Gaza, Sudan, Turkey-Syria earthquake: The biggest stories for the MENA region in 2023

Gaza, Sudan, Turkey-Syria earthquake: The biggest stories for the MENA region in 2023
As 2023 draws to a close, The New Arab looks at ten of the biggest stories for the Middle East and North Africa region this year.
11 min read
30 December, 2023
The year 2023 has ended on an especially bleak note amid Israel's onslaught on Gaza and bloodshed in Sudan [The New Arab]

A look back at a year's news from the Middle East and North Africa region is never going to be light-hearted, but things feel especially bleak this year.

Mass murder and displacement have tightened their grip on both Palestine and Sudan, with no sign that things might improve in either in 2024. 

Though they might pale in comparison, we've seen at least some moves away from the wreaking of death and destruction. Maybe we've averted the worst of a climate disaster? And a tenth year of war in Yemen could be its last?

In a somewhat chronological order, The New Arab takes a look back at ten of the biggest stories of 2023.

1. Netanyahu returns as Israel PM

The turn of the year saw Benjamin Netanyahu, who won Israeli elections in November, install a coalition government - one of the most extreme, right-wing governments the country has ever seen.

He gave key positions to far-right settlers, including Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who had called for annexation of the West Bank and denied the very existence of Palestinians.

The situation had of course already been dire for Palestinians, with 2022 having been among the deadliest years in recent memory for them, particularly in the occupied West Bank.

But an already grim state of affairs was made far worse this year thanks to new government policies and rhetoric. Israel has killed more than 21,000 people in Gaza and razed much of the territory; raids in the West Bank have only gotten more deadly; settlers have been on the rampage, including in Hawara; and the push for construction of new settlements on Palestinian land continues.

Netanyahu and his government have also proven deeply unpopular with Israel's Jewish citizens, with his plans for an overhaul to the judicial system met with months of mass protest.

He has also been widely criticised for his handling of the release and rescue of Israeli hostages held by Hamas since their attack on Israel on 7 October. The war on Gaza has proven wildly popular among Israelis, however. 

2. Turkey-Syria earthquake

Tragedy hit the Turkey-Syria border area when more than 55,000 people died after a series of earthquakes, one of which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale, struck on 6 February.

Many of those killed or otherwise impacted by the earthquake were refugees and displaced people who had fled the Syrian civil war that began in 2011.

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In Turkey, many questioned how the earthquake was able to wreak such extensive devastation. Some of the answer appeared to lie in good old corruption.

It came to light that Turkish building regulations meant to ensure buildings are resilient to earthquakes were being applied only loosely by construction companies - the largest of which are often had ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It was thought that this might damage to Erdogan's chances of re-election in the vote scheduled to take place a few months later - but he made it through the contest relatively unscathed.

3. Brokered in Beijing: Iran, Saudi Arabia resume diplomatic relations

Iran and Saudi Arabia had been bitter enemies for several years, before an unlikely saviour swooped in to save the day.

In March, the two countries agreed to normalise their diplomatic ties in a China-brokered deal; they flew to Beijing a few weeks later, where they smiled and shook each other's hands.

Riyadh and Tehran had in 2021 been engaging in talks brokered by Iraq, but the discussions stalled several rounds in, and appeared to be at a dead end.

Talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia on how to reinstate ties have continued. Earlier this month, an Iranian official said officials have been discussing the resumption of direct flights between the two countries.

It was hoped that the deal would have a real impact in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015 in war between Yemeni government forces and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels for control of the country. That war has decimated Yemen, and directly or indirectly killed hundreds of thousands of people.

A ceasefire in Yemen last year brought hopes of an eventual end to the war, but talks to keep it up stalled. This year, however, representatives from the Saudi and Houthi sides have been negotiating for peace deal, with Oman playing mediator. Representatives from the two sides met in Sanaa in September.

But attacks are still occurring as talks take place, and it remains unclear how this will impact future discussions.

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Earlier this year, we might have predicted a different normalisation partner for Saudi Arabia — Israel.

With US help, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had been chasing normalisation with Saudi Arabia since he retook office. Talks appeared to have fizzled out, and Israel's war on Gaza have hardened any Saudi reluctance to make such a deal.

4. Civil war in Sudan

Since April, the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have been vying for control of Sudan.

Long-bubbling tension between the army, led by Sudan's de facto leader Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, and the RSF paramilitary led by General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo boiled over into street battles, mostly in Khartoum and the western Darfur region.

Over the past two months, when what little of the world's attention that had been on Sudan turned to Gaza, RSF fighters made advances eastwards across the country's central belt.

More than 9,000 people have been killed in Sudan, but local groups say the death toll is likely far higher. The extent of displacement has been staggering, with more than four million people displaced and a further 1.2 million forced to flee into neighbouring countries since April, according to UN figures.

In November, more than 1,000 people were killed by the RSF in Ardamta, west Darfur in just over two days. 

The paramilitary forces last week took the strategic town of Wad Madani, where hundreds of thousands of displaced people had been staying - sending them fleeing once more.

As the RSF rips through Darfur and other parts of Sudan, fears are growing that the country could be heading towards partition.

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5. Saudi Arabia helps Syria regime re-enter Arab fold

After agreeing to mend ties with Iran, it was Saudi Arabia’s turn to play mediator.

With Riyadh's help, Syrian regime officials - who are backed by Iran - attended their first Arab League meeting in 12 years in May, after being re-admitted to the group.

The Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad, had been frozen out of the pan-Arab organisation after a bloody crackdown on peaceful protests led to a devastating civil war that has killed more than half a million people and displaced millions more.

Assad and his officials sat isolated from its fellow Arab-majority states for years. But with the regime able to claw back control of much of the country and alternative government in Syria looking increasingly remote, some governments, including those of Egypt and the UAE, began a few years ago to suggest that Damascus be welcomed back into the fold.

Saudi Arabia sought to expedite the Syrian regime's rehabilitation, and invited Assad to the Arab League summit it was hosting in Jeddah in May.

Syrian activists and opposition figures, as well as other opponents of the Assad regime, condemned the regime's re-inclusion in the League, pointing to the harrowing death toll and the estimated 100,000 detainees taken by the regime and affiliated forces who are still missing.

The regime's position in the organisation looks shaky, with the League's meetings with Syrian regime representatives reportedly suspended in September over forced refugee returns and drug smuggling.

6. Erdogan wins re-election in Turkey

The glory of being re-elected leader in your country's centenary year: if Erdogan had one wish for 2023, it was probably this.

Erdogan had already led Turkey for twenty years before the May 2023 vote.

Main opposition party CHP and its coalition had Kemal Kilicdaroglu as their candidate - a 74-year-old Alevi who had worked his way up from bureaucratic positions to become CHP leader in 2010.

Though seen as dependable, he appeared to lack the charisma needed to draw in voters.

Xenophobia quickly seeped in to the election race, with Kilicdaroglu promised to expel all the roughly four million Syrian refugees from Turkey in just two years. Relatively speaking, Erdogan was softer on the issue, though he was inconsistent.

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The shadow of the earthquake also loomed over the campaigning, but despite the slow state response to the earthquake and the lax application of building safety standards that exacerbated the disaster, Erdogan managed to win out even in quake-hit areas.

It was a narrow win, with Erdogan taking 52.1% of the vote over Kilicdaroglu's 47.9% share.

In Egypt, we saw an election that was far less likely to bring any surprises. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was re-elected in December, for a third term as president, with 89.6% of the vote, the country's election board said.

7. Morocco earthquake, Libya flood

September saw two natural disasters hit North Africa in quick succession.

On 8 September, an earthquake struck Morocco's Marrakesh-Safi region, killing about 3,000 people.

Morocco has pledged some $12 billion for reconstruction in a five-year program. But in the shorter term, many of the survivors are still living in tents more than three months since the quake hit.

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Only a few days after the earthquake, floods caused by hurricane-strength Storm Daniel tore through eastern Libya, leaving almost 4,000 people dead. Thousands more are missing, presumed dead.

The coastal city of Derna was the worst-hit in the flash flood, which burst through two dams and washed entire neighbourhoods into the Mediterranean Sea. Local officials were blamed for poor maintenance of the dam, and some were arrested.

It was hoped that the two rival administrations of eastern and western Libya might unite at least to help with reconstruction in the area. However, a conference on reconstruction by eastern Libya's administration that ran in November did not feature any representatives from Tripoli.

8. Israel’s war on Gaza

Gaza has been no stranger to Israeli brutality.

The territory had already been under a 16-year Israeli (and Egyptian) blockade, in which time Israel has launched several wars on Palestinians living there in difficult conditions.

But the war it launched on 7 October has been unprecedentedly vicious. Everything and everyone in Gaza appears to be fair game. Men, women, and children have been killed in their thousands; homes, schools, and hospitals have been reduced to rubble.

Calls made soon after the start of the relentless bombing for an immediate and permanent ceasefire were ignored by Israel and their allies.

A four-day ceasefire, extended to a week, was eventually reached at the end of November, and saw scores of Israeli hostages taken by Hamas on 7 October released in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. 

There had been hope it would lead to a longer-term break in war, but Israel re-launched its attack with new intensity. Almost 21,000 people have been killed so far, while thousands more are missing under the rubble. Close to the entirety of Gaza's population have been displaced.

The war has also had a severe knock-on impact on neighbouring countries. In Lebanon, scores have died and tens of thousands of people have been displaced by fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants, while in Iraq and Syria, Iran-backed groups have struck bases hosting US personnel, because of Washington's support for Israel.

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With most Palestinians in Gaza being penned into a smaller area and in increasingly unliveable conditions, worries are mounting over where Israel expects who survive their onslaught are meant to live.

Egypt has continued to push back against Israeli plans for Gaza's inhabitants to be displaced yet again, to Sinai, while Israel and its allies are mulling over putting a new Palestinian authority in place to govern the territory - one much more amenable to Israeli control than Hamas.

9. Henry Kissinger dies aged 100

They say that only the good die young.

Henry Kissinger's passing at the age of 100 was announced at the end of November by his consulting firm; no cause was given for his death.

Kissinger was seen as the architect of much of the most cold and calculating of US foreign policy, from which the Middle East region was not spared.

The staunchly pro-Israel diplomat became Secretary of State just two weeks before the Yom Kippur War of 1973 between Israel and a coalition of Arab countries.

He also helped ensure that Palestinians were sidelined during the controversial Camp David Accords that were signed in 1978. Palestinians were not directly involved in the negotiations that led to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

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Elsewhere in the region, Kissinger had a close relationship with the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, with the US helping him maintain autocratic rule of Iran. Kissinger also engaged with Syrian and Saudi leaders in a bid to counter Soviet influence and secure US interests, despite their human rights abuses.

He has been accused of war crimes over his role in such countries as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Chile.

In September, he expressed alarm over the "very far-reaching" conditions put forward by Saudi Arabia in return for normalisation of its ties with Israel.

10. Glimmer of hope: COP28 deal to move away from fossil fuel use

The earth is dying, but perhaps it'll happen a little slower?

At COP28 - this year's iteration of the UN climate summit - representatives from nearly 200 countries agreed earlier this month to begin transitioning away from consumption of fossil fuels - the first time such a deal has been reached.

Ending fossil fuel use would be a huge step towards cutting global emissions of CO2, needed to prevent catastrophic levels of climate change. The deal had come up against opposition, primarily from members of the OPEC group of oil-producing states.

Though the agreement was hailed as a historic step in the right direction, a workable plan on how to phase out the fuels did not come out of the summit.

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Hosted in the UAE, the run-up to the climate summit had been marred by controversy. An investigation published days before the summit began found that the team of summit host Sultan al-Jaber had sought to strike oil deals with representatives with several countries.