Produced in consultation with British, American and Israeli experts, BICOM’s fourth annual Middle East forecast examines the emerging trends and major events for the year ahead.
Key predictions include:
ISIS will re-emerge as an insurgent force in Syria and Iraq in 2019. With nearly 30,000 fighters working to re-establish durable support zones, raising funds and rebuilding command-and-control centres.
Iran will equip Hezbollah’s missile arsenal with precision guidance systems. This work is reported to be taking place in underground weapons factories. Israel has prevented Iran doing this in Syria with air strikes; it is significantly harder to do this in Lebanon.
The Idlib demilitarised zone faces a high risk of collapse into conflict. Idlib’s population of 3.5m is 10 times that of east Aleppo. An assault on Idlib could send more than 250,000 Syrians refugees over the Turkish border. Use of chemical weapons by the regime will likely result in airstrikes by the US, France and the UK.
Iran won’t leave the JCPOA nuclear deal or negotiate with the US, Instead it will try and wait out the Trump administration. Iran’s economy will weaken under US sanctions; investment and oil sales will plummet and European investment will diminish.
Israeli elections will take place in May or June. Current polls put PM Netanyahu’s Likud party ahead but a decision by the Attorney-General to indict Netanyahu for bribery could impair his ability to form a coalition and transform Israeli politics. The US plan for Israeli-Palestinian talks won’t be published until after the election and could be delayed indefinitely.
Other key points in the paper include:
Iran won’t leave Syria. It currently deploys 3,000 personnel, mainly from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has established a local Syrian militia – the National Defence Force – and Iranian companies have won civilian infrastructure contracts in Syria. The US will keep its forces in Syria to block any further Iranian expansion.
Western Iraq will become a new front in Iran’s war against Israel. Iran is supplying ballistic missiles to Shia proxies to strike Israel. If Iran continues to use Iraq in this way, there may be more Israeli strikes there in 2019.
Saudi Arabia – The Saudi Crown Prince’s modernisation agenda and his purported role in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been severely diminished by the Khashoggi murder. To balance against Western pressure, Saudi Arabia may seek closer ties with Russia.
Israel-Palestinians – Israel and Hamas will avoid another war, but further cycles of violence are likely. It will be very hard to implement all the stages of a stabilisation agreement which include a ceasefire, the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) return to Gaza following Fatah-Hamas reconciliation.
There is a real threat of increased violence and instability in the West Bank, despite close security coordination between Israel and the PA. In 2018 there was a substantial increase in terrorist attacks and attempted attacks. In 2018, 250 Hamas cells were arrested compared to 148 in 2017. In 2018, 530 attacks (including kidnappings, suicide bombings, shooting attacks) were prevented, compared to 400 in 2017.