10 Geopolitical Factors For The Near Future
BMI View: The geopolitics of the Middle East is in a state of flux. The civil war in Syria has become a proxy war between Sunni countries Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, and Shi'a Iran, and this sectarian division will affect other countries in the region. The fall of Syria's Assad regime would be a major blow to Iran's influence, but no country is likely to emerge as the dominant power in the Middle East. This means that the US is likely to remain a balancer in the region.
The geopolitics of the Middle East is in a state of flux, as Syria's civil war intensifies and the region adjusts to the post-Arab Spring transitions. Below, we identify the most salient factors to consider over the coming years.
Sunni-Shi'a divisions to worsen: The Middle East is becoming increasingly divided into two rival camps: The Sunni world, led by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, and the Shi'a world, led by Iran. This sectarian faultine is currently most visible in Syria, where Ankara, Riyadh, and Doha are backing the mainly Sunni rebels (Sunnis make up around 75% of Syria's population) fighting against the Alawite regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The Alawites are a Shi'a sect, and the Assad regime is supported by Tehran.
The Sunni-Shi'a rivalry is evident elsewhere in the region. The political unrest in Bahrain is largely sectarian, with the Shi'a majority chafing at their lower socio-economic status vis-à-vis the Sunni elite. Perceptions that Iran was fomenting Shi'a unrest in Bahrain prompted Saudi Arabia to send troops there in 2011. Meanwhile, Riyadh fears that Tehran is also instigating Shi'a unrest in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. Elsewhere, the democratisation of Iraq has empowered the Shi'as, bringing the country closer to Iran, but the once-dominant Sunni minority still resents its loss of influence, and sectarian tensions linger. Lebanon, too, remains riddled with sectarian divisions. These animosities are unlikely to dissipate in the near term.
Assad's fall and sanctions would weaken Iran's influence: Iran's power in the Middle East rose after the fall of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. Prior to that, Iraq served as a long-term counterweight to Iran, maintaining equilibrium of sorts. However, the subsequent empowerment of Shi'as has allowed Iraq to emerge as a de facto Iranian ally. Syria under the Alawite regime of President Assad is arguably Iran's longest-standing ally in the Middle East. If it were to collapse, as seems highly likely, this would break the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah anti-Western 'axis', which is also Israel's main external threat. This 'axis' allows Iran to project power towards the Mediterranean via a Shi'a 'corridor'. Tehran could still retain influence in the Levant through proxy groups in a post-Assad Syria, but its position would be weakened significantly. Syria's next rulers are likely to be Sunni and highly resentful of Iran's long-standing support of the Assads, suggesting that Damascus will be hostile towards Tehran.
Over the longer term, the weakening of the Iranian economy under international sanctions designed to halt or slow Tehran's nuclear programme will further reduce Iran's regional influence. Furthermore, if Israel or the US attacks Iran's nuclear facilities, Tehran would largely remain isolated. It is difficult to see Iran break out of its seclusion in the absence of a dramatic change in foreign policy (which would need to be preceded by domestic political change).
Even if Iran were to develop its own nuclear weapons, it is not clear that this would make Tehran all powerful. Israel is believed to have scores of nuclear weapons with which to deter Iran, and the US would almost certainly provide a 'nuclear umbrella' to virtually every country in the Middle East.
The Sunni bloc is far from united: Although Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar share a common goal in supporting the overthrow of Syria's regime, they are far from united, ideologically or geopolitically. Turkey is a moderate Islamist democracy, whereas Saudi Arabia is an ultra-conservative Wahhabi Muslim Kingdom ruled by an absolute monarchy. Qatar, too, is a conservative monarchy. Turkey would presumably favour Syria becoming a democracy in its own image, whereas it is unclear whether Saudi Arabia and Qatar support this. Turkey is meanwhile seeking to become a major power in the Middle East, but this poses a challenge to Saudi Arabia, which also covets such a role.
Turkey faces major limitations in becoming a regional superpower: The civil war in Syria has demonstrated the limits of Turkey's power. Turkey under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist AKP party has been diversifying its foreign policy away from Europe and the West in favour of establishing closer ties with Russia, China, and Middle Eastern countries. Ankara is seeking to revive Turkish influence in countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire, while pursuing a 'zero problems with neighbours' policy. However, events in Syria have exposed Turkey's weaknesses.
Back in 1998, the threat of a Turkish invasion was sufficient to prompt Syria to expel Turkey's Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan from its territory. However, even in its weakened state in 2012, Syria does not appear to fear Turkish military action, as evidenced by Damascus' shooting down of a Turkish reconnaissance jet in June. Although Turkey has the second-largest armed forces in NATO and the biggest military in the Middle East, it is extremely reluctant to intervene in Syria. This is because Turkey could find itself drawn into a long and costly war, perhaps similar to the US experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. This would increase security risks for Turkey and prove a huge drain on the government's finances.
Syria's civil war has also destroyed Turkey's 'zero problems with neighbours' policy. Previously, Erdogan and Assad enjoyed good relations, but now the former wishes to see the latter overthrown. Meanwhile, the weakening of the Syrian regime has empowered Kurds in northern Syria, raising the possibility that they could develop their own quasi-independent state, similar to the Kurdish Regional Government of northern Iraq. Ankara's fear is that this would embolden Kurdish separatism in south-eastern Turkey, where it has waged a counter-insurgency since the early 1980s. The Syria conflict has also put Turkey and Iran on opposite sides, whereas prior to the war, Ankara and Tehran had more amicable relations.
Iraq will remain a troubled country: Although Iraq has largely faded from the attention of the Western media, and although it has democratised substantially since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, it remains a high-risk country. Terrorist attacks in which dozens of people are killed remain a frequent occurrence, and sectarian tensions remain high. The civil war in Syria has raised concerns that a Sunni takeover would encourage Iraq's disenfranchised Sunni minority to take up arms against the Baghdad government. Thus, a major risk for the region is twin civil wars in Syria and Iraq.
Egypt could become more assertive: Although Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world and its traditional cultural hub, the country seldom exerted much influence in the region under the presidency of Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011). Rather, Egypt became a champion of the status quo. This could change under new Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Although Cairo's political and military elites are likely to focus on the domestic political transition in the near term, a consolidation of power by the MB could prompt Egypt to become more assertive. This could lead to a tougher stance towards Israel over its treatment of Palestinians, a cooling of relations with the US, and a more activist position on issues affecting the wider Middle East.
Israel could become increasingly isolated: Recent changes in the Middle East do not appear to favour Israel. The rise of the MB in Egypt has raised Israeli concerns about the durability of their bilateral peace treaty (in place since 1979), the security of the Sinai Peninsula, and the Palestinian issue. (On that front, we do not expect to see any breakthrough in the foreseeable future.) Meanwhile, Israel's relations with Turkey - until recently its closest ally in the region - have cooled significantly, and could worsen if they cannot reach agreement on the development of oil and gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel is cooperating with Turkey's rival Cyprus in offshore energy projects, much to Ankara's displeasure. Going forward, even if the collapse of the Assad regime breaks the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah axis, Israel would be concerned that a Sunni regime in Damascus would be equally hostile towards the Jewish state.
Saudi Arabia's stability cannot be taken for granted: Saudi Arabia was able to avoid Arab Spring-style protests by increasing economic incentives to the public, thanks to its massive oil wealth. However, we do not believe that the Kingdom will be able to head off political change indefinitely. Saudi Arabia has several of the social and demographic characteristics of Arab Spring states, and faces a highly uncertain transition of power from a septuagenarian and octogenarian generation of leaders to a younger and inexperienced cohort. It remains to be seen whether the monarchy can liberalise the country in an orderly manner or face a popular uprising calling for more dramatic change. Either way, owing to Saudi Arabia's vast oil resources and centrality in the Middle East, its future will be watched extremely closely.
Al-Qaeda has lost momentum, but could still cause trouble: One of al-Qaeda's key goals was to instigate revolutions in the Middle East, bringing to power radical Islamist governments. The Arab Spring showed that citizens favoured democratic governments rather than radical ones, and the largely self-organised protests demonstrated the irrelevance of al-Qaeda as a political force. Although Islamist parties have made gains across the region following elections, they are largely conservative rather than radical. None of the new governments in the Middle East are adopting Iran-style rhetoric or foreign policies, let alone supporting terrorism.
In addition, al-Qaeda has suffered from the loss of key leaders such as Osama bin Laden and Abu Yahya al Libi at US hands. In any case, al-Qaeda is less of a centralised organisation nowadays, with operational control largely devolved to regional franchises. These can still cause trouble in the form of terrorist attacks. Certainly, Islamist militants can take advantage of security vacuums in quasi-collapsed states such as Syria and Yemen to train, arm, and carry out strikes. However, their raison d'etre beyond purely causing destruction or disruption is increasingly in doubt.
The US will remain engaged in the Middle East, despite 'energy independence' and the 'pivot towards Asia': Recent speculation that the US can achieve energy independence as a result of developing unconventional oil and gas resources in North America, combined with Washington's publicly stated intention to focus more on the Asia-Pacific region have prompted suggestions that the US will gradually disengage from the Middle East. We believe this is unlikely in the foreseeable future. Firstly, US involvement in the region is designed to guarantee the flow of global oil supplies, and no other country has the means to do this. Secondly, the strength of the Israeli lobby in American politics means that there will always be a need for at least some US involvement in the Middle East, to counter threats against Israel. Thirdly, the US presence in the Middle East is deemed necessary to maintain a balance of power there. Without it, risks of a conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia or between Iran and Turkey could rise significantly.
For the foreseeable future, we do not envisage any other Great Power being capable of replacing the US as the Middle East's main external power. Russia's closest ally in the region is the Assad regime, which is unlikely to survive. Meanwhile, although China's dependency on Middle Eastern oil is likely to increase, the People's Republic has no military presence in the region to underpin its economic interests, and cannot quickly supplant the military, economic, and educational ties developed between Arab and American elites over many decades.