2019 Forecast: Mideast

As has been the case for years already, the Mideast experienced a lot of geopolitical dynamism over the past 12 months that will shape the year to come. In any order of significance, the region saw the return of unilaterally imposed US sanctions on Iran; superficial but nevertheless promising progress being made on the Syrian and Yemeni peace processes; an exacerbation of the region-wide fault line between Turkey & Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia & Israel on the other; and the rise of Russia as a pivotal “balancing” force for maintaining stability. The influence that each of these developments will have on regional affairs in 2019 will now be explained.

Concerning Iran, the Islamic Republic might slide into pronounced socio-economic instability if the US doesn’t extend its previously granted waivers and the country’s international partners shy away from conducting business with it through alternative channels out of fear that America’s “secondary sanctions” will harm their enterprises. That said, Iran has extensive experience weathering the worst economic sanctions in the world and might not enter into a political crisis because of it. What observers should keep an eye on, however, is whether it’ll shift its strategic focus from West Asia to Central, Southern, and Eastern Asia in response to this pressure, possibly if it concludes that its influence in the Mashriq has climaxed and that a geopolitical rebalancing is urgently needed.

Such a strategic rethink might occur as part of the incipient peace process in Syria that was greatly boosted by the US’ planned withdrawal sometime in early 2019. Russia might “encourage” Damascus to request Iran’s dignified but “phased withdrawal” as a reciprocal measure sometime down the line, wagering that it’s preferable to having Israel recommence its airstrikes on IRGC and Hezbollah positions in the country. As for the northeast, it’s unclear whether it’ll fall under prolonged Turkish occupation or if Turkish-backed “rebel” groups will take control of it instead, but either way, a “decentralized” political solution is probably inevitable in some form or another at this point and that might make it more difficult for Iran to retain its military presence in the country.

Looking beyond the Levant and towards the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen also showed signs of crawling towards peace, albeit at a much slower pace than in Syria seeing as how the process there only just started at the end of 2018. As with the Arab Republic, however, a “decentralized” political solution might also be advanced in order to retain the sub-state regional sovereignty that South Yemen recently regained while also allowing the Houthis in North Yemen some degree of self-rule. This won’t affect Iran as much as it would Saudi Arabia, though, but the Kingdom might have exhausted its political will, military firepower, and financial resources and be ready for that sort of (possibly Russian-facilitated) compromise.

On the topic of Saudi Arabia, it and its unofficially but widely acknowledged Israeli ally aren’t just working in tandem to “contain” Iran anymore but also Turkey as well after each of them began to perceive of it as a major threat to their interests for different reasons. Riyadh is also in a rivalry with Doha, too, though Tel Aviv isn’t that involved in the GCC Cold War. In any case, a simplified breakdown of the region reveals that Saudi Arabia & Israel are more or less working together against Turkey and its Qatari ally in a Mideast-wide competition that stretches from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf and even the Red Sea when it comes to Sudan for example.

Faced with so much uncertainty, the Mideast might initially come off as the most unstable region in the world today, but the fact of the matter is that Russia’s “balancing” strategy has brought a semblance of stability where there’d otherwise be none. Moscow can’t manage the Mideast on its own, but what it can do and has been mildly successful in doing is to behave as a neutral broker in bringing different players together or at least acting as a bridge between them. This is the most assured constant in contemporary Mideast affairs and will prove pivotal in determining the outcome of the War on Syria – which is itself one of the most regionally transformative events in a generation – and perhaps also the other aforementioned issues that were discussed.

By Andrew Korybko
Source: Oriental Review

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