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 Ayham Kamel
During their fight for the White House, President Obama and Governor Romney made clear they do not believe Syria poses a substantial enough threat beyond its borders to require direct foreign intervention on the ground. Take a closer look. Even if intervention is not a realistic option just yet, it's hard not to notice that Syria's problems have become its leading export.
Syria bloody struggle continues with no end in sight. The international community is paralyzed; it can neither live with an Assad regime that commits daily atrocities nor afford a risky intervention in an already unstable Middle East. To add fuel to the already raging fire, Jihadists are increasingly interested in hijacking the Arab Spring.
This problem is now redefining the rocky relationship between Jihadists, who once focused mainly on global goals, and Salafists who focused on a local agenda. Especially after the killing of Osama bin Laden, Jihadists have shifted their priorities and gone local, as well, working side-by-side with Salafist allies. Ayman al Zawahiri's call for Jihad in Syria highlights this trend. While the struggle against the West remains a long-term goal, Jihadists are focusing on regaining alternative bases. That's why so many foreign fighters -- though clearly not a majority of rebels -- have joined opposition ranks to fight the Assad regime.
Syria is now the crown jewel for Jihadists. It provides access into Europe through Turkey, a border with Israel, a launch site for a new insurgency in Iraq, and easier access to Salafists in Jordan and Lebanon. The opportunity to find a new recruitment hub is also invaluable: The two movements have always been ideologically close and many Jihadists are exploiting that relationship to boost their ranks.
The ripple effects of this conflict are evident across the region. In Lebanon, the assassination last month of General Wissam al Hassan, head of the intelligence division of domestic security forces, will probably undermine an already shaky security environment in that country. Northern Lebanon has effectively become a zone of instability. Salafist groups, among others, have claimed a share of the money headed for Syrian rebels, joining a battle that is both morally required and financially supported.
Jordan is beginning to experience the contagion. Recently, the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate (GID) uncovered a plot by a Salafist terrorist cell. The group acquired weapons and arms from Syria and crossed into Jordan to carry out operations against civilian targets. Both Salafists and Jihadists in Jordan are beginning to view instability in Syria as an opportunity to expand their networks and improve their capacity to carry out attacks. Jihadist forces in Syria, which are currently fighting the regime, have broader goals. As the Assad government grows weaker these groups may be willing to support their allies elsewhere, including in Jordan. While the Jordanian security services have a significant intelligence and operations capacity, it will become increasingly difficult to monitor events across the Syrian border. More importantly, while the GID was able to preempt the most recent terror attacks, their success in the future can never be guaranteed.
Iraq, whose long border with Syria has always been porous, faces growing risk of cross-border militancy. In recent years, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has built a loyal army that succeeded in containing a Sunni insurgency. But he is now right to worry that Sunni forces in Syria are encouraging and supporting their counterparts inside Iraq. Maliki, who initially supported Assad, had feared that a new Sunni government would become a hostile neighbor to Shia Iraq. But he now appears more concerned with Jihadist and Salafist groups. Cooperation between Jihadis across the border and potential flow of new fighters into Iraq are especially problematic for Iraqi stability. While violence is now concentrated in areas that are not core to oil production, the situation could change if Sunnis succeed at mounting a more robust insurgency.
Soon, Americans may again be hearing about a fight with insurgents for control of Iraq.
Ayham Kamel is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice.
PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images
By Ayham Kamel
Iranian leaders believe more and more that Western and Arab involvement in the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al Assad is designed to weaken the Islamic Republic. Tehran feels threatened by the so-called Sunni Triangle's (Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia) support for Syrian rebels, which Iran views as a complement to sanctions that aim to limit its regional influence and prestige. The United States's alliance with these countries makes it more difficult to resolve any disagreements over Syria. In this context, Iran finds supporting Assad -- at least in the near term -- as the best worst option. This policy isn't new, but the parameters of what Tehran is willing to provide have expanded.
The audacious bombing of the National Security Council in Damascus on 18 July probably represented a watershed moment in Iranian thinking about the uprising in Syria. The "nuclear" option, dispatching units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to assist Assad's weakened forces, is very unlikely -- it would likely trigger a so-called Chapter 7 UN resolution authorizing Western military intervention or provide enough impetus to inspire a coalition of the willing. But Tehran, now more than ever, is willing to do more to help Syria's embattled president.
First, the Iranian regime is likely to divert perhaps tens of millions of euros to help Assad counteract the flight of foreign reserves. It views support of Assad as important enough to justify the diversion of scarce reserves despite the increasing domestic economic pain caused by international sanctions. Second, Iran is likely to boost its provisions of arms and intelligence to the Assad regime. It has so far been reluctant to provide a large amount of support out of fear that doing so would play into the Syrian opposition's efforts to divide the regime's base on sectarian grounds. As the threat to the Assad regime has grown, that calculus has changed. Finally, Hezbollah forces have a great deal of fighting experience that would be valuable to Assad. However, the regime will likely dispatch them in a covert manner to avoid destabilizing the Lebanese government.
Iran, for now, may have an unrealistic view of Assad's chances of staying in power, and of its own ability to influence the outcome. It is likely that Iran will eventually reduce or eliminate its assistance to Assad as the latter's position grows increasingly untenable. Biting sanctions, declining oil revenues, rampant inflation, and dwindling foreign reserves will force Iran to focus internally. In the long run, the Islamic Republic will not be able to afford supporting a sinking Syrian regime either financially or diplomatically.
Ayham Kamel is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice.
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 Ayham Kamel
It may be tempting to view the plethora of recent gatherings -- the Arab League summit, the U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council Strategic Cooperation Forum, and the Friends of Syria conference -- as evidence that the global community is getting more serious about addressing the violence in Syria. But the summits really just exposed the rifts among the relevant players that will prevent a viable and coordinated response. Syrian President Bashar al Assad, in turn, will profit from the lack of coherence; he will only nominally entertain Kofi Annan's peace plan as he maintains his grip on power, and the bloodshed will worsen.
International powers remain hesitant regarding any form of direct intervention. They considered initiatives calling for buffer or humanitarian zones, but ultimately no country seems prepared to act. Key powers appear to be pursuing their distinct policies, with only a hint of coordination.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar will provide extensive support -- including arms -- to the Syrian opposition, but are unlikely to supply the heavy arms that would lead to an immediate change in the balance of power. Heavy arms are more difficult to smuggle and training rebels would be much more challenging than during the Libyan conflict. Moreover, the escalation could provoke an un-calculated response from Assad's military. While their interests differ, the two powers see Assad's survival as a threat to their influence. Riyadh's purpose is to limit Iran's regional influence. Meanwhile, Doha has invested significant diplomatic and political capital in the struggle against Assad and any failure to deliver would represent a tangible setback to its prestige. Behind the armament policy is also a deep concern that if Assad regains control, Damascus and Tehran would aim to destabilize the al Saud and al Thani ruling families' grip on power.
Arming the rebels, who have had trouble obtaining ammunition sine the regime began its extensive military campaign in early February, will provide much needed psychological support and will help weaken Assad's forces. While the resolve of Syria's opposition will not abate, arms from the Gulf will neither arrive overnight nor will they immediately change the balance of military power, which is still heavily tilted in the regime's favor. An equally important element of the Gulf strategy is providing monetary incentives to officers in the Syrian army to incite defections. But Assad has built multiple safeguards to prevent defections, a tactic he inherited from his father.
The U.S. is willing to overlook, perhaps even support, GCC efforts to weaken Assad. But Washington is definitely not interested in playing an active role. It is concerned about Saudi Arabia's and Lebanon's support of Salafist rebels and al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri's call for jihad in Syria. While Sunni monarchies in the Gulf benefit from rising sectarianism in Syria, the U.S. interest in long-term regional stability could be compromised if the Sunni-Shia confrontations spread to Iraq and other countries. U.S. officials believe that a political settlement will be needed to prevent prolonged instability. Verbal support for the Annan process is a reflection of the desire to keep negotiations open, but U.S. officials are convinced that under current conditions the Annan plan will only enable Assad to retain power.
Assad will probably not implement key elements of the Annan peace plan, which calls for a halt of hostilities from all sides, and a negotiated settlement between the regime and the opposition. The regime views cooperation with the UN envoy as a way to secure the successes achieved by its military strategy and to gain some breathing space. While Annan is a shrewd diplomat, there are few reasons to think that success is in reach. Syria's opposition will probably not negotiate with Assad or agree to a settlement that keeps him in power. Meanwhile, there are no indications that the Lion of Damascus has reached a point where he would accept his own ouster.
Ayham Kamel is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East and North Africa practice.
Mohammed Ameen-Pool/Getty Images
By Michal Meidan
A growing economic juggernaut and rising political power, China has many reasons to look to the Middle East: to import oil, extend its diplomatic influence, diversify its trade ties, and undermine U.S. hegemony. In that context, it seems hardly surprising that Beijing (alongside Moscow) vetoed a recent U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria and set aside its commercial dispute with Iran to conclude an oil import deal -- undermining U.S. and European sanctions on Tehran.
But Beijing's Middle East strategy is hardly the coherent, well-thought-out doctrine that some believe. Instead, it's the product of a number of (sometimes competing) domestic interests that must be coordinated each time a crisis unfolds. Worryingly for Beijing, as China's commercial ties to the Middle East increase, it will inexorably become more involved in the region's politics. In the process, the risk of antagonizing an important commodity supplier, getting on the wrong side of Washington, or fueling unwanted domestic debates will become more costly and more complicated.
Some argue, simplistically, that when China blocks pressure on Iran to protect its commercial relations with that country, it pays no price for it. The reality is not nearly that simple.
First, Beijing's decisions on Iran and Syria have clearly irked Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dubbed the Syria veto "despicable." Moreover, ongoing oil trading between China and Iran has already led Washington to slap sanctions on a Chinese trader. In a year of presidential elections in the U.S. and political turnover in China, when both sides are trying to keep tensions at bay, Middle East politics will burden an already complicated relationship with an unwelcome irritant.
But Beijing has more than the United States to worry about. Take China's ties with Saudi Arabia, which provides China with almost one fifth of its oil. Beijing's reluctance to support Western-led sanctions on Iran isn't going down well in Riyadh either. Nor has China's decision to veto the U.N. Security Council's Syria resolution, a choice that Beijing claims was intended to prevent the situation on the ground from escalating further.
Finally, several diplomatic principles -- non-interference in a third country's sovereignty, support for non-proliferation, China's rise as a responsible stakeholder -- are increasingly being called into question by other governments. The decision to veto the U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria may have been motivated by diplomatic principles of non-interference in a country's sovereignty and by Beijing's desire to prevent the situation from getting worse, but it has plainly damaged popular perceptions of China elsewhere in the region, and Premier Wen Jiabao's criticism of the Iranian nuclear program rings hollow to Western ears.
When thinking about its foreign policy goals, does Beijing really want to provide the security framework for the Middle East? These are difficult debates that Chinese leaders must have, but they will certainly want to postpone them until after Beijing's leadership transition is complete next year.
In short, the more deeply Beijing becomes involved in the Middle East, the more complicated its foreign relations and internal policy-making processes become -- and the more China has to lose. The choice between alienating an oil supplier, challenging an important trade partner and a global political power or opening up its diplomatic principles for debate is one that Beijing would like to avoid. But as its global reach extends, so will the trade-offs it has to make.
By Ayham Kamel
Recent, though futile, efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria have demonstrated the absence of leadership from global powers such as the U.S. and likely set the stage for possible contagion. The unwillingness of the major powers to intervene in crises such as in Syria -- a marker of what Eurasia Group has called the G-Zero World -- has allowed regional players to step into the breach, notably Qatar via the Arab League. But the League's efforts have also exposed a regional power vacuum and tensions among Middle East nations that could potentially escalate into a proxy war in Syria.
The Arab League's late-January initiative called on President Bashar al-Assad to step down, leaving the vice president to negotiate with the opposition, but it reflects neither the complexity of the Syrian conflict nor the domestic power balance. For example, the opposition is still deeply divided and there is still considerable support for the regime among business interests and some minorities. The Syrian regime is likely to retain power throughout most of 2012, but the risk of collapse will rise considerably in the last quarter.
Other players have taken advantage of major powers' unwillingness to get involved in Syria. Qatar has been pushing for more hawkish Arab League policy on Syria, but the organization lacks the power to push through such initiatives. Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have also staked out a role. But, the lack of interest in producing a negotiated solution effectively means that the Syrian regime can disregard the Arab League on many issues.
Divisions in the League between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and other members also limit the group's ability to formulate and pursue effective policies. The 24 January decision by the GCC to withdraw monitors from Syria highlights this division. Both Egypt and Algeria, traditionally important players in the organization, are uncomfortable with what is increasingly seen as Qatari and Saudi dominance. In the near term, Egypt's leverage will likely decrease given its own political transition, but major stakeholders (such as the military and the Muslim Brotherhood) will eventually seek a more proactive foreign policy. Within the GCC, there is also a subtle, but important, tension between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Saudi royals are wary of Qatari calls for direct military intervention as a tool for democratic reform in Syria or any other Arab countries, a precedent that could be later used against Riyadh.
Syria is a key part of the regional balance of power between moderate pro-U.S. states and the so called resistance camp lead by Iran. Seeking a broader realignment in the Middle East, regional powers are likely to increase their support of their local allies. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar are actively encouraging the uprising driven by conservative Sunnis. Meanwhile, Iran is providing the Assad regime with intelligence, and technological equipment to suppress the uprising.
The Syrian conflict has fanned Sunni-Shiia tensions and the risks of contagion in Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq are considerable. In Iraq, Sunnis are emboldened by a resurgence of conservative movements across the Middle East. Lebanon could become more unstable as the Syrian conflict has divided political factions in an increasingly delicate struggle. Jordan's own communities could reconsider their allegiance to the Hashemite monarchy as communal divisions between Jordanians of Palestinian descent and tribal elites begin to increase. Potential Syrian or Iranian support to Kurdish separatist groups in Turkey is likely to become a problematic issue. Finally, covert action by either the Sunni axis (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Arab League) or Shiias (Iran and Iraq) entails significant risks to regional stability and could spur a violent proxy war that would hurt the business environment and oil flows.
Ayham Kamel is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice.
DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
By Ayham Kamel
In a much publicized television appearance on Aug. 8, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia withdrew his country's support for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, where the government has been beating back protesters for the last five months. The spilling of innocent blood was "against values and ethics," the king said. The Saudi ambassador in Damascus was recalled the same day, prompting similar steps by Kuwait and Bahrain. The developments came in response to Syria's military operations in the Sunni strongholds of Hama and Deir al Zour -- events that rankled the Saudi leadership.
Nevertheless, the militarization of the protest movement over the last few weeks has made Damascus even more assertive and less tolerant of dissent. As such, the situation in Syria is exacerbating Sunni-Shia tensions and raising the likelihood of conflict in all multi-sectarian nations in the region. And while the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states' moves will not inhibit the regime's heavy handed strategy -- more than a dozen protestors were killed on Wednesday -- they presage Syria's emergence as the nexus of a regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Heightened pressure on the Syrian regime will not lead to the immediate collapse of Assad's regime, but it will chip away at his power. The policy shift will leave Damascus more isolated and may lead Syria's political and economic elite, particularly Sunnis, to reconsider their allegiance to Assad. The GCC countries' change of heart likely also precedes a coordinated international upsurge of diplomatic and economic pressure. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has already signaled a firmer U.S. stance toward the regime, and new U.S. and European sanctions are expected in the next few weeks. Today, in fact, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on the commercial bank of Syria and its Lebanon-based subsidiary, as well as Syriatel, the country's largest mobile phone operator. These moves, like those of the Arab states, seek to nudge the middle classes in Aleppo and Damascus, which so far have not joined the ranks of the demonstrators en masse. But the Syrian regime remains unlikely to rethink its strategy. The country's military and security establishments are firmly committed to confronting the protesters aggressively, arguing that any other approach would strengthen the opposition.
Saudi leaders, meanwhile, are still on the fence about what the kingdom's Syria policy should be. They know that a political transition would be problematic and could spark a regional confrontation, which is why the king's speech, while criticizing the Syrian regime, also called on Assad to be courageous and introduce reforms. If Syrian policy remains unchanged over the next few weeks, however, the kingdom's position will likely shift toward outright opposition. Iran, in contrast, feels threatened by the potential loss of the Assad regime and of Iran's strategic depth on the shore of the Mediterranean, and has therefore reinforced its support of the Syrian government.
These opposing moves by Riyadh and Tehran suggest that Syria will become the focal point of Iran and Saudi Arabia's regional tussle for power. Indeed, many in Riyadh are beginning to perceive the upheaval as an opportunity to contain Iranian influence in the Middle East. In the meantime, all eyes are on Ankara to see if Turkey's leaders will be able to convince Assad to accelerate his reform program and resolve the crisis.
Ayham Kamel is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice group.
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.
The Call, from Ian Bremmer, uses cutting-edge political science to predict the political future -- and how it will shape the global economy.