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All conflicts, all players

Much of the news reporting and analysis of the Middle East seems to lurch from one crisis to another on the basis of whatever crisis has the most visibility on a given day. Sometimes the focus is Yemen, other times it is ISIS, Assad, or terrorism outside the region. Most recently, it is the fact that Saudi Arabia has clashed with Iran.

As long as each crisis is seen individually, and in the context of the current headlines, that one crisis seems to dominate events. Moreover, once it is taken out of its historical context and the overall pattern of events, it somehow seems new and dramatic – rather than part of a much broader pattern that has taken decades to emerge. A context where one set of tensions and conflicts cannot be separated from another.

In reality, the Middle East, North Africa, and much of the Islamic world are caught up in an interlocking pattern of crises that has become steadily more serious over time, and that now seems almost certain to play out over at least the next decade. Tomorrow’s crisis and headlines – like today’s – will focus on a snapshot of one element of this pattern. However, it will be the overall pattern of events, and not the event of the day, that will dominate the region in 2016 and in the future.

The Broader and Enduring Challenges to Stability in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA): 1965-2050

The overall pattern of behaviour in the region is only partly driven by the kind of conflicts that now get most media and policy attention. Each state in the area has a different mix of civil problems and successes, but the overall pattern of events is driven by a mix of broad and enduring challenges in governance, demographics, economics, religion, and social change:



None of the events that have followed – the rise of ISIS/ISIL, the instability in Iraq that followed U.S. withdrawal, the Syrian civil war, and the civil war in Yemen – can be separated be separated from these problems or the inequalities in income distribution, corruption, and lack of opportunity for many in the middle class as well as the poor. As the UN’s Arab Development Reports, World Bank, and IMF warned repeatedly long before 2011,  they raised a serious risk of major political upheavals and created a situation where even the creation of dedicated and competent reform minded governments means that such governments face a decade of effort to correct the structural problems involved.

The Heritage of War and Violence through 2015

These pressures have been compounded by the cumulative impact of a long series of regional and civil conflicts, which precede the crises of the day by many years, and dominate far too much reporting and analysis.

It seems too easy for outside observers to forget that the tension between Iran and its Arab neighbors began with British withdrawal from East of Suez, the Shah’s claims to Bahrain, and his seizure of Abu Musa and the Tunbs in 1971, and that Iran has sought to influence or control the Shi’ite population in Arab states ever since the fall of the Shah in 1971. Indeed, it has sometimes supported violent opposition and other separatist movements. The alignment between Iran and Syria did not begin only in 2011, but rather, at the start of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980.

Even if one largely ignores the Arab-Israeli conflicts and their destabilizing impact on militarizing Arab states and shaping their economies around an arms race, the levels and types of violence that exist today have a long heritage that affects virtually every new or ongoing crisis and conflict. These sources of conflict include:


These patterns of violence interacted with the previous problems in governance, economics, and demographics. They helped lead to major upheavals in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen – although each state was affected by the causes of instability in different ways, and no MENA state was immune to serious domestic problems and challenges.

At the same time, these forces ensured that no upheaval took place in a state where those challenging the government had an organized political structure, practical experience in leadership or governance, any broad basis for functional democracy, and could replace repression with a stable form of governance.

The Challenges of 2016

The Saudi-Iranian crisis over the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and three other Shiites, taking place at the same time Saudi Arabia executed 43 Sunni terrorists — has begun 2016 with a sudden shift in media focus from the fighting against ISIS in Ramadi to a focus on Saudi-Iranian tensions. Once again, far too many reports act as if these tensions were a new crisis, and many reports are written in the context that Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was a peaceful voice of dissent in spite of his early ties to Iranian sponsored violent Shi’ite movements in Saudi Arabia, and calls by the Sheikh for Shi’ite separatism in the oil-rich Eastern province.

The Broader Crisis with Iran in Military Forces, the Gulf, and the Region

This crisis has far broader origins. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf states have been involved in a major arms race with Iran since the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, and in a confrontation with Iran over its support of Shi’ite movements and separatism since 1979.

There has been a continuing struggle over regional influence since the rise of an Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah after 1982, sharply exacerbated by the destruction of Iraqi forces in 2003. Other factors at play include Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, and Iran’s creation of asymmetric warfare forces in the Gulf that it has threatened to use to close the Strait of Hormuz.

This has led to over $100 billion worth of Arab Gulf arms orders that are now in the process of delivery, as well as to separate new Arab, Israeli, and U.S. programs for missile and rocket defenses. It has pushed Saudi Arabia into a major new program to modernize its Gulf fleet, as well as U.S. efforts to build up its naval presence in the Gulf and 5th fleet.

It also led Saudi Arabia to declare an Arab partnership in counterterrorism some two weeks before the executions, and an alliance that not only was directed against movements like ISIS and Al Qaeda, but indirectly addressed Iran. It followed on the fact that Saudi Arabia has never seen the nuclear agreement with Iran as leading to any broader pattern of regional stability, sees Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq as major threats, and sees Iran as also posing a threat in its Eastern Province and in Lebanon, Yemen, and Bahrain.

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states seem likely to try to avoid any actual military clashes, but the major arms race in the region, the struggle for regional influence, and the sectarian nature of this power struggle seem likely to lead to new incidents throughout the year, a steady build up in Iranian missile forces and developments, and drive Iran to seek advanced arms from Russia and China as part of what is almost certain to be an accelerating military build-up and power struggle in the Gulf, Levant, Iraq, and Syria.

A Broader Arab Focus on Assad, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen and the Failure of Peace Initiatives in Syria and Yemen

The coming year is almost certain to see a broader Arab focus on Syria, Iraq, and Yemen as major threats that are at least as important to the Arab Sunni states as the threat posed by ISIS and Al Qaeda. The U.S. and Europe may prioritize terrorism, but key Arab allies like Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE have clear national interests in pushing Assad from power and reducing or ending Iranian influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

This may well prevent any settlement in Syria that assumes that Assad and Iranian forces can stay, that the Arab rebels will compromise with Assad and focus on ISIS, and that the Arab states will not become far more proactive in trying to limit Iranian influence in Iraq or in the building up of Arab Sunni forces in Iraq.

Even if such a settlement appears to be reached, Arab strategic interests in blocking Iranian influence and ousting Assad for his attacks on Arab Sunnis seem likely to kill any settlement, or make it so unstable as to be little more than a political fiction. They also seem likely to place critical limits on any partnership between the United States and Europe, and the Arab Sunni states that try to ignore Arab strategic interests in dealing with Assad and Iran.

The most likely outcome is not a meaningful settlement, but a continuing crisis in Syria, and a steady polarization of that state along pro-Assad, Arab Sunni, and Kurdish lines, limited Arab support for the fight against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, and a growing level of Kurdish autonomy in both Syria and Iraq – backed in part by U.S. need to support the Kurds as a force that will actively oppose ISIS.

Grinding and Slow Progress Against ISIS and Al Qaeda

This, in turn, is almost certain to mean slow progress in the fight against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. The fight in Ramadi has shown that relatively small elements of the more elite Iraqi government ground forces can be effective against ISIS with massive U.S. air support. However, the United States has been remarkably silent about the overall level of improvement in Iraqi government forces and the extent to which the evolving Iraqi order of battle includes Sunnis and Kurds and is truly national in character.

The unity of Iraq remains at question, although there are reports that the Iraqi parliament may finally address the National Guard bill and efforts to create more effective Iraqi Sunni and Kurdish forces. Unless the Iraqi government can reach out to Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds far more effectively than in 2015, the defeat of ISIS may also become little more than a prelude to new sources of violence and divisions in the country and its steadily increasing de facto division into Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi’ite sectors, as well as internal struggles for power within each area that can cripple the Abadi government in Baghdad.

It is possible that the steady use of U.S. airpower can cripple the ISIS “caliphate,” but it is all too possible that ISIS will survive through 2016 while the primary conflict within Syria will remain one between the Assad regime, backed by Iran and Russia, and Arab rebels backed by the Arab states.

It also seems likely that any progress that is made against ISIS will lead ISIS to try to find new ways to attack targets in the United States and Europe, and broaden its influence in other parts of the MENA region. It seems equally likely that if ISIS is pushed toward actual defeat in terms of its control of its key population centers, it will find ways to disperse its fighters and continue its “caliphate” as a broader terrorist and extremist network. This may lead it to seek new alliances with Al Qaeda and movements like the Taliban, or it may lead to an attempt to replace them in new countries. It may also lead to the formation of new Islamist structures and threats.

Turkey and the “Kurdish Problem”

Erdogan’s power struggle to create a “presidency” that will dominate Turkish politics has led to the rebirth of Turkish fighting against the PKK and other Kurdish factions that challenge Turkish power. This seems likely to create a continuingly worsening level of tension on another front in Syria and Iraq.

Erdogan also seems likely to see U.S. support of the Syrian and Iraq Kurds against ISIS as empowering the Kurds against Turkey. This will interact with the fact that the Syrian Kurds now control much of the border area with Turkey and have a major ethnic identity for the first time, with mixed links to both the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey. They have supported the United States in dealing with ISIS, but have shown little interest in supporting Turkey or Arab factions in dealing with Assad, and have every reason to focus on securing their own identity and “zone,” rather than broadening their role.

The Iraqi Kurds have less and less reason to keep strong ties to the Iraqi central government. Instead, they are likely to benefit from separate training and aid from the United States, as well as Turkish aid, viewing Turkey as an important counterbalance to Baghdad, while having to deal with Turkish attacks on the PKK. They also have to deal with the fact that they have expanded their area of control in the east to include Kirkuk and its petroleum fields, and into Ninewa Province to the southwest. This may well mean an open confrontation with the Iraqi central government if ISIS is defeated, both over Kirkuk and in the area above and to the east of Mosul.

Like the sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shiite, the Kurdish issue creates an ethnic issue with Turkish dimensions that highlights the fact that ISIS is only one of the sources of crisis in Syria and Iraq – much less the region.

Yemen and the Red Sea

The war in Yemen is having mixed results at best. Airpower has weakened the Houthi and Saleh forces, but Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the other members of the Saudi-led coalition have shown only limited ability to occupy and secure space on the ground. They have not yet shown the ability to carry out the kind of stability operations that can lead to effective Yemeni governance and a functioning economy. Saudi Arabia also seems to have spent some $5.3 billion on the war in the last year – a major economic strain.

More broadly, Yemen is a failed state by every norm in terms of governance and economic development, has a growing problem in terms of internally displaced persons and migrants, and has no clear options for creating stability given its mix of problems with water, economic, and population pressures. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – and to some extent ISIS – seem to have gained from the fighting between the Saudi coalition and Houthis, and the tensions between northern and southern Yemen remain serious.

It is unclear that Iran will find any alternatives in the Red Sea area, but it is equally unclear that Saudi Arabia and the UAE can “win” the war in Yemen in any meaningful sense. The war may well become one more endemic conflict, and Islamist extremist movements in Yemen may well benefit from the tensions between Iran and the Sunni Arab states. In short, 2016 may well be as bad in Yemen as in Syria, Iraq, and the Gulf.

Egypt, the Sinai, Gaza, and the 3rd Intifada

It is not clear that 2016 will be any worse in Egypt, the Sinai, and the Gaza than in 2015. It is equally unclear that the situation will be better. The Sisi regime seems to have established a level of control that limits internal threats, but it does not seem to have succeeded in improving governance, economic development, or meeting popular needs. It is far from clear that this lack of progress will not raise the level of popular discontent during 2016, or that the level of violence will not increase in the Sinai. Repression is not a substitute for effective stability operations and efforts to win popular support.

More broadly, the rise in Israeli-Palestinian tension and violence seems likely to increase without any clear solutions, creating more problems in Gaza, Jerusalem, and the West Bank at a time when the Palestinian Authority seems to steadily be losing Palestinian support, and both Palestinian and Israeli perspectives continue to become increasingly polarized. There is also at least the possibility of new tensions between Israel and the Hezbollah-Iran alignment, as well as ISIS or other efforts to create a new front in Syria along the Golan.

Libya and Tunisia

The situation in Libya may move towards some kind of peace of exhaustion and agreement between the two key tribal factions in the west and east – if partly to deal with the threat posed by ISIS. Tunisia also has so far been able to cope with the extremist attacks and internal pressures it faces, and there is reason for hope – if not yet a basis for confidence.  Both countries do, however, remain “at risk” to say the least.


It is possible that Russia will reach some compromise over Syria, will not actually transfer key arms to Iran, and will not try to further expand its influence at the expense of the United States. It may also find its presence in Syria and ties to Iran are both costly and present more problems in dealing with the Arab Sunni states than they are worth. This is more unlikely than probable. There is still a serious risk that Russia will steadily increase its efforts to portray the United States as destabilizing the region through “color revolutions. Its tensions with Turkey since Turkey shot down a Russian fighter may lead it to keep trying to put pressure on Turkey as well.

The United States

The FY2016 defense and foreign aid budgets give the United States the resources to sustain its strategic partnership with the Arab Sunni states, sustain operations in Syria and Iraq, and maintain the security of Israel. At the same time, the U.S. focus on ISIS, and seeming willingness to deal with Assad, Iran, and Russia in Syria presents serious problems in terms of the priorities of the Arab states.

Iran has not shown any open or official interest in easing its broader tensions with the United States regardless of how the Iranian nuclear agreement proceeds. It also shows no signs of easing the arms race in the Gulf in the near term, or removing other security blocks the United States perceives from the Iranian side. It is also possible that a combination of easing UN, European, and U.S. sanctions may give Iran access to more advanced weaponry as well as the resources to sustain its efforts in Syria and expand them elsewhere in the region.

The Economic and Petroleum Wild Card in 2006

More generally, for all the U.S. talk of a strategy for the region, it has yet to demonstrate that it has a broader strategy for dealing with the recovery of Syria and Iraq if ISIS is defeated, or for helping regional states deal with their problems in governance, economics, and demographics – key underlying causes of instability, terrorism and violent extremism. This is critical in a year (and possibly years) where low oil and gas export prices may be a serious new source of instability.

Oil prices have dropped sharply since 2013, when OPEC earned some $824 billion in export revenues, and fell by another 35 percent in 2015 alone. From 2010 until mid-2014, world oil prices ranged around $110 a barrel from 2010 to mid-2014. They were some 50 percent of that total in June 2015, and prices dropped below $50 a barrel the first time since May 2009, and then to levels of as low as $38 a barrel. Some experts have even begun to talk of $20 oil.

OPEC revenues in 2016 could easily be as low as $313 billion in 2013 dollars, or roughly 38-40 percent of the 2013 level revenues. This is critical in exporting states where some 60-90 percent of government revenues come from oil exports, and the state sector dominates key aspects of the economy and job creation. This will have a critical impact on the budgets, military spending, job creation, and aid efforts of all of the major oil exporting states and major drops in earnings and aid to other states may well last to 2018 or beyond.

If there is “good news,” it may be that Iran will not achieve the kind of economic gains from the lifting of sanctions that will allow major increases in military spending and aid to states like Syria. The “bad news” is that it will create serious civil problems in Iran and affect both Arab exporting states and non-exporting Arab states that depend heavily on outside aid.

Saudi Arabia has already had to announce major limits to its budget, and increases in taxes and revenues. The Kingdom has saved funds in the past to help pay for cuts in export revenues, but it also has a long history of underestimating budget costs and it is now committed to major efforts to improve jobs, housing, education and medical services, as well as paying for major new arms purchases, and an ongoing war in Yemen.

The problems for Iraq are already critical. EIA estimates it earned some $87 billion in 2014 dollars in 2014. This compares with $214 billion for Saudi Arabia, and Iraq is a state involved in far more serious conflict, with far fewer sources of income.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.