After a tumultuous 2018, the Middle East once again faces a host of geopolitical challenges that could develop into major crises in 2019. We asked four Middle East experts to take the temperature of the region and give us their take on the major flashpoints to watch this year.
- Robert S. Ford
Robert S. Ford
Keep a close eye on Israel-Iran-Syria, Idlib, and southern Iraq this year.
Syria’s war is winding down but chances for new, serious clashes remain. Most important regionally is the possibility of a clash between Israel on one side and Iran and Syria on the other. The Iranians and Syrians have so far carefully avoided too vigorous a response to Israel’s regular airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria. If Tehran changes its policy, either due to domestic considerations or because Israel crosses red lines in Lebanon or Syria, 2019 could yet see a larger, sustained exchange of missiles and airstrikes that would involve Iranians and Syrians as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon. Russia would try to contain such fighting but it would not be easy.
In northwestern Syria, Idlib Province is under the control of al-Qaeda-linked extremists. Russia and Turkey agreed that Russia and the Syrian government would not attack Idlib if Ankara ensured the disarmament or departure of the extremists. Instead, Ankara stood by as they consolidated their grip. Russian officials now warn that they may act if Turkey doesn’t. Turkey fears there will be a huge new surge of refugees toward their border if Idlib comes under attack. If the Russia and the Syrian government decide to attack, Idlib would be the scene of heavy new fighting.
In Iraq, Prime Minister Abdel Abdul-Mahdi lacks a parliamentary majority to secure confirmation of key security ministers in his cabinet. He can survive with stand-ins, but as summer approaches the Shi’a parliamentarians’ base in southern Iraq will again see temperatures soar and water supplies dwindle. If his government cannot improve provision of electricity and water, big new demonstrations in southern Iraq could provoke a government crisis in Baghdad. Already Abdul-Mahdi is competing against a bloc dominated by pro-Iranian militia leaders while Washington presses him to curtail commercial ties with Iran.
- Charles Lister
Watch out for an ISIS resurgence, Israel-Iran escalation, and an al-Qaeda attack.
One key flashpoint that will almost certainly rear its head in 2019 is the early stages of an ISIS recovery in the Levant. President Trump’s order to withdraw from Syria in the next several months augurs poorly for the durability of military gains against ISIS. While hurried attempts are being made by the U.S. to prevent a rapid and destabilizing filling of vacuums in Syria, they are unlikely to sustain themselves for long. Neither the transfer of territory liberated from ISIS into the hands of the Assad regime nor an aggressive Turkish entry into Kurdish-dominated areas of Syria’s northeast promises to ward off extremism. Out of any such scenario, a further re-ordering of local and regional power dynamics will soon follow, creating socio-political, intra-tribal, sectarian, and ethnic rifts – all of which will create the conditions for deeper instability and provide opportunities for the likes of ISIS to grow roots yet again. At this particular time, the announced U.S. withdrawal from Syria will be perceived as nothing less than a God-given gift by ISIS fighters still alive. ISIS has already demonstrated clear signs of recovery in Iraq in 2018, so 2019 is likely to herald the first signs of its ability to fight another day in Syria.
Another potential flashpoint is the possibility of further escalation between Israel and Iran. After a period of relative de-escalation in late 2018, the announced U.S. plan to leave Syria appears to have catalyzed a renewed intensification of Israeli activity over Syria. More dangerous still are the dynamics surrounding an apparent Iranian determination to enhance the existing missile capabilities of its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon. Should it continue, this Iranian strategy risks forcing Israel into an eventual response, which would almost certainly result in a catastrophic conflict that would far eclipse that seen in 2006. The so-called “balance of terror” has prevented this worst-case scenario until now, but it has arguably not faced as stern a test as it does today.
A third possible flashpoint is an attempt by al-Qaeda – or affiliated local actors who remain loyal to it – to conduct a major terrorist attack in the Middle East or the West. Over the past several years, ISIS has both surged and grabbed the global headlines. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda has chosen to lay low, but it has also suffered from internal divisions, public spats, and a deteriorating ability to communicate and coordinate at the highest levels. Given ISIS’s territorial losses; the U.S. withdrawal from Syria; and a widespread return to dictatorial rule across the region, conditions in 2019 are primed for al-Qaeda to try to grab back the reins of the global jihad. A sizeable terrorist attack would do just that, and present the counter-terrorism community with an even greater challenge.
- Ahmad Majidyar
Potential flashpoints include US-Iran, Afghanistan, and a wave of regional uprisings.
One flashpoint in 2019 is a potential military confrontation between Iran and the United States and its regional allies. Conventional wisdom suggests that neither Tehran nor Washington – nor US regional allies Saudi Arabia and Israel – wants an all-out military conflict. However, heightening tension increases the risk of miscalculations and overreactions that could lead to a conflict. With the return of U.S. sanctions hitting the Iranian economy hard, Tehran may retaliate asymmetrically against the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East. And if Iran decides to leave the nuclear deal and resume high-level enrichment, or takes other extreme measures such as attempting to shut down the Strait of Hormuz to disrupt the global oil supply, it could draw a U.S. military response.
Afghanistan is another possible flashpoint this year. A partial withdrawal of American troops would weaken the Afghan government, empower the Taliban, and undercut the prospect for a peaceful settlement to the war. The Afghan government will most likely survive but security in the country will deteriorate further. And if the Trump administration pulls out all American troops precipitously, the post-Taliban political system may collapse, triggering another deadly civil war and forcing millions of Afghans to seek refuge abroad.
This year may also see another wave of uprisings, anti-government protests, and possible armed insurgencies in different parts of the Middle East and the broader region, with unforeseen consequences. The Arab spring may have turned into an Arab winter, but all the underlying social, political, and economic drivers of the 2011 uprisings remain unaddressed. With the U.S. seemingly disengaging from the region once again, further instability could provide another opportunity for ISIS, al-Qaeda, and associated groups to regroup and relaunch a more decentralized, yet very deadly, insurgency, wreaking havoc on the region and threatening Western security.
- Marvin Weinbaum
Afghanistan, the Gulf, and Israel-Lebanon-Syria could all see major crises kick off.
A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan carries major domestic and regional consequences. Military disengagement could trigger the collapse of the Afghan security forces and pave the way for a still more bloody and chaotic civil war. Aside from creating space for terrorist groups to operate, a civil war will empower radical elements in nuclear-armed Pakistan, and provide a launch pad for Islamic radical groups to mount insurgencies in neighboring Central Asian countries. Regional tensions can be expected to intensify as Iran, Russia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and India pursue their separate interests in Afghanistan through armed proxies. A major humanitarian crisis is also likely to follow as millions of Afghans are dislocated internally or seek refuge in Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere. With the U.S. retaining strategic interests in curbing global terrorism and preventing nuclear proliferation, it could easily be drawn back into an increasingly destabilizing region.
A clash between Iranian and U.S forces in the Gulf could set off a far wider confrontation impacting much of the Middle East and beyond. With the U.S. military presence in the Gulf increasing and Iran conducting regular naval exercises, the risk of a serious incident, intended or not, is considerable. A clash, if not quickly contained, could lead to massive disruptions in global energy supplies with the closing of the Strait of Hormuz and the cutting off of energy exports from the Gulf region. Escalating conflict could encourage Israel, whether in collaboration with or independently of the U.S., to strike Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Iran would retaliate, most likely through its regional allies, with rocket attacks deep in Israel and against U.S. assets in the Gulf region. Major hostilities between the U.S. and Iran, with certain collateral damage, could enflame Arab public opinion, pressure Arab regimes to rally behind Iran, and poison U.S. relations with Muslim countries globally.
Developments along the Lebanese or Syrian border with Israel could trigger a full-scale military conflict with region-wide fallout. Despite the apparent current reluctance of Israel, Syria, and Hezbollah to have their on-going cross-border actions escalate, any number of incidents could spark a wider war. These could grow out of regular Israeli air sorties into Syria, continued Hezbollah arms buildup, or reactions to Israel’s construction of a wall along the Lebanese-Israeli border. Escalating conflict could lead to rocket attacks reaching deep into Israel and to an Israeli ground invasion aimed at punishing Hezbollah or crippling Iranian-backed militias in Syria. Wider hostilities may also be seen as an opportunity to stage uprisings by Palestinian militants and Hamas. A strong response by Israel may lead to occupation of territory and large-scale civilian casualties and could put pressure on Jordan and Egypt’s modus vivendi with Israel.
About This Series
"Up for Debate" is a special series featuring multiple viewpoints on important issues and questions in Middle East policy, featuring MEI scholars and other guest experts.