The Arab world is moving uncomfortably between two eras. The post-World War II era, in which Arab dictatorships and monarchies supplanted colonial rule, is now roughly blending with -- or in some cases outright colliding with -- a fractured landscape of long-repressed Islamist forces. This transition period will take years, and regional stakeholders, including the United States, Turkey, Russia and France, will struggle to navigate, much less influence, the changing landscape.
Thus the Middle East will remain in flux, with Syria currently in the spotlight. Militia and clan interests will dominate the northern Levant as Assad’s Alawite forces struggle to maintain their hold on Damascus against Sunni rebel forces. The remaining minorities will prepare for what will end up being a very long and bloody sectarian fight in Syria and Lebanon.
This puts Iran in a major dilemma. With Syria and Lebanon unraveling, Iran will be largely relegated to the role of regional spoiler. It can sow instability in the Levant and the Palestinian Territories, but it no longer poses a strategic threat to the balance of power of the region. The United States will therefore be unlikely to engage Iran in a serious negotiation, preferring instead to see Iran weaken under the weight of sanctions. Iran will struggle economically this year, but the regime will hold together as it turns its attention to preserving Iranian influence in Iraq, the next key battleground after Syria.
Syria and Lebanon unravel
This past week there was a lot of talk about the Patriot air defence missiles and 400 US troops to Turkey as part of a NATO force to bolster Turkey’s ability to defend itself against the Syrian ballistic missile threat. The deployment by itself however does not herald an imminent NATO intervention in Syria, but it does send a clear message to the region that NATO will stand by and protect Turkey if necessary.
The regime in Syria will start to fall giving way to a familiar state of warlordism, where militias and clan interests reign supreme. There will no longer a political entity capable of wielding control over the entirety of Syrian territory, nor will there be for some time. Instead, the al Assad clan is the first among equals leading Alawite forces against their Sunni rivals. Sunni rebel forces are for now loosely bound by a common agenda against the al Assad clan. But once Syrian President Bashar al Assad is removed from power, whether through a negotiated deal or by force, the Sunni forces will fragment along ideological, ethnic and geographic lines, with Salafist-jihadist forces battling against a more politically minded Muslim Brotherhood and secular Sunnis. Maronite Christians, Druze, Kurds, Palestinians and other minorities will largely remain in limbo, trying to protect their kin by building militias and flexible alliances in a growing state of lawlessness.
As their grip over Aleppo slips, Alawite forces will try to hold Damascus while preparing a mass retreat to their coastal enclave. The Alawite forces face an ever-growing struggle to maintain territorial control beyond the coast. They will eventually shift from conventional to insurgent tactics once it becomes clear that they can no longer hold Damascus and their focus shifts to preventing (with Iran's help) the consolidation of a post-al Assad government. The United States, Turkey, France and others will attempt to prop up a post-al Assad provisional government and preserve as much of the state machinery as possible to smooth the transition, but the authority of this government will be weak and its sustainability will be questionable as the country continues to fragment.
An Alawite loss of control over Damascus willl be the trigger for significant sectarian clashes in Lebanon, particularly in the northern borderland, as emboldened Sunnis attempt to challenge their Shiite rivals and as militant group Hezbollah fights to hold its ground. Lebanese clans will prepare for this inevitability by reinforcing their militias and shifting alliances where necessary.
Be it unlikely, the potential use of chemical weapons by Alawite forces in a state of desperation could accelerate the unraveling of the region; a U.S.-led coalition would have to assemble in haste to contain the chemical weapons threat. To be clear, the United States is not looking for a pretext to intervene militarily in Syria. On the contrary, the United States will make every effort possible to avoid another military campaign in the Islamic world this year.
A military conflict between the United States and Iran remains unlikely in 2013. Iran can sow instability in places like Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan but lacks the degree of political influence to coerce Washington into a broader strategic negotiation on its terms. The United States is more likely to allow the effects of sanctions and a reversal of Iran's fortunes in Syria and Lebanon to run their course and continue to weaken Iran's hand than to agree to significant concessions to temper ongoing tensions with Tehran.
The growing disparity in the U.S. and Iranian negotiating positions will largely relegate Iran to the role of regional spoiler. So long as Iran can create pain for its regional adversaries, it can slow its own descent. Iran will thus expend considerable effort in politically, economically and militarily sustaining its sectarian allies in Syria and Lebanon so it can play a destabilizing role in a growing climate of civil war and insurgency in the northern Levant. Iran will also use weapons transfers as its primary means of maintaining a stake in the Palestinian Territories.
The Arab World in Transition
In Egypt, the military will adapt to an emerging Islamist political order. The military will remain the ultimate arbiter of the state and will rely on a number of factors -- including a fragmented judiciary, the military's economic leverage, a divided Islamist political landscape and the military's foreign relationships -- to check the Muslim Brotherhood. But the military and the Brotherhood will not be capable of engaging in bold, unilateral moves against one another. They need each other in this new political environment, and so both sides will continue trying to set boundaries and ultimately develop a new working agreement. There will be obstacles and occasional political crises as a result, but this year will not see a break between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military.
The Brotherhood will be able to maintain a large presence in parliament, but will face resistance from elements of the old order in asserting control over state institutions. The Brotherhood's popularity among the people will be undermined as the movement takes on a larger role in governance under severe economic conditions; the foreign aid that the state increasingly will depend upon will be contingent on the state's implementing unpopular and potentially destabilizing austerity measures.
Egypt's consuming political transition will leave opportunities for flare-ups in the Sinai Peninsula and in Gaza, but we do not expect a significant breach between Israel and Egypt this year. After having demonstrated its militant capabilities in late 2012, Hamas will focus on building up its political legitimacy in the region in 2013 at the expense of its secular rivals in Fatah. Hamas' efforts will entail reining in potential rivals within Gaza that could upset the group's political trajectory and trying to expand influence in the West Bank.
Jordan, the oft-overlooked casualty of the Arab Spring, will continue to destabilize quietly and slowly in 2013. The Hashemite monarchy will see its room for political maneuvering narrow as it faces an emboldened opposition led by the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood and strengthened by tribal elements and urbanite Palestinian-Jordanians. Limited support from the Gulf Arab monarchies will add to the economic and energy pressures exacerbating the Hashemites' political vulnerabilities.
The Reactive Powers
Israel and Turkey are both greatly affected by the shifting political dynamics of the Arab world, but both have little means to influence the change. The two former allies will continue exploring ways to restore a quiet working relationship under these new regional stresses, but a public restoration of diplomatic ties is less likely.
Israel will struggle internally over how to adapt to a new regional framework in which the reliability of old working partners is called into question. In contrast, Turkey sees an opportunity in the rise of Islamist forces in the Arab world but Ankara's limited influences restrain its actions beyond Turkish borders. Moreover, the vulnerabilities arising from a power vacuum in Syria will undermine Turkish attempts to enlarge its sphere of influence. As Syrian Kurds work toward some degree of autonomy in the north, Iraqi Kurds will use that as leverage in their dealings with Ankara. Iran's efforts to reverse Turkish influence in Iraq and Syria through Kurdish antagonism will also greatly complicate Ankara's already troubled containment strategy against Kurdish separatism. The growing regional Kurdish threat to Turkey, not to mention a slowing economy, will factor into domestic political skirmishing ahead of the 2014 election season, but the Turkish opposition will still lack the ability to significantly undermine the ruling party's popularity at home.
Unease in the Arabian Peninsula
Saudi Arabia also faces limited options in shaping a post-al Assad Syria. The Saudi royals are pleased to see Iranian influence on the decline in the Levant but are wary of Iranian backlash closer to home. Saudi Arabia is also greatly concerned by the regional rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and will try to counteract this trend by supporting Salafist-jihadists in Syria and Lebanon. A more aggressive Saudi role in Syria will aggravate the civil war and create competition with other regional stakeholders, including Turkey, Qatar and Jordan.
At age 88, Saudi King Abdullah's deteriorating health and probable death will mark the end of the second generation of Saudi princes. Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz will succeed Abdullah, and the odds are high that Salman's successor will come from the third generation of princes, who will have increasing say in the affairs of the state. In the Saudi periphery, Bahrain will keep Shiite unrest at a manageable level by engaging the mainstream Shiite movement, Al Wefaq. In the southern heel of the peninsula, the Yemeni government's attempt to restructure the military and security forces to manage an ongoing power struggle likely will lead to more instability in the country.
Trouble in the Maghreb
While weak governments in Libya and Tunisia continue struggling to institutionalize power along the Mediterranean coastline, the lower Maghreb and Sahel regions are at risk of destabilizing further as regional al Qaeda forces emanating from Mali prepare for a Western-backed intervention. Libya, Tunisia and Egypt remain locked in internal turmoil while Algeria, having already gone through a civil war in its recent history and endowed with substantial energy resources, is emerging as the regional leader of the Maghreb. Key to Algeria's continued stability is its ability to maintain a carefully crafted containment strategy against Islamist militants. This strategy is at risk of unraveling as Western forces attempt to pursue and displace local jihadist forces. Algeria will try to shape international involvement in Mali according to its own terms and attempt to use its security capabilities and energy relationship with the West to gain recognition of its rising regional status and accommodation of its security needs.