Key Strategic Trends for the Middle East in 2013

Jan 06, 2013 | Updated Mar 08, 2013

It is difficult for the observer to forecast the course of events in our region. The ongoing changes in the Arab region and the Middle East are many. The outcomes of the Arab Spring and the region's strategic volatility have made it even more difficult to guess the future. Additionally, international realities and the huge strategic and economic changes taking place have also posed difficulties. We will, nevertheless, attempt to highlight the major strategic trends expected in 2013, based on the existing frameworks. Others were formed during the past two years; they are expected to become more entrenched in the New Year.
 
Syria:

The situation in Syria is expected to occupy the pinnacle of strategic trends in the region. It is very likely that the regime of Bashar al-Assad will collapse in 2013 and end with his departure. The country will then move to the second phase of the Syrian revolution, which will be a difficult stage because the counter-revolutionary forces will try to upset the cards and create chaos in accord with the slogan: either Syria for us or for no one. At the same time, the powers that support the revolution and those that are reluctant to help will try to regulate the transitional process in a manner consistent with their orientations and interests. The United States, the western powers and some Arab states would push for a (moderate ) Syrian regime. That is to say, one that is far-removed from the Islamic movement, not hostile toward Israel and close to the West.  However, Turkey, Egypt, Qatar and other Arab states are expected to push for a political transition in Syria that is similar to the Tunisian and Egyptian experiences.
 
Still on the Syrian political situation, it is expected that 2013 will witness the emergence of new political formations and blocs to organize the various revolutionary forces in preparation to engage in the transition phase. There will be many points of reference for these forces, politically and ideologically. Some will represent regional and international interests in Syria. Most likely though, the nationalist trend with a general Islamic reference will represent the most favoured in the Syrian political arena. The various forces will maintain a purely Syrian point of reference for the political transition. Their decision-making would not be tied to foreign parties. At the same time, they will attempt to shorten the period of political transition in a manner that prevents serious internal polarization and not afford any lengthy opportunity to foreign parties to obstruct the transitional process.
 
Iraq:

Tensions in Iraq are expected to increase in direct proportion to the near collapse of the Syrian regime. The Maliki government will find itself sandwiched between two currents. The first is Iranian, which will push for the strengthening control over Iraq to compensate for the loss of Syria. This is because Iraq is deemed more important to Iran than Syria, strategically, demographically and economically. Iran needs time to strengthen its influence tightly. This will push Al Maliki toward authoritarian and exclusivist options, targeting Sunni and Kurdish leaders and even some rival Shiite leaders.
 
The second trend to emerge after the fall of the Syrian regime will be the escalation of Sunni and Kurdish demands for sectarian balance and a fairer distribution of power. This movement would be joined by Shi'ite forces which recognize the dangers of the exclusivist and authoritarian option.

These two contrasting forces will probably produce a confrontational situation that may lead to the use of violence by the government. However, that would be a huge strategic error. Immediately, it would lead to regional conflict. Turkey and other Arab countries would not stand by idly while a conflict of this kind unfolds in Iraq. The balance of forces after the fall of the Syrian regime will, in fact, shift against Iran. From the point of view the Turks and Arabs, it is inconceivable that they would accept an Iraq subjected to Iranian strategic domination, as represented by the Maliki government. Hence it is expected that the conflict in Iraq will remain a local but with regional dimensions. For this reason, the Iraqi issue will occupy the second top position after Syria during 2013.
 
The past few weeks have witnessed an escalation between the Maliki government and the Kurds over a number of issues such as security, oil and the division of powers in the region. This was followed by extensive Sunni activity against Al Maliki after his repeated targeting of Sunni political figures. This was a consequence of many accumulated issues between the Sunni political leaders and Al Maliki. The protestors have since demanded the release of female prisoners and an end to the policies of sectarian victimization and exclusion. Clearly, there is deep mistrust of Al Maliki. It is expected that Sunni Arab anger will come together with Kurdish fears to form a common front against the Maliki government. Then events will then take one of two courses; political or military. The political option may lead to an agreement and formation an Iraqi national unity government that would prepare the ground for free and fair elections. The second option is escalation and confrontation, which would ignite a bloody conflict along sectarian lines.  This would clear the way for regional intervention, increase polarization and escalate rivalry between the main players to fill the current strategic vacuum according to the vision of the various blocs.
 
Iran:

2013 is expected to be a critical year for Iran. It will have to face a number of obstacles -- its loss of the Syrian regime, the disorder brought on by Al Maliki's control of Iraq, the worsening economic crisis caused by the sanctions, and most of all the nuclear issue and risk of confrontation with Israel and the West, will altogether place Iran before grave regional and international options.
 
The safest option that Iran can consider is an acceptance of the changes brought about by the Arab Spring and deal with them positively through an Iranian-Turkish-Arab understanding; one that preserves the interests of all three nations and stems the rising tide of sectarianism. That would allow the parties to deal with Israel and the west in a manner that removes the spectre of war on Iran. The factor which would invite a military attack on Iran is the perception among western powers that Iran is embroiled regionally and that it is isolated from its environment. But it would be difficult to target Iran if the key countries in the region reached a strategic understanding with it.
 
So what are the prospects for a U.S.-Iranian deal? Theoretically, this is possible but difficult on a practical level. If Iran were to lose Syria, experience loss of influence in Iraq, stiffening economic sanctions amid a climate of tensions between itself and its Arab and Turkish neighbours, it will be faced with two choices regarding its conflict with the west. The first is to continue with its enrichment program, which puts it in the face of an inevitable confrontation with Israel and America. The other option is to pursue the path of direct dialogue with the Obama administration to secure a political deal. Iran is aware that the Obama administration is not enthusiastic about a military strike against it. Thus it would be delighted to have a non-military way out of the impasse. The new American secretary of state will pursue an understanding with Iran to achieve a major political breakthrough. The possibility of this would be enhanced after the next elections in Iran, especially if Ali Larijani assumes the presidency. John Kerry, it is believed, will view Larijani as a likely interlocutor.
 
However, U.S.-Iran negotiations will be difficult because they collide with fundamental difference relating to the dimensions of the required deal. America would like to limit it to the nuclear issue, while Iran would like a broader deal that includes in addition to the nuclear issue, matters relating to security guarantees for the Iranian regime and its international legitimacy, as well as American recognition of Iran's regional interests in Iraq and the Gulf. Then Iran would be able to sign a major deal that merits compromises on its nuclear programme. The achievement of such a deal seems remote in light of the current regional and international balance of forces.
 
Increasing Iranian-Turkish rivalry:

2012 witnessed an escalation in the political discourse between Turkey and Iran. This trend is expected to intensify in 2013 for two principal reasons. The first is regional; it is fuelled by events in Syria and Iraq. Both Iran and Turkey have divergent strategic interests in the two neighbouring countries. For Iran, the loss of the regime of Bashar al-Assad would be devastating and it will seek to compensate by strengthening its grip on Iraq by weakening Syria after the revolution so that it would not be able to build a stable state allied with its neighbours, Turkey and the Arab hinterland. The second reason is international. 2013 is likely to witness more American and European withdrawals from our region for economic and strategic considerations.  The U.S. will begin to focus on the containment of China and deploy much of its strategic capabilities in the Pacific Ocean; especially after the growth of tensions between China and Japan over the disputed islands.
 
The decline of western interest in the Middle East will create a strategic vacuum. As a result, regional states will have greater room to manoeuvre to fill the vacuum. Iran will view this as an opportunity to bolster its regional influence while continuing (at least for now) within the Russian-Chinese axis. This will provoke Turkey, which for many reasons, has deep concerns about the growth of Russian regional influence. Some of these are historic; others relate to the Russian-Turkish rivalry for influence in the Caucasus and the energy routes to Europe. Thus, western powers will continue to support the role of Turkey to compensate for its partial withdrawal from the region in order to challenge the Russia-China axis and stop its regional extension.
 
It is true that the links between the two big neighbours, Iran and Turkey, have deep demographic, social and economic roots. Thus the option of a direct confrontation between the two countries will be costly and unlikely. But competition between them will lead to a conflict by proxy forces. Both protagonists will use means ranging from financial and political support for the forces that agree with their approach and use hostile groups to carry out violent attacks on the other party. Here the role of parties such as the PKK will be heightened in the expected proxy war. With Iranian support, the PKK will intensify its operations against Turkey who will respond with support for groups opposed to the Iranian regime. They will draw the two countries into an escalated confrontation; though it is unlikely to reach the level of direct military conflict. Of course, this deterioration can be avoided if Iran were to recognise Turkish and Arab interests with the logic of genuine partnership and not strategic expansion at the expense of its neighbours.
 
Egypt:

The transition in Egypt is expected to continue, albeit with attendant political tension and economic turmoil. That will not lead to fundamental changes in the political makeup of the Egyptian reality. Hence, the Islamists are expected to maintain their presence in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, which will push the opposition to continue their attacks politically and in the media. On their part, the Islamists will try to put forward a compromise formula in order to reduce the current political polarization. However, the opposition will continue to reject such formula because they believe that attacking the Islamists and presidency politically will be more useful rather than entering into deals. This would be especially the case given the worsening financial crisis, which the opposition would use to attack the government and attract the sympathy of the worse affected sections of society. Ultimately, none of this is expected to drastically alter Egypt's political map during 2013.
 
The Arab Spring:

The transitional process would continue in the other Arab Spring countries -- Tunisia, Libya and Yemen -- while the political conflict and party rivalry intensify. Given the weakness of the democratic culture, lack of political experience and in the absence of consensual rules of political conduct among the various parties, a number of crises and disturbances will occur. Meanwhile, the various political trends will try to entrench their existence and exclude their rivals by every means possible. This will be temporary though, as all concerned will soon realise that the basis of democratic politics is to work with the other. This entails, therefore, restraining tendencies of political fantasy for partisan or ideological purposes and demonization of the other.
 
No doubt, the continuation of political strife will harm the prospects for economic recovery and development; a consequence that would increase the economic burden on the masses. Public pressure will, therefore, increase on the parties and political forces for dialogue and consensus. Accordingly, 2013 will probably witness the launch of intellectual and political initiatives aimed at finding political consensus that preserves party rivalry within the framework of agreed national interests.
 
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict:

On January 22, 2013 Israelis will go to the polls and it is expected that the incumbent Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his far-right allies will win a majority that would enable them to form the next government. Thus, the Israeli elections will reinforce right-wing politics in the country. Yet, pressure from U.S. and the west will push for the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians. Like their precursors, these would be nothing more than superficial negotiations and photo opportunities only to gain time.
 
On the Palestinian internal front, more serious negotiations under Egyptian auspices between Fatah and Hamas will be launched to implement some of the outstanding issues relating to reconciliation. But complete reconciliation between the two key factions is implausible because the dispute is essentially a political one. It is a profound difference and unless the two parties agree a common political vision, disagreement will remain closer than reconciliation.
 
This year, careful attention should be given to political developments within the various Palestinian factions. The issue of who would succeed Mahmoud Abbas will be present within Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. That would give rise to organizational alliances and new dynamics. As for Hamas, it is important we also monitor the results of the movement's next Consultative Council meeting. It would be interesting to see if Khaled Meshal will remain in the top leadership position,  or whether it is transferred to Moussa Abu Marzouq or Ismail Haniyeh.  In any case, whatever the outcome of the meeting, Hamas will witness internal organizational changes toward activating its structures and renewing its political vision. That, of course, is dictated by current circumstances, especially the spin-offs of the Arab Spring and the attendant alliances and new strategic axes.
 
Political Islam:

The Islamic political movements and foremost the Muslim Brotherhood are currently experiencing profound transition. That is because the political legacy of most of these movements was formed during the conduct of opposition activities. The ruling regimes targeted these movements for decades. That resulted in an organizational spirit aimed at purification of ranks and strengthening of identity in order to ensure fortitude and steadfastness in the face of attempts to uproot them. But the Arab Spring hastily brought the Islamic movements to power without a transition period or a review of their methodology and discourse. Thus the movements which found themselves governing without any tangible experience soon fell into errors. They will now begin a comprehensive review of their programmes and slogans, which would not be easy. Preoccupation with pressing immediate political events will prevail over attempts to reflect, appraise and audit. It is expected that the Islamic reality will give rise to individuals and groups who will assume this responsibility. This would trigger an ideological debate between the advocates of renewal and more conservative elements. Most likely, the advocates of renewal will be more acceptable given that the political and economic realities of the Arab Spring countries will push for greater openness and renewal.
 
Another noteworthy development is the evolution of the political discourse of the Salafist tendency and their involvement in politics. They, likewise, were denied the opportunity to acquire political experience or develop an appropriate discourse for political action. Like the Muslim Brotherhood, they found themselves having to meet the same urgent political demands. Perhaps the alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists in the recent Egyptian crisis will push for a Salafist political discourse that is substantively close to the vision of the Muslim Brotherhood but seemingly more conservative on the surface.