Note: Today is the third in a series of posts that detail Eurasia Group's Top Risks for 2013.
The Middle East will enter a new phase in 2013. Arab Spring will give way to Arab Summer, as the region faces a series of increasingly complicated overlapping conflicts. As Americans and Europeans resist deeper involvement, rivalries among Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey, competition for influence between Sunni and Shia, a lack of economic progress, and a resurgence of militant groups will each heighten tensions.
Syria remains the central arena of conflict, as Shia powers -- Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah -- on the one side, and Sunni states -- Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- on the other compete for leverage. Jihadists have also entered the fray, and turmoil has spilled across the country's borders into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq.
Emerging conflicts elsewhere are less obvious. Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco now have moderate Islamist governments. In Jordan and Kuwait, Islamist opposition groups threaten the governing dominance of secular administrations. But while the words and actions of mainstream parties like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia's Ennahda make headlines in the West, the more serious risk comes from militant organizations that threaten the ability of new leaders to govern and maintain security.
Fueling this trend is the reality that, across the region, new leaders are trying to consolidate power and build popularity at a time when complicated economic problems demand solutions that will make large numbers of people angry. New governments in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen will last only if they can deliver tangible economic progress for an increasingly frustrated and impatient public.
The risk that a Salafist or jihadist group can exploit these frustrations to seize power in 2013 is low, but groups like al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabab, and smaller affiliates continue to attract support and new followers by using resentments against local regimes to foster anger at America and the West.
But Iraq may become 2013's newest hotspot. Sunni-Shia tensions are growing, and none of Syria's neighbors is more vulnerable to the threats created inside that country by radical Wahhabi clerics, often with Saudi or Qatari support, now fueling the emergence of an increasingly radicalized and militarily experienced Salafist movement. The Kurdish regional government is becoming more aggressive in promoting its energy development agenda at Baghdad's expense, and Sunni-led violence inside the country might well encourage Iraq's Shia-led government to forge closer ties with Tehran, antagonizing the governments of Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The Obama administration wants to focus on domestic challenges and an ongoing foreign policy shift toward Asia. But regional rivalries are heating up, and Americans and Europeans will only add to the uncertainty by keeping their distance -- in hopes that they don't get burned.
On Wednesday, we'll profile Risk #4: Washington Politics.
By James Fallon and Ayham Kamel
On May 21, the Lebanese Armed Forces shot and killed prominent Sunni Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Wahed as his convoy passed through a checkpoint, triggering gun battles in Beirut's Tariq al Jdeideh neighborhood between two Sunni political parties, the anti-Syrian Future Movement and the pro-Syrian Arab Movement Party. The fighting followed clashes between Alawites and Sunnis in Tripoli in response to the arrest of Shadi al Mawlawi, a Sunni Salafist activist accused of aiding the Syrian opposition. Clearly, Syria's troubles have crossed the border into Lebanon.
In fact, Syria's turmoil is polarizing Lebanese factions and threatening the country's delicate political balance. Conflict in Syria has fallen largely along sectarian lines, and it is now fueling sectarian tension in Lebanon. The majority of protesters facing daily violence from the Syrian regime are Sunni, and this has driven moral and material support for their cause from Lebanon's mainly Sunni north. To avoid confrontation with his Sunni community, Prime Minister Najib Mikati has not actively interfered to stop such assistance, creating a perception that his government is at least tacitly complicit in supporting rebels.
Ironically, the one cross-sectarian institution in Lebanon that many consider capable and trustworthy -- the country's armed forces -- is a problematic tool for ending street violence between Lebanon's political parties. On the one hand, the sectarian diversity within the army gives it some level of credibility with all of Lebanon's various factions. In fact, in May 2008, when Hezbollah gunmen fought Sunni militias for control of mainly Sunni neighborhoods in west Beirut, the army helped defuse tensions on both sides -- greatly bolstering its credibility and national popularity. Yet, then as now, the army could not directly intervene to stop the bloodshed, because the sectarian fault lines that run through the country's politics and society are also apparent within its ranks. Prime Minister Najib Mikati knows that if he calls on them to engage directly, there's a risk that soldiers will join the various fights instead of breaking them up.
Recent unrest is exacerbating this fear. During clashes on May 21, Sunni gunmen directed their fire at the army. Following the checkpoint shooting, the army withdrew from some positions in the north, and several Sunni politicians called for a more permanent expulsion. The military's response was measured, but the rise of militant factions in northern Lebanon is making it much harder for the army to intervene in battles in which its soldiers may feel they have a stake. These conditions could be an indication that the army's tenuous role as super-sectarian arbiter is deteriorating among some Lebanese, particularly the Sunni population. As the Sunni-dominated northern region of Tripoli and its surroundings continue to serve as a logistical base for Syrian rebels, we'll probably see more of these clashes, and the government's ability to deploy forces without risking its credibility will definitely diminish.
Political instability is likely to rise in Lebanon as the Syria crisis worsens, and efforts better spent on the already difficult task of governing will be redirected toward buttressing the fragile balance necessary to maintain any government at all. Lebanon's political institutions have proven resilient in the face of serious challenges over the years, but that resilience is often the result of choosing to do nothing that might fan the country's flames.
Inaction may avoid making matters worse, but it does little to resolve the underlying causes of persistent instability in Lebanon.
James Fallon is an associate with Eurasia Group's Middle East practice. Ayham Kamel is an analyst in the firm's Middle East and North Africa practice.
By Hani Sabra
When James Fallon and I wrote about Lebanon last month, domestic tension was rising over the possibility that the international tribunal set up to prosecute the assassins of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri looked set to indict members of Hezbollah, Lebanon's most powerful military force. The tribunal hasn't issued indictments yet, but things have gotten a lot more complicated. As in the past, trouble in the region could fuel trouble inside Lebanon, but regional collaboration could help head off a political crisis inside the country.
For years, and especially after Hariri's assassination in February 2005, Saudi Arabia antagonized Syria, a key ally of the Saudis' primary regional rival Iran. Riyadh, along with Hariri's son Saad, now Lebanon's prime minister, blamed Damascus for Hariri's killing. Syria maintained its ties with Lebanon's opposition camp in general and Hezbollah in particular.
Relations between the Saudis and Syrians warmed in 2009 as the Saudis saw an opportunity to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, and Syria looked to expand its roster of contacts to ease its own isolation. Lebanon enjoyed a period of stability. To create some more breathing space at home, Saad Hariri worked to improve relations with Syria and (more or less) backed off claims that Damascus was responsible for his father's death. Domestic tensions lingered, but fears of an explosion of violence eased.
Now the Saudi-Syrian understanding appears to be fraying, raising the specter of turmoil again in Lebanon-especially with the tribunal's indictments expected soon. Riyadh may have overestimated Syria's willingness to try to block a bid by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki -- whom the Saudis view as too pro-Iran -- to keep his job following a close election. The Syrians appear disappointed that the Saudis haven't helped them torpedo the tribunal.
That could help explain why a Syrian court has indicted nearly three dozen people, including several Lebanese close to Hariri, on charges of providing false testimony in the assassination investigation -- a move that has provoked a rising tide of anxiety inside Lebanon.
Unless Riyadh and Damascus find a good reason to double down on better relations, Lebanon's domestic situation will deteriorate further. And if the Hariri tribunal issues indictments of Hezbollah members, Lebanon's opposition will probably withdraw its ministers from the government. The opposition has just 10 of 30 ministers, but it can easily persuade newfound friend and erstwhile Hariri ally Walid Jumblatt to withdraw one of his ministers, triggering a collapse of the government that could plunge Lebanon back into the state of sporadic violence and government paralysis that it suffered in 2007-2008.
In the less likely but more dangerous scenario, Hezbollah could respond to indictments as it acted in May 2008, when the group briefly seized control in Beirut. The group certainly has the firepower to take over the city to prove who has the real power in Lebanon.
The Saudis and Syrians could act to reduce the likelihood of these worst-case scenarios, but the point has been made yet again: Lebanon's stability largely depends on the calculations of other governments.
Hani Sabra is an analyst in Eurasia Group’s Middle East practice.
MAHMOUD ZAYAT/AFP/Getty Images
By Hani Sabra and James Fallon
There is no shortage of theories on why Saad Hariri has abruptly retracted his accusation that Syria was "involved" in the 2005 assassination of his father. Some say that Syrian or Iranian threats forced the about-face. Others say the Lebanese premier must have finally realized last week that Syria is truly innocent -- and that someone else is the guilty party.
Neither scenario sounds plausible. Hariri probably still believes that "Syria" was involved, but he has chosen between competing priorities that have become increasingly impossible to pursue simultaneously: the drive to find his father's killers and the need to govern Lebanon.
Several factors likely went into his decision. Hariri's anti-Syria position no longer enjoys solid international backing, and domestic problems are becoming harder to solve without removing this elephant from the room. Saudi Arabia wants to "break the Iran axis," and is courting Syria to further isolate Tehran. Important players in Lebanon's stability, the Saudis need Hariri to give Damascus some breathing room.
In addition, Saad Hariri can't govern Lebanon by himself. His anti-Syria March 14 coalition is shrinking, and his influence with other key players has waned, particularly since Druze leader Walid Jumblatt made an early exit following parliamentary elections in June 2009. Most important is the calculation involving Hizbullah, Syria's most important ally in Lebanon. Beyond easing pressure on Syria, Hariri is also undermining the ongoing work of the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which may well indict members of Hizbullah in the murder in the not-too-distant future. The retraction should ease some of the frictions between his government and the country's most powerful political force.
Consensus is always necessary to govern in Lebanon, but now it is becoming increasingly impossible for Saad to even remain premier without dropping the issue of his father. Hariri may also see this as a chance to reduce the likelihood of Sunni-Shia conflict inside his country, and to move Lebanon out of its protracted political stalemate.
But there's one other issue. Look closely at what Hariri actually said. Many of his supporters are left bewildered by his reversal, but these were his words:
"I have opened a new page in relations with Syria since the formation of the government ... One must be realistic in this relationship and build it on solid foundations. One should also assess the past years, so as not to repeat previous mistakes. Hence, we conducted an assessment of errors committed on our behalf with Syria, and I felt for the Syrian people, and the relationship between the two countries, we must always look to the interests of both peoples, both countries and their relationship. At a certain stage, we made mistakes. We accused Syria of assassinating the martyred premier, and this was a political accusation."
He never said "Syria didn't do it," and he made no mention of Hizbullah. He's stepping away from an accusation that has made life more difficult. He's allowing himself to appear above the political fray without sacrificing his credibility completely with his anti-Syrian, anti-Hizbullah political base before the tribunal finally issues indictments against Hizbullah operatives -- which it may do soon.
Hani Sabra and James Fallon are analysts in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice.
By Hani Sabra and Willis Sparks
In many ways, Lebanon has recovered from the devastation of Israel's war with Hezbollah in 2006. And the country's recent political stability has held up nicely despite the turbulence of recent years. A record number of tourists have arrived this year.
But the possibility that a U.N.-sponsored tribunal will indict Hezbollah members later this year for the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri threatens to shake things up. In a speech last week, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah predicted the tribunal would target members of his organization, rejected the tribunal's legitimacy, and accused the March 14 movement led by Hariri's son and political successor Saad of blaming Syria and Hezbollah for the murder simply to win broader political support. He also accused March 14 of fomenting sectarian tension.
The speech was a power play. Nasrallah called on March 14 leaders to make amends for offenses against Syria, Hezbollah, and the opposition and to help Lebanon enter a new phase of political harmony by pressuring the U.N. tribunal to halt its investigation.
Given its weakened political position, March 14 will probably accept some of Nasrallah's demands. Hariri can't allow his Sunni base to believe he is willing to see his father's murder go completely unpunished, but he doesn't want to push Hezbollah hard enough to send the country spiraling toward violence for which he might be blamed. Nasrallah is in a tough spot too. He knows an indictment is likely and wants to keep his political base happy by launching a pre-emptive strike on its findings.
In years past, Lebanese politics at a similar simmer would have quickly boiled over, but erstwhile adversaries and regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Syria are working together this time to keep things cool. They can't afford to see Lebanon descend into violence again either.
Can the current standoff be resolved without a credible resolution to Rafiq Hariri's murder? More to the point, can the country's political stability withstand the tribunal's ongoing investigation? No one has faced justice, raising still more questions about the Lebanese government's commitment to rule of law. Saad Hariri wants justice, but is unwilling to push the country over the edge. Nasrallah says he's committed to finding the truth -- so long as truth doesn't implicate Syria or Hezbollah.
MAHMOUD ZAYAT/AFP/Getty Images
For the sixth time in less than four years, the U.N. Security Council has voted to impose new sanctions on Iran in connection with its nuclear program. Nothing new there. U.S. officials wanted stronger measures, but the Chinese in particular pushed back hard. Nothing new there either. The sanctions, which are still significantly tougher than earlier models and include tightened restrictions on arms sales, new headaches for Iranian shipping, and an assault on the finances of the Revolutionary Guard and about 40 Iranian companies, will not persuade Iran's government to renounce its nuclear ambitions. Nor is there anything new there.
The real news is that Turkey and Brazil voted no. That's a diplomatic coup for Tehran, which in five previous UNSC votes had won virtually no support. Qatar voted no on the first round of sanctions in July 2006. Indonesia abstained on the fourth round in March 2008. Support from regional heavyweights like Turkey and Brazil (and an abstention from Lebanon) give Iran something tangible to build on as its embattled government works to ease its isolation and to persuade other governments to resist U.S. and European calls for further sanctions outside the U.N. process.
President Ahmadinejad's recent dance card-a Russia/Turkey summit on security just before the sanctions vote and a trip to Beijing just after-illustrates the value of that strategy.
But there's a larger point here about the current state of international politics. It's getting harder for Washington to exercise international leadership. With 10 percent unemployment, an ambitious legislative agenda, an oil spill, and mid-term elections to worry about, President Obama has limited time and energy to invest in grand strategy on foreign policy. Managing geopolitical risk has also become much more complicated in a world that has shifted from a G7 model of international leadership to a G20 model that brings countries like Brazil and Turkey to the international bargaining table. And there is no emerging power willing and able to fill the gap left by new limits on American power and resources, because European powers, China, Russia and others who might lead on key transnational issues are likewise occupied with complex challenges at home.
In other words, no one is really steering this ship, and we can't expect it to sail smoothly through troubled waters.
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?
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