What's happening in the Middle East and why it matters

Power shifts in Middle East after death of Saudi King
Power shifts in Middle East after death of Saudi King

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Power shifts in Middle East after death of Saudi King 01:50

Story highlights

  • The Middle East has seen a lot of turmoil in recent years
  • Saudi Arabia's king died, and neighboring Yemen is in political upheaval
  • ISIS has caused a lot of death, destruction and debate over Iraq and Syria

(CNN)The Middle East has never been a simple place.

Yet nowadays, this region is especially turbulent -- with waves rocking several countries, so big that their effects are being felt worldwide, including the West.
    It's not like this uneasiness is concentrated only in one country, or all for a common reason. There's Islamic extremism, political turnover, faltering oil prices and, let's not forget, age-old sectarian tensions that are contributing in different ways in different places to the tumult.
    Many countries in the region have issues, such as Egypt's delicate political and human rights situation and Turkey's dealing with the impact of the war raging right over its border in Syria. Still, a few stand out because of the unique -- some might say intractable -- challenges they face.

    YEMEN

    What's going on
    Chaos is one way to describe it.
    The country's government is in a shambles. Violence -- some of it sectarian, some of it thanks to militancy from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) -- has been raging nationwide for months, if not years. And it's far and away the poorest nation in the region, with a per capita GDP of $1,473, according to the World Bank. (Compare that with Saudi Arabia's $25,962.)
    Yemen's President, Cabinet resigns
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    Yemen's President, Cabinet resigns 03:27
    Let's start with the still unfolding political crisis. Yemen's President and Prime Minister abruptly resigned Thursday after Houthi rebels moved on the capital, Sana'a.
    How Yemen's new government will look is still unclear, if it's going to have a functioning government at all. If the Houthis take the lead, that would mean Shiites ruling a country that's mostly Sunni. While the Houthis and previous government both fought against al Qaeda, this instability can only help that terror group. And none of this is helping the average Yemeni stuck in poverty, with little time, money or effort seemingly focused on improving their straits or the economy as a whole.
    Why it matters to the West and beyond
    For the rest of the world, political stability is a good thing for any country in this region; on the flip side, instability is always a concern. There's also the fact that Yemen has enough oil and natural gas for its people and export, though unrest makes it challenging to tap into these resources, the U.S. Energy Information Administration notes.
    All those worries and impacts are real. But, for the West, it's about AQAP.
    Ever since Osama bin Laden was flushed out of Afghanistan, the terrorist organization he founded has spread out and evolved. Rather than one overarching entity, al Qaeda is now more of an association of groups -- each with its own goals, even if they all share a philosophy of lashing out at the West and promoting their extreme brand of Islam.
    And of those, AQAP is widely considered the most dangerous to the West.
    It's the only al Qaeda affiliate to send terrorists from Yemen to the United States. There was Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, better known as "the underwear bomber" for his attempt to blow up a commercial airliner on a Detroit-bound flight in December 2009. Then there are the suspects in the deadly Boston Marathon bombings and Nidal Hassan, who reportedly were inspired by American-born cleric and top AQAP figure Anwar al-Awlaki.
    The United States isn't the only place affected. AQAP has claimed to be behind the January 7 Charlie Hebdo massacre, and one of the brothers involved -- Cherif Kouachi -- told CNN affiliate BFM that he trained in Yemen on a trip financed by al-Awlaki.
    Al-Awlaki is dead, but his organization is not. With both Yemen's government and the Houthis focused on each other, AQAP has more space to recruit and train terrorists, as well as devise ways for them to strike.
    Yemen's political upheaval is especially unsettling for countries like the United States, which had a strong, working alliance with now-departed President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and his government. As of Thursday, U.S. officials haven't held any talks with the Houthis, nor did they know their intentions.

    SAUDI ARABIA

    What's going on
    Since its founding in 1932, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been one of the most stable, not to mention richest, countries in not just the Middle East, but the world. It had a new new leader Friday, and let's just say the timing could have been better.
    Saudi Arabia has had political transition before, with six kings (from the same family) in its modern-day history -- the latest being King Salman, who took power Friday following the death of his half-brother, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. The new leader has already signaled that he won't diverge much from his predecessor's policies, saying "we will, with God's will and power, adhere to the straight path this country has followed since its establishment."
    Saudi Arabia's order of succession
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    Still, change is change, and King Salman will be challenged from the get-go.
    Riyadh has long played a part in stabilizing the region, a role that is needed as much as ever. Iraq is battling ISIS militants, who already control much of the country and are threatening to take the rest. The Sunni-led government in neighboring Yemen is out, with uncertainty of what comes next or whether some of its violence will spill over into Saudi. And there's the threat from across the Persian Gulf in Iran.
    On top of all this, the price of the Arab nation's economic driver -- oil -- has plummeted over 50% since the summer to less than $50 a barrel. That's key, because oil revenues are a bit part of Saudi government's revenues, and a big reason it's so important on the world stage.
    Why it matters to the West and beyond
    The Middle East is unstable enough, especially since the Arab Spring. The Saudi government was one a few regional governments to weather that storm smoothly. But now, there's even more need for stability -- something that having a new leader may not help with.
    It is very possible that Saudi policy doesn't change much under King Salman. Even if that's true, it's much too early to tell whether or not he can be a leader throughout the region. Can or will he try to help broker peace between Palestinians and Israel, as did King Abdullah (who was praised by past and present Israeli presidents after his death)? Can or will he be able to have any influence keeping Yemen under control?
    Likewise, it's not yet clear how the transition will affect the Saudi government's relationship with the United States, whose leaders have long been able to count on Riyadh for counsel and support.
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    Another possible impact of King Salman's ascension has nothing to do with geopolitics, but rather how much you pay at the gas pump. The new King could decrease the amount of oil pumped in Saudi Arabia, which would decrease supply and increase prices.
    Even without any Saudi action, the price of oil has already started climbing after King Abdullah's death.

    SYRIA

    What's going on
    Syria's upheaval began in spring 2011, with protests in the nation's streets. President Bashar al-Assad's government responded with a deadly crackdown, an act that only seemed to fuel the unrest.
    And it only got worse from there.
    Eventually, the dissension and violence devolved into a full-fledged civil war. It's been a bloody war, with the United Nations estimating nearly 200,000 killed as of last August. It's been a disruptive war, with more than 3 million Syrians now refugees and at least 6.5 million more displaced inside the country. And it hasn't been a simple war, given all the warring parties involved.
    That's because there isn't just one united opposition group fighting against al-Assad, who is still in power and entrenched in Damascus. There are more moderate fighting groups, some of which have gotten support from Washington and beyond. And there are extremists who have been able to attract new recruits, gain more influence and take over territory amid the chaos.
    Problems in fight against ISIS
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    Another is ISIS, which first emerged in Iraq but got a second life in Syria thanks to the ongoing war. It has terrorized many in both countries in recent months, a time in which its taken over vast swaths of territory, established a de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqaa and rebranded itself the Islamic State in accordance with its quest to be a caliphate governed under its strict interpretation of Sharia law.
    Why it matters to the West and beyond
    Even before ISIS made daily headlines, the horrors of what's been happening in Syria was enough to get the world's attention. With large numbers of civilians dying, with the alleged use of chemical weapons, with neighboring countries like Turkey and Jordan finding themselves swarmed by refugees, it couldn't be avoided from a practical and personal standpoint.
    None of those concerns have gone away. Syria borders Turkey, a NATO member, as well as Jordan and Israel, two staunch U.S. allies. Besides the refugee issue, there is a constant threat that the violence will spill over the Syrian border. Even without that, a seemingly endless civil war in this part of the world is never good for most anyone, the West included.
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    It's not just that there's violence, it's who is behind it and, in many ways, thriving because of it. ISIS wouldn't be what it is without the Syrian civil war. That means it wouldn't be a focal point for U.S. President Barack Obama and his government.
    Already, ISIS has beheaded a number of U.S. and British hostages -- all of them civilians -- and threatened more. There's also the real threat that the group may take its campaign out of the Middle East to strike in the West. That may have happened this month in France. One of the three terrorists there, Amedy Coulibaly, proclaimed his allegiance to ISIS in a video, and investigators discovered ISIS flags along with automatic weapons, detonators and cash in an apartment he rented, France's RTL Radio reported Sunday, citing authorities.
    The West and some of its Middle Eastern allies are striking back with targeted airstrikes not only in Iraq, where the coalition has a willing partner, but in Syria, where it is not working with al-Assad. (In fact, Obama and others have said they want the Syrian President out of power.)
    U.S. diplomatic officials said Thursday that estimates are that this coalition has killed more than 6,000 ISIS fighters. Yet their work is far from done. The group boasts upwards of 31,000 fighters, not to mention fresh recruits seemingly coming in regularly.
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    U.S. officials: Coalition killed 6,000+ ISIS fighters

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    IRAQ

    What's going on
    Iraq is no stranger to war in recent decades, from its war with Iran in the 1980s, to the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, to a U.S.-led invasion in 2003. And it has seen plenty of bad actors in that stretch, like late leader Saddam Hussein -- who used chemical weapons against his enemies, including the 1988 attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja.
    Even then, ISIS stands out.
    The group began in 2004 as al Qaeda in Iraq, a particularly destructive arm of bin Laden's terror network with an affinity for attacking coalition forces as well as those (particularly Shiite) locals who didn't accept this Sunni group's extreme Islamic beliefs. International military efforts helped to beat back the group, but it never totally went away.
    Rebranded as the Islamic State, the terror group came back stronger and seemingly more brazen than ever. It killed and kidnapped, including many civilians, using tactics so extreme that even al Qaeda disowned it. Members of the minority Yazidi group reported being "treated like cattle" as their men were slaughtered and their women and girls were raped and sold. It distributed a pamphlet in Mosul justifying its enslaving and having sex with "unbelieving" women and girls.
    It's not just that ISIS is despicable. It's been successful. The terror group has taken over large tracts of territory in Iraq, including oil fields and the key city of Mosul, and even threatened its capital of Baghdad.
    Why it matters to the West and beyond
    Iraq matters because it has been a place where Islamist extremists can strike the West. For years, that meant attacking coalition military forces based there. Now that they are gone, the fear is that Iraq will become a training ground for ISIS militants to prepare for strikes outside the Middle East.
    That's why, in August, Obama authorized the first of what have come to be hundreds of "targeted airstrikes" -- conducted with international allies -- to counter militants in Iraq as well as Syria.
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    It appears to have made a difference, not only in killing the estimated 6,000 ISIS fighters but in helping Iraqi forces reclaim territory. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that Iraq has taken back more than 270 square miles (700 square kilometers). Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told CNN's Christiane Amanpour this week he expects ISIS -- even if it is not eliminated entirely -- should be gone from his country within months, claiming the group's "onslaught ... has been reversed."
    "I think we have the capability now, with enough support from the international coalition," al-Abadi said.
    Any such predictions need to be taken with a grain of salt. That's especially true in Iraq, where terrorists have been reportedly ousted before only to return.
    Plus, it is not as though the end of ISIS necessarily will signal an end to Iraq's problems. Like Saudi Arabia, this big-time oil producer has to cope with the impact of lower prices. And there was violence before ISIS' surge -- including a good number of terrorist attacks -- so it seems unrealistic to expect that will go away.

    IRAN

    What's going on
    The Islamic Revolution happened in 1979. There has been occasional protests since then, but none have amounted to anything. In some ways, politically, Iran has been the picture of stability with two overarching leaders in the past 36 years, with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor Ali Khamenei.
    Yet Iran's relations with the rest of the world haven't been so calm.
    Part of it has to do with Iranian leaders' hard-line stance against Israel, as illustrated in Ayatollah Khamenei's nine-point explanation last November for why Israel should be "annihilated." The Ayatollah and his supporters haven't been much kinder to the United States, with spirited anti-American rallies and harsh criticisms of Washington common.
    Then there's Iran's nuclear program, one that since 2003 has fueled concern worldwide that Tehran's plans are not simply energy development, as Iranian officials have said, but may be to develop nuclear warheads that could strike Israel and beyond.
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    This dispute has led to major sanctions on Iran, hurting that nation's economy and isolating it from much of the world.
    But there's been some signs of hope since the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani. Since then, the rhetoric has notably calmed. And while there's been no conclusive deal, at least Iran has engaged in "constructive" talks with Western officials on the nuclear issue.
    Why it matters to the West and beyond
    Think of it this way: Would you want leaders of a country known for "Death to America" chants to have a nuclear weapon?
    The United States sure does not. Nor do its European allies. And certainly, neither does Israel.
    One concern is that all of these recent negotiations are simply smokescreens. Iran, some skeptics say, may be inching closer to producing nuclear weapons behind everyone's backs while they talk peace.
    And it's not as though every leader in Iran is embracing peaceful rhetoric. Nuclear weapons or not, seemingly anything could tip the scales toward war. The latest point of contention relates to an Israeli attack in Syria's Golan Heights that killed a senior Iranian commander and six Hezbollah members.
    Speaking about that incident Thursday, according to state-run Press TV, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami said: "(Israel) should be waiting for crushing responses."

    ISRAEL

    What's going on
    Israel is one of most modern, progressive, prosperous countries. But ever since its founding in 1948 it has also been one of the most challenged when it comes to security -- and that hasn't changed.
    Hamas and Israeli forces fought for seven weeks this summer in Gaza, a conflict that killed more than 2,130 Palestinians, most of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Sixty-seven Israelis -- 64 of them soldiers -- have been killed, the U.N. reported. A foreign worker in Israel was killed as well.
    The violence has died down since then, but it hasn't gone away. There was a November attack at a Jerusalem synagogue that killed four worshipers and a police officer. An Israeli soldier was stabbed to death on a Tel Aviv street, with another killed at a West Bank hitchhiking post. Many Palestinians have been caught up in everything as well, like a senior Palestinian Authority official who died after a confrontation with Israeli troops.
    Meanwhile, there's an election coming up in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is contending to stay in the office he's held since 2009, hoping to convince voters that he's the right person to address a faltering economy, recent attacks against Israelis in Jerusalem and this summer's inconclusive war against Hamas.
    In fact, he's taking his appeal on the road to the United States. House Speaker John Boehner has invited Netanyahu to speak to Congress on March 3.
    But he won't be meeting with Obama then, a fact that some see as the latest evidence of the reportedly frosty relationship between the two leaders.
    Why it matters to the West and beyond
    Israel is important to the United States for a few reasons.
    Some of that has to do with the countries' common democratic ideals. There is also the shared strategic and security interests, as it is no coincidence that many of Israel's foes (like ISIS or Iran) are also U.S. enemies. And there's a political component as well, with many in the United States valuing the country's relationship with Israel -- and sometimes poking their political opponents claiming they're not sufficiently supportive.
    If the leaders of these two longtime allies aren't on the same page, that could be a problem.
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    Obama won't personally meet with Netanyahu during his next visit, because, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, "we want to avoid even the appearance of any kind of interference with a democratic election" on March 17.
    Then there's the prospect that Netanyahu will press for stronger sanctions on Iran. This thrusts him into the U.S. political fray, since the Iran talks have pitted Obama against Republicans and Democrats alike.
    This visit certainly won't help mend what Aaron David Miller, a former U.S.-Middle East peace negotiator, has described as "a dysfunctional relationship between Netanyahu and Obama."
    As a senior official with a prominent pro-Israel policy organization in Washington said last fall: "These guys don't like each other. They don't pretend to like each other."