Amman, Dec 18 (AP/UNB) — As the Middle East ushers in 2019, the decade's ruinous conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq seem to be winding down after exacting a painful price — many thousands killed, millions uprooted from their homes and entire cities reduced to rubble.
Yet the potential for unrest remains high, including in countries that escaped civil war after the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. Millions of young people in the region remain locked out of economic and political participation as authoritarian governments fail to tackle soaring youth unemployment and other deep-seated problems.
"I think 2019 is a very challenging year," said analyst Amer Sabaileh in Jordan, where weekly rallies against economic policies toppled a prime minister this year and now take aim at his successor.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump's policy of siding with one Middle East powerhouse, Saudi Arabia, against its main rival, Iran, has further heightened regional tensions. For now, Tehran seems determined to wait out Trump's presidency, sticking to its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers despite the U.S. withdrawal and restoration of heavy sanctions.
In a region where violent conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people, the brutal slaying of one Saudi writer, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, by Saudi agents has been one of the most significant events of 2018. The killing, for which Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was widely held responsible — including by the Republican-led U.S. Senate — forced a reckoning of Saudi Arabia's involvement in Yemen's civil war and a review of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Here's a look at the Middle East as it heads into 2019.
CONFLICTS WINDING DOWN
Yemen's government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, made some progress with the Iran-linked Houthi rebels toward a U.N.-sponsored peace deal last week, a first after four years of fighting killed at least 60,000 people and pushed the country to the brink of famine. A new round of talks is set for January, with expectations that U.S. pressure on Gulf Arab allies could lead to further de-escalation.
In Syria, President Bashar Assad, aided by Russia and Iran, crushed a 7-year-old rebellion and the opposition's dream of ousting him from power. The war is not over, with major fighting still ahead in the rebel-held north. Assad's inner circle and allied entrepreneurs stand to make a fortune from reconstruction, even if the West won't contribute in the absence of a political settlement.
In Iraq, it's been a year since the government declared victory over the Islamic State group, but challenges remain, including the rebuilding of devastated cities. Rioting against corruption and poor services in the oil-rich southern region of Basra signaled the urgency of addressing Iraq's economic problems.
In Libya, rival governments in the east and west have agreed to meet at a national conference in early 2019 to pave the way for a general election. Oil production remains below its pre-2011 levels, and lack of security still prevents major foreign investment or economic growth.
ECONOMIC TROUBLES AHEAD
In Iran, hit hard by renewed U.S. sanctions, the currency wildly fluctuated, but the Islamic Republic did not see the same widescale protests that opened the year.
While the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal ended billion-dollar deals for airplane and car manufacturers, the United States allowed many countries to continue importing Iranian oil for now. That led oil prices to plummet, straining the petrodollar economies of Gulf nations.
The boycott of Qatar by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates appeared no closer to ending, especially with a last-minute surprise by Doha of pulling Qatar from the Saudi-dominated OPEC oil cartel.
In Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country with 100 million people, job creation lags far behind an explosive population growth of more than 2 million per year. Investor confidence is improving, but inflation surpassed targets set by the International Monetary Fund.
In politically paralyzed Lebanon, decades of mismanagement and corruption are finally catching up, with a debt of $84 billion heightening concerns of impending economic collapse.
"I wonder what will happen with the rising sense of hopelessness among broad populations," said Jon Alterman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Will people just put their heads down and be miserable? Or will a sense that there is no public outlet, no media outlet, lead to some sort of explosion, even if it's not specifically directed toward change?"
The destructive fallout from Arab Spring uprisings could serve as a deterrent to some.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu started the year with a gift from Trump, who recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital and then moved the U.S. Embassy to the city in May. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas froze ties with the U.S. administration, accusing it of pro-Israel bias concerning the most sensitive issue of the conflict, which sputtered along in 2018.
Israel kept building settlements in the West Bank, the Islamic militant Hamas led mass border marches against a decade-old blockade of the Gaza Strip and lone Palestinian assailants carried out sporadic attacks against Israelis. Dozens were killed in 2018, the vast majority Palestinians.
A U.S. peace plan, promised by Trump since the beginning of his term, still hasn't materialized — to the relief of Abbas, who fears any proposal will at best offer a Palestinian mini-state in Gaza, with a small footprint in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
With Israeli elections to be held sometime in 2019, a peace plan that calls for even minimal concessions could tear apart Netanyahu's right-wing coalition. He might not get to run for re-election if a pair of corruption cases moves forward, after police recommended charges against him.
The Trump administration's staunch support for Saudi Arabia is expected to continue despite the Khashoggi scandal, in part because the alliance with Riyadh serves as a means of pressuring Iran.
However, Washington lacks a clear Syria policy. Trump has wavered on whether he wants troops to stay in Syria, with what goal, and appears content to cede ground to the Russians.
In Afghanistan, the administration appointed a special envoy to negotiate a peaceful exit from America's longest war, but no clear pathway has emerged. Successive presidents have sought to wind down Washington's presence in Afghanistan, to no avail.
Riyadh, Dec 17 (AP/UNB) — Saudi Arabia says it rejects last week's U.S. Senate resolution that put the blame for the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi squarely on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The statement from the kingdom is an unusually strong rebuke of the Senate. Saudi Arabia said the resolution "contained blatant interferences" in its internal affairs and undermines its regional and international role.
The kingdom has denied the crown prince was involved in Khashoggi's killing in October inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, masterminded by top Saudi agents close to Prince Mohammed.
The statement early Monday says the kingdom "categorically rejects any interference in its internal affairs, any and all accusations, in any manner, that disrespect its leadership... and any attempts to undermine its sovereignty or diminish its stature."
Damascus, Dec 17 (AP/UNB)— Sudan's president on Sunday became the first Arab League leader to visit Syria since civil war erupted there nearly eight years ago.
Omar al-Bashir was greeted at the Damascus airport by Syrian President Bashar Assad before they both headed to the presidential palace, where they held talks on bilateral relations and the latest developments in Syria and the region, according to the state-run news agency.
Syria was expelled from the 22-member Arab League soon after war broke out in 2011. Arab countries have sanctioned Damascus and condemned Assad for using overwhelming military force and failing to negotiate with the opposition.
The reason for al-Bashir's visit was not immediately clear. But with the war in Syria winding down in favor of Assad as his troops recapture key cities and population centers, some Arab officials have expressed interest in exploring the restoration of ties.
In October, Assad told a little-known Kuwaiti newspaper that Syria had reached a "major understanding" with Arab states after years of hostility. He did not name the Arab countries in the interview, which was his first with a Gulf paper since the war erupted, but he said Arab and Western delegations had begun visiting Syria to prepare for the reopening of diplomatic and other missions.
The interview came on the heels of a surprisingly warm meeting between the Syrian foreign minister and his Bahraini counterpart on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September in New York. The meeting turned heads because it featured hugs between the two ministers.
The encounter raised questions about whether the Gulf countries, most of them sworn enemies of Assad ally Iran, are reconsidering their relations with Syria.
The Syrian state news agency SANA quoted the Sudanese president as saying during the meeting with Assad that he hopes Syria will recover its important role in the region as soon as possible. He also affirmed Sudan's readiness to provide all that it can to support Syria's territorial integrity.
SANA said Assad thanked al-Bashir for his visit, asserting that it will give strong momentum for restoring relations between the two countries "to the way it was before the war on Syria."
Photographs transmitted by SANA showed the two leaders shaking hands at the airport in front of a Russian plane that appears to have brought al-Bashir to Syria. Russia, a key ally of Assad, maintains an airbase southeast of the Syrian city of Latakia.
Al-Bashir has been Sudan's leader since 1989 and is wanted by the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands to face war crimes charges stemming from a conflict in his own country.
Mosul, Dec 17 (AP/UNB)— Iraqi religious leaders have laid the cornerstone to rebuild Mosul's landmark al-Nuri mosque, which was blown up in the battle with Islamic State militants in 2017.
The mosque, also known as The Great Mosque of al-Nuri, and its iconic leaning minaret were built in the 12th century. It was from the mosque's pulpit that IS's self-styled caliph, Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi, declared the caliphate's establishment in 2014.
Iraqi forces defeated the extremist group in the last of its urban strongholds last year, recapturing Mosul in a fierce battle that saw the al-Nuri mosque destroyed.
Dignitaries from the E.U. and the U.N. attended the ceremony in the mosque's courtyard, where Abdulateef al-Humayim, head of Iraq's Sunni endowments, led the proceedings on Sunday.
The UAE donated $50.4 million to rebuild the mosque. Construction is expected to take five years.
Sydney, Dec 15 (AP/UNB) — Australia has decided to formally recognize west Jerusalem as Israel's capital, but won't move its embassy until there's a peace settlement between Israel and Palestinians, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Saturday.
He said in a speech that Australia will recognize east Jerusalem as Palestine's capital only after a settlement has been reached on a two-state solution. The Australian Embassy won't be moved from Tel Aviv until such a time, he said.
While the embassy move is delayed, Morrison said his government will establish a defense and trade office in Jerusalem and will also start looking for an appropriate site for the embassy.
"The Australian government has decided that Australia now recognizes west Jerusalem, as the seat of the Knesset and many of the institutions of government, is the capital of Israel," Morrison said. He said the decision respects both a commitment to a two-state solution and longstanding respect for relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Morrison had earlier floated the idea that Australia may follow the contentious U.S. move of relocating its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, but it was seen by many Australians as a political stunt. Critics called it a cynical attempt to win votes in a by-election in October for a Sydney seat with a high Jewish population.
The consideration had sparked backlash from Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia, threatening a free trade deal which has now been delayed.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten said Saturday that the decision to recognize west Jerusalem as Israel's capital but not move the embassy there was a "humiliating backdown" from the October by-election campaign.
"What I'm worried is that Mr. Morrison put his political interest ahead of our national interest," Shorten told reporters.
Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed it in a move that is not internationally recognized. Israel considers east Jerusalem an indivisible part of its capital, while the Palestinians seek the area, home to the city's most sensitive holy sites, as the capital of a future state.