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
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh last week signed a deal crafted by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to exit from power. While a marginally positive development, the pact is not sufficient to restore political stability in the near future. There are serious challenges to implementation and the ten-month political crisis has made ink on paper less relevant than the competing interests of Yemen's political players. Military and political power has fragmented to such a degree over the past ten months that repairing the state will be a difficult and protracted process. Furthermore, the deal does not satisfy the demands of protestors who have emerged as influential political stakeholders over the course of the crisis. And while most establishment players will likely work with the deal, they are not likely to quickly abandon any territorial, political, or military advantage gained over the past ten months.
Under the agreement, Saleh is to transfer his presidential powers to Vice President Abed Rabo Mansour Hadi while remaining honorary president for 90 days. Within this time, the vice president is expected to steward the formation of a national unity government chaired by an opposition figure (Hadi has tapped opposition leader and long-time Yemeni politician Mohammed Basindwa for the task) and preside over a presidential election, currently slated for February 2012. Hadi will also lead efforts to restructure the military. In return, Saleh is to receive immunity from prosecution.
But the deal is unlikely to usher in the return of a normal political process in such a neat timeframe. The most immediate challenge will be demilitarizing major cities such as Sana'a and Taiz and restructuring the military. Certain units remain under the control of Saleh's family members and allies, and others are controlled by their political rivals -- the GCC deal does not change this reality. Tribal forces have also proven formidable and have gained military control of some parts of the country; on-again off-again clashes between tribesmen and pro-Saleh units continue north of the capital. Should Saleh leave the country during the transition period, as has been rumored, it could reinforce the transition process's credibility. But he would still exercise influence. On Nov. 26, he issued a general amnesty, highlighting the ambiguity of his current position; a tactic that he has employed consistently to maintain his power. Protesters will continue to fill the streets in order to draw concessions from the political establishment; they reject the immunity clause in the GCC deal and remain suspicious of establishment opposition figures. Street protests alone are unlikely to derail the political process, but will influence its credibility and ultimate success or failure.
Apart from political wrangling, Yemen will also continue to face serious territorial challenges. The issue of southern independence, which has been largely eclipsed by the political standoff, will likely resurface as the country grapples with building a new governing structure. Further, the situation in Sa'ada province has deteriorated significantly, with increasing clashes between Salafist and Houthi militias. Clandestine financial or military assistance for these groups from the Gulf countries and Iran is difficult to gauge, but the perception alone heightens tensions. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has also gained room to operate as a result of the crisis and the state will remain constrained in its ability to confront the group. AQAP, however, will be hard pressed to cause any sustained disruptions to Saudi oil output or sea transport through the Gulf of Aden, and is highly unlikely to exercise any direct influence in the political process. The United States and Saudi Arabia will continue to use their military and intelligence capabilities to confront the group -- but neither of these countries has the capacity to effect a sustainable military solution to Yemen's problems.
James Fallon is an associate with Eurasia Group's Middle East practice.
By James Fallon
President Ali Abdullah Saleh's sudden return to Yemen will be destabilizing, but will not change the underlying dynamics of the country's political conflict. Saleh recently returned to the capital Sana'a after some three months of medical treatment in Saudi Arabia following a June assassination attempt that left him severely wounded. His return came amid renewed clashes between pro- and anti-Saleh forces in the capital that erupted after security forces killed protesters on Sept. 18.
Saleh called for a ceasefire in an effort to position himself above the fray, but attempts to paint himself as a mediator are unlikely to succeed. Despite Saleh's absence from the country and nine months of protests against his 33-year reign, he retains some support, a factor that has led to a protracted stalemate rather than his overthrow.
Saleh will not be able to regain control of Yemen. He could, however, potentially extend the stalemate for months, degrading stability even further in the process. Although widespread military and political defections have occurred, pro-Saleh units are better equipped and led by loyal family members. Both sides enjoy some tribal support as well. The ultimate balance of military power remains unclear, but if fighting escalates, it is unlikely that either side would enjoy a decisive advantage.
Although this reality could spur dialogue, the more likely outcome is a protracted and indecisive armed conflict. A political agreement along the lines of the GCC-brokered transition deal is unlikely to solve Yemen's deeper crisis or restore central government control over the country. State stability is very likely to continue to devolve in any scenario.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is one potential beneficiary of this situation. AQAP has gained more space to operate as a result of the conflict, with Islamist militants sympathetic to the terror group seizing territory in the south of the country. The Yemeni regime has parlayed the AQAP issue to manipulate external support, resulting in a greater degree of patience from the international community than has been the case in other Arab uprisings.
There is both regional and international consensus on Saleh transferring power, but the same is not necessarily true for his family members and allies in key security positions. Outside actors probably still view maintaining the coherence of counter-terrorism units as a preferential outcome, despite their politicized role and intimate links to the Saleh regime. The European Union, United States, United Nations, and the Gulf Cooperation Council meanwhile are likely to continue to pressing for negotiations for a political transition, but they do not have the capacity to bring a swift end to the Yemeni crisis, further increasing the risk of a protracted and violent stalemate.
James Fallon is an associate with Eurasia Group's Middle East practice.
By James Fallon and Ayham Kamel
It's lonely at the top, at least for the embattled president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh. His former friends in the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council are pushing for an accelerated transition of power, while thousands of Yemenis brave ugly clashes with security forces and Saleh supporters to demand his ouster. While Saleh could still refuse to budge, the overwhelming likelihood is that in the coming weeks he will relinquish his position, leaving an even weaker central government in his wake. Unrest has sapped Sanaa's already tenuous control over the country, and further upheaval in the Yemeni capital would allow al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to gain ground in the provinces. But Saleh isn't AQAP's only obstacle, and the group is unlikely to exert direct political influence or operate with impunity after he leaves.
While the particulars shift on a near-daily basis, Yemen's security situation is trending in one direction: down. Government forces have reportedly given up parts of Shabwa, Abyan, Marib, Sa'ada, and al Jawf provinces, with local tribes assuming de facto control. Influential regional military commanders have defected to the opposition, and while Saleh continues to advocate a transition "within the framework of the constitution," the deteriorating situation on the streets will limit his options. Even if his departure is negotiated, it could result in violence.
In the short term, any scenario is likely to include more leeway for AQAP. With Sanaa focused on political transition, and the country's military and security forces in (at least temporary) disarray, the central government will be less able to rein in the terror group. If Saleh's sons, nephews, and close associates are bumped from their positions in the security and counterterrorism forces, the United States and Saudi Arabia will lose their main point people for counterterrorism. And if Saleh's friends are allowed to stay, their credibility in key provinces will be even shakier than it was before. (Their units are already abandoning some areas in the face of local opposition.)
While all of this is good news for AQAP, the group is unlikely to have a blank check in a post-Saleh Yemen. Both the United States and Saudi Arabia have extensive intelligence and strike capacity and will use it if necessary. The United States began to shy away from unilateral strikes last year, after a provincial deputy governor was mistakenly killed in an air strike and a U.S. drone was revealed to have fired the missile (despite Saleh's claim of responsibility). Washington subsequently pared back such strikes to avoid jeopardizing its cooperation with Sana'a. But absent effective Yemeni leadership, the United States would be inclined to renew unilateral action -- however reluctantly -- if circumstances warranted it. Saudi Arabia could also intervene militarily along its shared border. Even the domestic environment could frustrate AQAP. Popular support for the group is generally low in Yemen, and tribal decisions about whether to back AQAP are based largely on local interests. There's no guarantee that those calculations would shift radically in AQAP's favor just because Saleh got the boot.
James Fallon and Ayham Kamel are members of Eurasia Group's Middle East practice.
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
By Eurasia Group's Middle East practice
Egyptians are hardly the only people in the Arab world burdened with an economic system that provides them few opportunities and a political system designed to frustrate their aspirations. Just as upheaval in Tunisia captured the imaginations of Egyptians, so the rest of the Arab world is watching as protection of privilege collides with demand for change in the heart of Cairo. Particularly if Hosni Mubarak is forced from power, other authoritarian regimes in the region will be at risk. The most vulnerable are Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, and Bahrain.
In Jordan, the only other Arab government to sign a peace treaty with Israel, King Abdullah faces a serious surge of dissent. His regime is not yet at risk, but if Egyptian protesters are able to force Mubarak from power, Jordan's opposition will demand fundamental and immediate political reform. In recent weeks, thousands of protesters have demonstrated against economic conditions and the monarch's monopoly hold on political power. Abdullah responded by sacking unpopular Prime Minister Samir Rifai and replacing him with Marouf Bakhit, a loyal member of the country's East Bank elite and most recently the king's special advisor on security issues.
Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood has much broader and deeper public support than its counterpart in Egypt. In addition, divisions between Jordan's royal family and tribal leaders on one side and Jordanians of Palestinian descent on the other are growing. The country's large gap between rich and poor and the government's unwillingness to tolerate dissent make Jordan a country to watch if things in Egypt get much worse.
Yemen's stability faces even greater challenges. Its government faces a secessionist movement in the south, a dormant conflict with Houthi rebels in the north, and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In most of the country, the Yemeni government is not fully in charge. Unlike the spontaneous uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, recent protests in Yemen have been organized by the country's largest opposition movement. But if angry, unemployed youth decide to join the protests, Yemen's government could find itself in real trouble.
Like Hosni Mubarak, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in power for more than 30 years. And like Mubarak, he has moved to limit pressure on his government by declaring on Wednesday that he won't run for another term in 2013 and won't pass the presidency to his son, Ahmed. It remains to be seen whether these concessions will be enough to deflect calls for his immediate resignation.
Pressure is also mounting on the Algerian government. Long-standing economic and political grievances have fueled a recent burst of public unrest, and in the wake of the events in Tunisia and Egypt, opposition parties and civil society organizations have shifted their demands from economic to political reform. About 70 percent of Algerians are under the age of 25, and the majority of young men are unemployed. A few government officials and businessmen control the vast majority of the proceeds from the country's oil wealth. Widespread demonstrations could upset the delicate balance of the country's political and economic structure and possibly provoke divisions within the ruling elite over how to respond.
As in all these
countries, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has offered concessions intended to
bolster his popularity, including an offer on Thursday to end a 19-year state
of emergency in the country. Public calls for political freedoms and possibly
early elections will dominate an opposition march scheduled for Feb. 12,
and uncertainty over who and what will follow Bouteflika will create tremendous
political uncertainty. If the unrest can't be managed, it's possible that key
military figures will abandon Bouteflika or that junior officers might move
against the old guard.
Finally, public frustration in Bahrain, a majority Shiite country ruled by a Sunni monarch, could reach the boiling point if the al-Khalifa family cannot tamp down recent sectarian tensions. Bahrain saw significant unrest last summer and fall in the run-up to parliamentary elections, and Shiite youth clashed with Sunni security forces in nightly riots. There's also a small risk that Iran would exploit further confrontations by providing material support to Bahrain's Shiite population. That's a move that would have serious repercussions for security across the region.
Ayham Kamel, Mohammed El-Katiri, Hani Sabra, and James Fallon are analysts in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice.
Salah Malkawi/Getty Images
By David Bender and Jonathan Tepperman
Since last Friday's near-miss terror attack, when a Saudi tip-off revealed the presence of two bombs making their way by air freight from Yemen to the United States, much nervous speculation has focused on two issues. The first is the supposed sophistication of the sender, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the two year old Yemen-based franchise of the international terror group. Second is the likelihood that Yemen may be quickly collapsing into a Somalia-style failed state, which would allow AQAP to operate there unchecked.
Reports on the technical complexity of the bombs themselves -- which were disguised as printer cartridges and made it past (admittedly insufficient) cargo shipment screening -- bolster the first point. Much of the conversation has also focused on Pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), the malleable military-grade high explosive used in these most recent attempts, as well as in the aborted 2009 Christmas Day underwear bombing (also attributed to AQAP in Yemen). Such components mean that "these bombs have the hallmark of a higher degree of professionalism that we've ever seen come out of al Qaeda before," according to Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer in the Middle East.
Is Yemen the next Somalia? The debate over Yemen's fragility is framed by the severe challenges facing the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh: tribal rebellion in the north, secessionist pressures in the south, and a dysfunctional economy marred by rampant corruption and dwindling oil and water resources. On top of all that is AQAP, which is now aiming its guns on the government: the group has killed 70 police officers and soldiers in the past four weeks.
Taking a closer look at both of these concerns -- in Baer's words a "new, more dangerous wave of terrorism" in the United States and impending disintegration in Yemen -- reveals that both are overstated. It's not that AQAP isn't worth worrying about. But the danger is not quite on the level of catastrophe.
For example, while AQAP has made several attempts at striking targets abroad -- printer cartridges, explosive underwear, and in one case, a bomb stuffed inside the bomber himself -- so far, all of these plans have failed.
While all of these attacks could have had devastating consequences if they actually succeeded, they pale in comparison to the sort of mega-strikes al Qaeda central has pulled off. The Pakistan-based major league outfit is known for meticulous planning, simultaneous strikes (like the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania), and monumental targets (such as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon). The Yemeni team, judging by its track record, relies on eager but untrained volunteers and luck to hit its much smaller objectives. This scattershot approach may make future attacks more difficult to uncover and stop. But it also means the organization is unlikely to succeed -- and that even if it does, the attacks won't have anywhere near the international impact of 9/11.
While Washington may not yet understand AQAP very well or its place in Yemen's complex political and tribal matrix, Saudi intelligence seems to have effectively penetrated the organization. The Saudis have been watching the group carefully since the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al Qaeda merged and started targeting Riyadh. And the Saudi efforts have paid off. The key role the Saudis played in disrupting the recent bomb attempts suggests that the kingdom's intelligence either has human assets in AQAP or at least has gained the ability to monitor its communications. As a result, Western and allied intelligence organizations have far more insight into this branch than they do into its Pakistan-based sponsor.
As for Yemen, there are good reasons not to count it out quite yet. Yes, the country's long-term prognosis is grim. But Saleh is a wily operator who has stayed in power for 32 years by relying on bribes, tribal manipulations, kidnappings, and military force. For the next few years, at least, Washington and Riyadh -- both acutely aware of the risks the country's collapse would pose -- will not abandon him. On the contrary, they'll keep supporting Yemen with generous financial and military aid. Of course, Sanaa must be careful how it proceeds. The United States and Saudi Arabia are the object of much hostility among Yemeni public. Public exposure of U.S. military counterterrorism operations killing Yemenis (as when the Bush administration leaked a U.S .operation in Yemen in 2002) could end up weakening Saleh's position and boosting AQAP's popularity.
AQAP is plenty dangerous and a failed Yemeni state is a big risk -- eventually. But Yemen is not yet in crisis and this is not the worst terrorist threat the United States has faced.
David Bender is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice. Jonathan Tepperman is Eurasia Group's Managing Editor and a columnist at TheAtlantic.com.
MOHAMMAD HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
The Call, from Ian Bremmer, uses cutting-edge political science to predict the political future -- and how it will shape the global economy.