Laden was allegedly captured and killed on May 2, 2011. His death closed the previous decade long search for the one who had allegedly masterminded the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. 

The end of Bin Laden’s reign marked a rather symbolic end to the so-called “War on Terror,” represented in the hegemonic power of the U.S. in which several countries were invaded and thousands were killed based on a foreign policy focused on counter-terrorism. 

Yet his death also meant the resurgence of what became the next stage in global terrorism. Eight years after the chief of Al Qaeda and the “most wanted man on the planet” was killed, few changes have been witnessed as terrorist attacks in the world have hardly declined and Al Qaeda has morphed in other organizations like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS). 

5. The Rise of ISIS

Since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the Middle East has been going through turmoil, wars, sectarianism, and confusing regime changes. It is against the backdrop of this chaotic regional situation that ISIS began to appear, fed by people’s desperation and the increasing weakness of the states.

In late 2011 the group started to gain power in Syria where its affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra was established and started to be one of the conflict’s major actors. In 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took control of ISIS.

In Syria, the group conducted ground attacks on both government forces and opposition factions, and by December 2015, it held a large area extending from western Iraq to eastern Syria, containing an estimated eight to 12 million people. 

By July 2017, the group lost control of its largest city, Mosul, to the Iraqi army, followed by the loss of its de facto political capital of Raqqa to the Syrian Democratic Forces. This was followed by major defeats under Russian and U.S.-led coalition operations. By November 2017 the group didn't control meaningful territory but small pockets throughout the region.

On Oct. 27, 2019, the U.S. reported al-Baghdadi killed himself by detonating a suicide vest during a raid into the rebel-held Idlib province of Syria. Four days later the group announced Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al-Qurayshi to be Baghdadi's successor.

6. The Worst Humanitarian Crisis in the World: Yemen 

Yemen’s conflict started in 2011 when the country’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was removed from power, also in the context of the Arab Spring. After the uprisings leading to his removal, Saudi Arabia oversaw the negotiations that installed a new government with Abd-Rabbu Mansur Hadi in charge.

Meanwhile, a Shia Muslim minority from the north of the country, the Houthis, who say they’ve been marginalized and often rebelled against the government, joined forces with their former enemy Saleh and seized the capital Sanaa in 2014. Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia, who along with other countries formed a coalition to return him to power. 

The Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led intervention began in 2015 as a campaign of relentless airstrikes that rights groups accuse of having targeted hospitals and schools killing thousands of civilians.

To this date, fighting is still going on but the dynamics have changed as the Houthis and Saleh alliance broke down in 2017 when the latter was killed by the Houthis after he changed sides saying he wanted to negotiate with the coalition. The Houthis still control Yemen’s capital Sanaa and have an upper hand in the war. 

The conflict has since turned into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran. A narrative rejected by the Houthis who say that they took power from the Saudi-backed government to end Saudi interference into the country's affairs. 

The war in Yemen has already, according to a United Nation, claimed more than 230,000 lives. Around 12 million children, a number representing almost all the country’s children, need urgent humanitarian assistance.

7. Trump’s Approach to Israel-Palestine

Since United States President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, the reality of a future Palestinian state has been more at stake than ever. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in November 2019 that his country will no longer consider Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories a violation of international law, summarizing with this sole announcement the Trump’s administration’s position regarding the Middle East most sustained and longest conflicts. 

Trump has also been taking harsh measures against key Palestinian institutions. He closed down the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Washington and trimmed funds to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

In 2018, the U.S. administration moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,  whereas East Jerusalem, which Israel illegally annexed in 1967, was meant to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. 

In March 2019, Trump formally recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, occupied by the Jewish state in 1967 and, in violation of international law, unilaterally annexed in 1981.

Considered one of far-right Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main ally, Trump has also gone against pro-Palestinian support. 

In December 2019, the president signed an executive order that would effectively allow the government to interpret Judaism as both a race or nationality and religion under federal law so that the Education Department can take direct action against what he views as “anti-Semitism on college campuses.” A move directly aimed towards the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). 

8. Afghanistan 2019: A Turning Point for the 18-year War

The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 under the pretext of driving the Taliban from power and blocking Al-Qaeda from having a base of operations. Almost US$975 billion has been spent and approximately 220,000 people have died.

Yet in 2018, Afghans saw a possible end to the conflict as the United States, due to the losing war effort and the Taliban taking over a vast amount of territory again, began peace talks with the insurgents. 

In January 2019, expectations of a peace deal between the U.S. and the Taliban were highly expected. In its essence, the deal stated that the Taliban will not allow foreign armed groups and fighters to use Afghanistan as a launchpad to conduct attacks, a complete withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces, an intra-Afghan dialogue, and a permanent ceasefire between the U.S. and the Taliban.

In September, just as the talks were believed to have reached the final stage, U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly announced the deal was "dead", citing an increase in violence in which a US soldier was killed. On Thanksgiving Day, however, Trump made a surprise visit to the U.S. troops in Afghanistan and declared that the peace talks with the Taliban had been resumed.

9. MBS Marks a Transition in the Kingdom

In June 2017, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the sixth son of current Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, became Saudi Arabia’s de-facto ruler after his uncle Mohammed bin Nayef was deposed from the succession. 

His coming to power marked a change both in the country and in the region. Within the Kingdom, several human rights reports have been pointing out the contradictions between his social and economic reforms and human rights violations and repression. 

As the crown prince has been trying to improve the reputation of his country with reforms allowing women to drive, or to obtain passports, rights groups say these reforms are hiding a “darker reality” as the authorities multiplicated arrests of women’s rights activists, as well as militants, clerics and all perceived critics of the Saudi regime.

Under MBS, State-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco raised in December 2019 a record US$25.6 billion in its initial public offering in Riyadh, the world’s biggest initial public offering to date.

A Human Rights Watch report published on Nov. 4  said that practices of arbitrary detentions of dissidents, intimidation of their family members, endless summonses for interrogation, and prosecutions in “blatantly unfair trials on spurious charges,” despite not being a new phenomenon within the kingdom, have “accelerated and increased” since 2017. 

Regionally, MBS’ first years in power were marked by the failed five-year military war against Yemen and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. In this last case, the kingdom announced this month, death sentences for five suspects in the killing, while the three individuals considered to have led the operation were released.

A United Nations report released in June said there was “credible evidence” MBS and other senior Saudi officials were responsible for Khashoggi’s death.

10. 2019: the Arab World Enters a New Phase of Violent Protests

Eight years after the Arab Spring, protests are shaking once and again several Arab countries including Tunisia, Jordan, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon. 

These massive anti-government protests also referred to as the New Arab Spring or Arab Spring 2.0 have been rocking North Africa and the Middle East as Algeria’s former president was overthrown, demonstrators retook to the streets in Egypt, more than 300 protesters were killed in Iraq, and as the Lebanese prime minister was forced to resign amid the worst economic crisis since the country’s civil war.

The protests are mainly due to economic, social and political reasons including corruption, ruling class’ elitism, poor public services and lack of jobs. The region is marred with youth unemployment, which has been steadily increasing according to the International Labor Organization (ILO) nearly 30 percent of young people in the Arab states are unable to find work.

Protesters denounce the same deprivations that triggered the Arab Spring at the beginning of the decade. Even in Tunisia, a country often presented as the region’s model, indicators show that the economic situation is worse now than when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire and as the decade began with the self-immolation it ends with millions dead, political and social turmoil and fewer answers than before.

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