By James Sorene
Middle East states are consumed by violent conflict and its people are suffering on a horrific scale. There are unprecedented refugee flows into Europe and a simmering cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But amidst the despair there are ten intriguing developments that could shape the region’s future and demand further analysis.
1. Monarchies are the great survivors. Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have found a way to maintain their legitimacy and even thrive in the current turmoil.
2. Allegiance to sect is as strong as it has ever been.
3. The nuclear deal with Iran means that it can’t produce a nuclear weapon for 10 years. Its forces are tied up in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. Despite extensive resources sent to fight with President Assad, Iran was not able to decisively rescue the regime. Iran’s failure in Syria demonstrated the limits of its military resources. It was only when Russian forces arrived that the war turned in the regime’s favour.
4. ISIS still controls territory in Iraq and Syria but it is losing ground, it has less money from oil sales, foreign fighters are volunteering in fewer numbers and its aura of invincibility and its momentum have diminished. Its military capability is not actually one of its strengths. The US and its allies has stepped up their aircraft and drone attacks and starting to make a real impact.
5. Israel’s borders are quiet. It has maintained effective deterrence against non-state actors who have previously sought to attack, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Hamas exchanged fire with the IDF recently but it was the first time this has happened in two years. Hezbollah is bogged down in Syria and losing fighters every day. It hasn’t engaged Israeli forces in combat for 10 years. Its response to alleged Israeli attacks on its leaders and destruction of its arms shipments has been met with carefully calibrated and very limited retaliation.
6. The latest outbreak of Palestinian violence has resulted in 34 Israeli deaths and nearly 500 wounded. But the rate of attacks has decreased significantly. Cooperation between the Israeli army and the Palestinian security forces has remained strong and they have carried out 40% of the total arrests of terrorist suspects. Despite the predictions, a widespread uprising, or third intifada, has not broken out in the West Bank. Palestinian security officers have displayed a high level of operational capability, a result of the intensive training and investment by the US and UK.
7. The regional turmoil has drawn Israel and some Sunni Arab states into an unexpected embrace. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, Egypt and Israel all fear Iran, worry about US inaction and share a common threat from Jihadi terrorism. Their security and military ties are closer than ever and this could build momentum towards a wider regional peace deal involving an agreement with the Palestinians. This is a big leap, but the Arab states can provide a more supportive environment for the Palestinians to agree concessions. For an Israeli leader, concessions to the Palestinians are an easier sell back home if they come with major breakthroughs in the wider Arab world.
8. Fallen dictators have left behind brittle republics with no functioning civil society. The demise of brutally oppressive regimes has exposed deep fissures beneath, as historically side-lined groups seek to right historical wrongs.
9. Non-state actors pose the greatest threat and present the most complex challenges in terms of how to combat them. Hamas could destroy the Palestinian Authority, Hezbollah could yet destroy Lebanon and ISIS has played a key part in fracturing Syria and Iraq. Asymmetric warfare against these groups poses difficult ethical and military dilemmas for Israel and the West and there are genuine questions about whether you can really beat them.
10. Ungoverned spaces have become epicentres of instability – weak central Governments with limited authority over their territory have provided the greatest gift to non-state actors who thrive in vast swathes of land where law and order doesn’t exist. These ungoverned spaces in Libya, Iraq, Syria and Sinai need to be properly governed when, and if, ISIS and others are defeated. If they are not, then other groups will merely step in and take their place.
James Sorene is CEO of BICOM