8 Jan 2014

Lindsey Hilsum’s international eye on the year ahead

Journalists make poor prophets, but January is the month when we all think about the year ahead, and the big picture.


In the Middle East, power is shifting from Saudi Arabia to Iran. For decades, the US has seen Saudi as its key regional ally, but the Americans no longer rely on the Gulf States for oil as they’re producing their own. Moreover, they worry that Saudi hasn’t done enough to curb al-Qaeda.

Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has been the Americans’ worst enemy in the region, but last year’s provisional deal over the Iranian nuclear programme may lead to a wider agreement – 2014 could even see a handshake between the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and President Obama.


The Saudis are not pleased to see their best friends in Washington making nice with their enemy, but there’s not a lot they can do about it.

The conflict in Syria will increasingly be a sectarian struggle and a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Saudi is the leading Sunni state while Iran is the largest Shi’a country. The Iranians have said they will never stop supporting President Bashar al Assad – he’s an Alawite, a small sect linked to the Shi’as, and Syria provides a geographical bridge to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah which relies on Iran for arms and support.

Saudi Arabia is arming the Islamic Front, Islamist rebels fighting to overthrow President Assad. It does not support those linked to al-Qaeda, but there’s little doubt that some weapons are getting into jihadi hands.

Fighters of al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant parade at the Syrian town of Tel Abyad

After several years of dismissing al-Qaeda as a spent force, the US and Europe now have to face its growing influence in Syria and Iraq, and potentially across the Middle East. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, a jihadi group linked to al-Qaeda, has suffered some defeats recently in northern Syria, but made gains in Iraq.

This leaves the Americans in a contradictory position. They support the Iraqi government in its struggle against al-Qaeda, but Iraq’s biggest backer is Iran – so in Iraq, the Americans are on the same side as the Islamic Republic.

Yet over the border in Syria, they support the rebels trying to overthrow Bashar al Assad. That means they’re on the opposite side to Iran. In other words, in Syria, bizarrely, they’re on the same side as al-Qaeda.

Surely that policy – or lack of policy – must change?  The US is unlikely to intervene militarily in the region, but it’s hard to sustain a policy of simultaneously riding two horses galloping in opposite directions.

The Middle East, the most turbulent region in the world, will absorb much of our journalistic attention in 2014 but there’s a lot more going on.


Under Vladimir Putin, and while energy prices remain high, Russia has managed to re-assert itself as a significant power. Putin will try to use the Sochi Winter Olympics to showcase his importance, while manipulating the situation in Syria to his strategic advantage and ensuring that Ukraine and other parts of the “near abroad” stay within its remit.

Sabre-rattling between China and Japan could get noisy but this is a gradual shift not a dramatic one. The Chinese government will use nationalism to distract a people ever more fed up with corruption and pollution, while the Japanese government will stoke its people’s fears of being eclipsed by the old enemy.

Africa will be one of the fastest growing regions in the world – but while economies may look good on paper, war continues to destroy lives. Africa’s youngest state, South Sudan, is being ripped apart by political rivalry while French intervention has failed to curb violence in the Central African Republic.

South Sudan army soldier stands next to a machine gun mounted on a truck in Malakal

And there’s a big shift going on here in the UK too. If Scotland votes to secede and Ukip does well in the European elections, foreshadowing a withdrawal from the EU, Britain may dwindle into part of a small, rainy, crowded but insignificant island not far from France. Why should it have a UN Security Council seat? Why retain a large military? Why would a country with real power – Germany, for example, or the USA – bother to consult a rump Britain about the world beyond its shores?

Already weakened by economic decline and the loss of the colonies, will 2014 be the year Britain surrenders its remnants of power and influence, willingly embracing irrelevance and obscurity, like the Netherlands in the 17th Century?

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