Munich Security Report 2017

Middle East: Meddling Through

Is a post-Western Middle East emerging? As sectarian conflict, civil war, and state failure continue to shape key countries in the region, the US and the EU are struggling to redefine their roles. Meanwhile, other countries are taking the initiative. Turkey has now intervened in Syria and is seeking closer cooperation with Russia. Iran and Saudi-Arabia are engaged in multiple conflicts as part of their competition for regional power and influence. Russia continues to be heavily involved in the war in Syria, attempting to reassert its role on the world stage and to break what Russia’s Defense Minister Shoigu recently called “the chain of ‘color revolutions’ spreading across the Middle East and Africa.”1 

“The name Aleppo will echo through history, like Srebrenica and Rwanda, as a testament to our moral failure and everlasting shame.”8 

13 DECEMBER 2016 

Nowhere have the new realities become more apparent than in Syria. Backed by Iran and Russia, President Assad recently achieved his most significant victory: with the fall of Aleppo, the regime is now back in control of the country’s four major cities. Moderate opposition forces have been considerably weakened after Turkey ceased its direct military assistance for Aleppo’s rebel groups in its rapprochement with the Kremlin. At the same time, Western countries continued to resist opposition calls for greater military support, while Saudi-Arabia and the UAE have shifted their focus and resources away from Syria’s rebel groups and further towards Yemen, where another protracted and deadly civil war is raging.2 

While the past months have seen clear outcomes on the battlefield, a diplomatic solution remains out of sight. None of the three ceasefire agreements lasted long enough to pave the way for meaningful peace talks. Since September alone, three UN Security Council resolutions failed to pass due to Russian and Chinese vetoes. After six years of empty calls for Assad to step down, red lines drawn and trans-gressed with no consequences, and fruitless UN Security Council meetings, the international community is no step closer to a political settlement which all conflict parties can agree to. “We will liberate every inch of Syria,” Assad stated in June 2016, emphasizing his unwillingness to negotiate and his determination to fight this war at all costs.3 

“[Aleppo] is the biggest – and I want to emphasize this for all to hear – the biggest international humanitarian action in the modern world.”9 

23 DECEMBER 2016

Particularly for Syria’s civil population, this has come at a devastating price. More than half of the population was forced to flee their homes.4 Under Assad’s “starve or surrender” strategy, the death toll has risen to more than 400,000, according to various estimates.5 “If you don’t take action, there will be no Syrian peoples or Syria to save,” UN Humanitarian Coordinator Stephen O’Brien warned the UN Security Council in late October 2016.6 But key Western actors stood by as Aleppo fell, watching what a UN spokesperson described as “a complete meltdown of humanity.”7 As numerous actors are meddling in the crises in Syria and the region, while the West attempts to somehow muddle through, the Middle East’s post-Western age might have already begun. 


  1. “Defense Minister Says Russian Air Campaign Prevented Syria’s Breakup,” TASS Russian News Agency, 22 December 2016,
  2. See Haid Haid, “Last Chance Saloon for Syrian Rebels,” Middle East Eye, 06 January 2017,; Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, “Lessons from the Syrian Opposition’s Aleppo Offensive,” The World Post, 23 August 2016,; Charles Lister, “Aleppo Has fallen: But The Conflict Is Far From Over (pt.1),” The World Post, 20 December 2016, =1482238505410
  3. “President al-Assad: Our War on Terrorism Continues, We Will Liberate Every Inch of Syria,” SANA Syrian Arab News Agency, 7 June 2016,
  4. UNHCR, “Syria Emergency,” as of 6 January 2017,
  5. See, e.g., Al Jazeera, “Syria Death Toll: UN Envoy Estimates 400,000 Killed,” 23 April 2016,
  6. Stephen O’Brien, “Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O'Brien Statement to the Security Council on Syria,” ReliefWeb, 26 October 2016,
  7. Alastair Jamieson, Mac William Bishop and Corky Siemaszko, “Aleppo: Cease-fire Deal Reached in Besieged Syrian City, Rebels Say,” NBC News, 13 December 2016,
  8. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, “Statement by McCain & Graham on the Slaughter in Aleppo,” 13 December 2016,
  9. Vladimir Putin, “Vladimir Putin’s Annual News Conference,“ Kremlin, 23 December 2016,
  10. Data provided to MSC by IHS Conflict Monitor. It is based on all recorded incidents of the impact of airstrikes being reported in local and social media, specified as having been carried out by a particular country. Data for Russia does not include 263 airstrikes that could not be clearly attributed but were either conducted by Russia or Syrian government forces. 
  11. Levada Center, “Conflict in Syria,” 2 December 2016,
  12. Numbers are based on the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP, 2012-2014), the Syria Response Plan (2015), the Syria Humanitarian Response Plan (2016), as well as the 3RP Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (2015 & 2016) and the Syria Regional Refugee Response Plan (RRP, 2012-2014). 
  13. Data provided to MSC by AEI Critical Threats Project. Members of the Saudi-led coalition include: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Senegal, and the Sudan. 
  14. Arab Center Washington DC, “Arab Public Opinion and the 2016 US Presidential Elections,” 1 November 2016, Categories “Other,” “No second option,” “Don’t know” and “No answer” not shown. Countries surveyed: Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia. 
  15. Data provided to MSC by Center for International and Security Studies at the School of Public Policy, University of Maryland. 
  16. See endnote 15.