As a new presidential administration takes the reins in Washington, and as the UK begins exiting the EU, 2017 promises to bring dramatic and unpredictable change.

In the Middle East, after decades of brutal conflict, poor governance, increasing sectarianism, and economic malaise, Muslim-majority states remain caught between conflicting interpretations of their Islamic foundations. Across the region, sectarian  theological differences are compounded by powers with ambitions of regional domination and their weaponisation of religion in pursuit of political aims, a trend that shows no sign of slowing in 2017. In the West, economic instability, mass migration, political dysfunction, and foreign security crises have enabled the rise of populist movements, testing the commitment of Western countries to pluralist values. In the context of these intra-civilisational identity crises, the liberal international order faces increasing strain. These pressures are exacerbated by long-running conflicts and expanding power vacuums, Russia’s resurgence on the world stage, Europe’s struggle to define relations with its neighbors, and a US presidential administration set to dramatically revise American foreign policy.

In 2017, the instability of the West will contribute to increasing strain on the economic, political, and security foundations of the international order that have underpinned global stability since the end of the Second World War. The US retreat from its role as leader of the international economic order could create large-scale volatility. The continued fragmentation of the EU will likely further undermine the appeal of multi-lateral global institutions. Growing uncertainty is likely to strain relations between states, potentially making them vulnerable to exploitation by revisionist powers such as Russia and China. Non-state actors—such as ultra-nationalist hate groups and terrorist organisations—will also seize the opportunity to undermine the legitimacy and control of central governments and to promote their extreme ideologies. As a result, states will be forced to focus increasingly on threats within their borders, to the detriment of international cooperation. 

With these challenges in mind, this paper discusses the outlook for religion, conflict, and geopolitics for the year ahead. While not an exhaustive list, these issues represent the some of the most significant challenges to international stability in 2017. 

Identity Crisis in the Muslim World

The relationship between Islam and the West is often erroneously framed as a clash of civilisations when, in reality, there are intra-civilisational clashes taking place in both. Moderate or extremist, radical or reformist, the House of Islam finds itself dealing with multiple identity crises.

Today, the lived reality of Islam as a religion of compassion, pluralism, coexistence, and peace is a far cry from how it is perceived by many in the West. Extremists, driven by Salafi-jihadi ideology, as well as extreme Khomeinist thought, that transcends groups and countries, have hijacked the religion and wrought terror far beyond the Middle East. 

Sectarian strife is another dimension of this crisis. In the Middle East, regional powers have shrouded their geopolitical pursuits in sectarian garb, exacerbating tensions and transforming local or regional grievances into more politicised, international ones.

The West must strengthen its existing cooperation with allies in the Muslim world in the fight against terrorism. Strong ties with Muslim-majority countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey will be integral not only for intelligence sharing and operational support, but in the battle for hearts and minds. It is in the interests of Western powers to work with Middle Eastern countries to deal with this scourge. However, the level of cooperation will need to go beyond conventional security partnerships to tackle the deeply-rooted political causes and ideological justifications of terrorism.

In the West, many Muslim individuals and organisations are engaged in efforts to tackle violent extremism, often amid threats to their own safety. Their work would benefit from an administration that acknowledges and supports their efforts, viewing them not as potential threats, but as vital assets in the fight against violent extremism.

Rebels firing a heavy machine gun during clashes with Syrian pro-government forces in Idlib province.

Perhaps influenced by previous US foreign policy decisions and its own experiences in Libya, the Obama administration adopted a less activist approach to affairs in the Middle East. The failure to act effectively in Syria at a time when robust international leadership was needed, and after its own ‘red line’ was crossed, played on the minds of partners in the Middle East that have been directly impacted by the conflict. Additionally, the Iran deal angered Israel and Western allies in the Gulf, who had always been suspicious of Iran’s regional ambitions, fearing that the lifting of sanctions and the resumption of trading could accelerate Tehran’s activities in and around the Middle East.

In this context, President Trump may well be able to revive and strengthen these relationships. His critical stance on the Iran nuclear deal has been clear, and though there is no immediate sign of a reversal, the position will comfort regional allies. 

Identity Crisis in the West

In the West, a combination of foreign security threats, economic malaise since the 2008 financial crisis, and concerns over the effect of immigration on domestic stability has led to levels of political uncertainty not witnessed since the end of the Cold War. In this context, political discourse around critical issues has become dominated by elements at extreme opposites of the political spectrum. While the silent majority suffers disproportionately from domestic political dysfunction, well-functioning democratic systems cannot be restored without its voice. The rise of far-right, populist movements in the U.S. and Europe – both a symptom and cause of this situation – suggests that Western civilisation is in danger of losing its sense of shared values around principles such as the rule of law, democracy, liberty, and human rights.

There is growing skepticism in Western countries of democratic institutions and even the value of democracy itself. Dysfunctional politics in many Western countries stands in contrast to countries like China, whose autocratic nature affords their governments a comparative degree of efficiency in decision-making. Waning devotion to democracy is a self-fulfilling prophesy, as diminished citizen engagement makes democratic institutions less responsive, and therefore less appealing. In the West, growing populist and nationalist trends are likely to accelerate, prompting politics to turn inward in preference for international cooperation. The West’s growing disinterest in international affairs, as well as its political dysfunctionality, means that it may no longer be considered a reliable guarantor of stability by allies in the Muslim world. This could prompt such allies to shift their attention elsewhere, including towards Russia or China.

The Role of Turkey

There is a strong sense in Turkey that its concerns are not shared by the West. The failure of many Western governments to swiftly condemn July 2016’s coup attempt, the withdrawal of the Patriot missile defense system, and the lack of support for Ankara’s battle against Kurdish domestic terror, all suggest that the West’s relationship with this NATO ally is fragile. 

The rejection of Turkey’s ambitions to join the European Union on the basis of its Islamic identity is misguided; it runs counter to the historic approach of building alliances on shared values, not cultures. This attitude sends out a clear message, reinforcing the idea of a civilizational clash between Islam and the West, a sentiment shared and propagated by both Islamist and far-right extremists. Europe needs to admit that its failure to adequately support Turkey in its ambition to join the European Union is based on its fear of Islam. Turkey’s strategic importance to Europe vis-à-vis Russia and the Middle East necessitates a more open approach to its investment in Europe.

With the prospect of bringing the Syrian conflict to an end as an incentive, Ankara has moved closer to Moscow, and the relationship is likely deepen in 2017. Turkey’s opposition to Assad has failed to unseat his regime, while Russian and Iranian support has bolstered it. Russia has emerged as the leading global player in the Syrian conflict, and a resolution without Russian cooperation is unlikely.

Although 2017 is likely to see a continuation of Turkey’s closeness with Russia, the opportunity and intent from the US and Britain to rekindle the relationship is clear. While motivated by different reasons, President Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May could lead the charge to bring Turkey closer to the West. Additionally, Trump may emerge as one of Turkey’s most valuable allies, one that is uniquely placed to deal with both Europe and Russia.

May became the first Western leader to visit Turkey following the coup attempt, while Trump described Turkey as a “close, long-standing partner” during a call with his counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Britain’s need for economic partners outside of the EU and the Trump administration’s desire to establish safe zones in Syria could usher in renewed cooperation between Turkey and the West.  

Turkey, which borders Syria, Iraq, and Iran, must be viewed as a vital ally not only for its proximity to the heart of the Middle East, but also its positioning in light of an increasingly expansive Russia. The annexation of Crimea guaranteed Russia its access to the Black Sea, and as a result, to the Mediterranean. With Russia increasingly active in both the Middle East and Europe, having Turkey, which sits at the crossroads of both, as an ally would be strategically invaluable to stem Moscow’s advances in both directions.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a press confrence in Istanbul.

Russia’s Role in the Middle East

Through its direct involvement in support of President Bashar al-Assad, combined with the lack of initiative by Western powers, Russia has emerged as kingmaker in the Syrian conflict. While the nature of the conflict in Syria makes predictions difficult, what seems certain is that Russia’s support for the Assad regime will continue into 2017 and beyond. 

Meanwhile, in the Libyan crisis in which rival factions vie for for power, Moscow appears to be edging closer in bringing the UN-backed Prime Minister and its own preferred candidate General Khalifa Haftar to the table for talks on a political solution. With reports of an agreement to build military bases in Tobruk and Benghazi, Moscow’s involvement in Libya could be the start of a project that provides it with a foothold in North Africa and further access to the Mediterranean Sea. 

President Trump marked the beginning of 2017 questioning its commitment to the two-state solution, discussing moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and taking a more laissez faire approach towards settlement building. Meanwhile, Russia brokered an agreement between the rival Palestinian political factions of Hamas and Fatah, indicating that Moscow may also be angling to become a more active voice in the Middle East peace process.

US Foreign Policy Under President Trump

Under Trump, US foreign policy is likely to see a marked departure from previous administrations and the traditional precepts of American foreign policy since the Second World War. The president’s campaign rhetoric, as well as the policies put forth since his inauguration, suggest a foreign policy based on undoing the pillars of the Obama administration, likely eschewing diplomatic outreach to Iran and reversing Obama’s confrontational stance toward Russia. In a broader strategic context, Trump has at times suggested revising the US emphasis on large multilateral institutions like NATO and the UN, in preference for bilateral, transactional policies.  

In certain instances, the willingness to revisit longstanding policy precepts may provide previously unconsidered strategic opportunities. However, efforts towards wholesale changes could lead to poorly conceived and strategically flawed policies, as well as domestic legal, political, and institutional challenges. 

US foreign policy under Trump is likely to prioritise interests over values, potentially foregoing policies that emphasise principles such as human rights, the rule of law, and democracy, especially when policies that prioritise such principles would come at the expense of security or strategic interests. This may make US foreign policy considerably more decisive than it was under Obama, with increased cooperation with countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Russia, and the Gulf states. However, Trump’s employment of a foreign policy that eschews traditional Western values and foreign policy tools may force the West to confront its civilisational identity crisis. Certain issues that challenge the core of the modern, pluralist, rights-based Western identity are likely to be particularly controversial. The West’s collective commitment to such values is likely to be tested, potentially exposing deep fault lines between and within Western countries.

US policy toward the Islamic world is another area of uncertainty. Trump has made the fight against terrorism and countering Iranian influence top priorities, which will resonate with many countries in the Middle East and Europe. Potential collaboration could include continued support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and increased counter-terrorism cooperation with countries like Egypt. Under Trump, such support would likely emphasise combating even non-violent political Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and would likely not be contingent on partner countries' human rights records. However, given the administration’s record so far, Trump’s policies may be divisive, emphasising identity politics and focusing on Islamist extremism, while leaving far-right, nationalist ideologies unchecked. This could exacerbate policy differences between the U.S. and parts of the Islamic world, damaging the very ties the West needs to fight terrorism.

As the first foreign leader to visit the White House following President Trump’s inauguration, British Prime Minister May sent a clear message about the value of the ‘special relationship.’ While much has been made of the UK’s pursuit of international trade deals in the wake of Brexit, defence cooperation has been an integral part of transatlantic collaboration. The US and the UK have cooperated on military campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and continue to work together as part of the international coalition to fight ISIS in the Middle East. With both facing the threat of domestic jihadi violence, further cooperation on counter-extremism and counter-terrorism work will be vital. The UK’s history in dealing with Islamist extremism dates back to the 1980s, while the lessons learned from the 7/7 attacks in dealing with the threat of home-grown terrorism means that it has something to offer to the new Trump administration as it reviews its approaches to countering extremism. 

Policy Recommendations

In light of these challenges, the governments of the US and the UK should strive to:

Lead Through Adversity
After fifteen years of warfare in Afghanistan and the political fallout of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US–UK alliance is reluctant to take bold actions on the international stage. This has created strategic openings in the Middle East for Russia, and allowed instability to continue unchecked. If the West is to withstand the current strain on the international order, the US and the UK can no longer allow the ghosts of past actions to haunt future policy imperatives. Rather, lessons learned from the past should inform a proactive and constructive foreign policy, one that hedges bold, if risky, initiatives by ensuring a united voice and purpose among the two allies. A US-UK alliance with renewed dedication to tackling complex international challenges is the strongest possible foundation for broad and enduring stability in the West and beyond.

Build a Preventative Firewall of Stability in the Middle East
While conflicts raging in countries like Syria, Libya, and Yemen already exceed the international community’s capacity for dealing with such crises, the reality is that many countries in the Middle East could face greater instability in the next year and beyond. The US and UK should take pre-emptive economic, political, and security measures to increase support for key states that are currently struggling to cope with large influxes of refugees and continued instability on their borders. Jordan, an important Western ally and source of stability in the region is an obvious candidate as it struggles to cope with over 630,000 Syrian refugees. Lebanon, Egypt, and Turkey should also be considered. The cost of economic and political investment in these countries now pales in comparison to the cost in human and financial capital likely required to address potential instability in the future.

Reconcile Globalisation with Middle and Lower Class Interests
Anxiety over globalisation and rising economic inequality are key factors in the rise of populist and ultra-nationalist movements in the West. Unexpected phenomena such as Brexit, and the rise of populist leaders opposed to free trade, suggest that Westerners are reconsidering the basic fundamentals of globalisation and its domestic economic effects, especially large multilateral trade deals like NAFTA, TPP, and TTIP. If the West is to maintain its dominant position in a global economy, it will have to reconcile the demands of that system with the interests of its citizens. To start, efforts to expand international trade should be taken in close consultation with the workers that stand to benefit or suffer from such policies. Serious and carefully-considered efforts to mitigate the negative effects on workers should be made. It may be in some cases that costs imposed on lower and middle-class workers by the dissolution of certain trade barriers outweighs the benefits of unevenly distributed economic return. When crafting trade policy, labour should not have disproportionately less input than capital. Less obvious metrics of economic health, such as wage growth and median household income, should be considered along with overall potential GDP growth resulting from trade deals.

Ensure Intelligence and Information Sharing
As the UK initiates its separation from the European Union, there is a risk that structures currently in place to facilitate intelligence sharing among European nations could fall casualty to the break up. In light of the serious threat of terrorism in both the UK and EU, such intelligence sharing will remain crucial for the foreseeable future. The US and the UK should work together to help ensure smooth and continued intelligence sharing between allies.

In addition to US-UK cooperation, current levels of information sharing between the US and Europe – as well as within the EU itself – leave much to be desired. While civil liberties and the right to privacy are protected by important legal foundations, in the EU overregulation has hampered the ability of member states to share critical information regarding emerging terrorist threats. The urgency of such cooperation will only increase as the thousands of foreign fighters engaged in the Syrian conflict return to their home countries in Europe. Given the current threat of terrorism in Europe, a situation in which a threatening individual can cross a border more quickly than basic information about that individual is simply unsustainable.

Proactively Engage in the Battle of Ideas
The scourge of Islamist-inspired terrorism around the world is the violent manifestation of a poisonous, transnational ideology that seeks to pervert the peaceful religion of Islam as it is understood by the overwhelming majority of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims. While remaining faithful to the Constitution, the US administration should be prepared to engage in the battle of ideas and take a lead in tackling bigoted, fascist, hate-fuelled ideologies wherever they exist, not simply dealing with the violent symptoms of this ideological battle. Amid fears of an anti-Muslim US administration, there is an important opportunity for the US administration to work with Muslim allies domestically and globally to help bring credible, mainstream Muslim voices to the fore and to drown out extremists that create the environment in which violent groups operate. 

Countries like the UK have already demonstrated the benefits of an approach that engages in the battle of ideas.The lessons learnt by the UK in dealing with Islamist extremism since the 1980s have led to a strategy that aims to tackle not only the violence, but the extremist ideologies that lie behind it. As it prepares to shift from countering violent extremism (CVE) to countering Islamist (‘radical Islamic’) extremism, the US administration should be prepared to engage with Britain and other international partners in devising an approach that comprehensively addresses Islamist extremism. The Government should shift away from dealing with umbrella groups to engaging with local Muslim communities across the country, make a clear distinction between Islam the faith and the perversion of Islam that is a political ideology.

Pursuing Policies Based on Shared Interests and Objectives
Setting aside the myth of a civilisational clash, Western governments must seek to forge relations based on shared interests and objectives, rather than seeking to only work with those whose cultures and lifestyles mirror their own. The West’s current relationship with Turkey is indicative of this challenge. Europe’s failure to address Turkey’s longstanding ambition of joining the EU is an example of the deep-set fear of Islam that still exists in many parts of the continent, a reflection of the broader sentiment in the Western world. The building of new relationships and alliances must not fall victim to the same mentality.

Yet, for all of the differences between Ankara and Brussels, there are enduring mutual interests around which constructive cooperation can be built, especially concerning regional security and counterterrorism. The US and Europe should seek to rally around these issues with their Middle Eastern partners and utilise common ground wherever it can be found. 

Contributors

Matthew Lester, Research Analyst, The Soufan Group

Matthew focuses on terrorism, international security, and the politics of the Middle East. He served as an infantryman in the US Marine Corps Reserves, and has lived and studied in the Middle East.  

Mubaraz Ahmed, Analyst, Centre on Religion & Geopolitics

Leading on the Middle East and North Africa region, Mubaraz's research interests include counter-extremism policymaking, theories in Quranic translation, and modern trends in Islam. Mubaraz has worked on reports including A War of Keywords: how extremists are exploiting the internet and what to do about it. He read Arabic at undergraduate level and holds a master's in Islamic Studies from SOAS.