Nathan Brown | Nonresident senior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program
The trends that have been upending politics in the region for the past few years—American decline, sectarianism, state decay (and collapse), the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, political polarization, the death of the Oslo Process, the spread of armed conflict in several locations in the region—are glaringly obvious and will likely continue to work their effects in 2018. But as clear and powerful as they are, they will likely operate in some unexpected ways and pack some surprises.
I will focus on three areas. In Saudi Arabia a new leadership is audaciously attempting to remake the state and society in radical ways. In Palestine, an old leadership is no longer able to lead and no new leadership has emerged. And in Egypt, a restored set of old institutions is increasingly dominated by the military and security apparatus. In all three cases, it will make as much sense to look for unintended consequences as it will be to study regime intentions. The bluster of rulers needs to be taken seriously at times, but the long-term trends in the region are beyond the ability of any of these leaders to manage, much less control.
Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck | Resident scholar in the Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut
In 2018 and beyond that, the Maghreb-Sahel region will have to face the question of returning combatants from the Islamic State. With the fall of the organization, it is going to morph into something else, more monstrous, and its fighters are going to try to find new fronts. These fronts may be in the combatants’ respective countries or elsewhere. Countries such as Morocco and Tunisia will have to deal with the returnees and must find a long-term solution to threats they will pose. European countries are facing the same issue and seem clueless about how to address the rehabilitation of their citizens who joined the Islamic State. It is highly possible that we will see more unpredictable, high-impact attacks in European countries.
I will also be looking at the Sahel, and believe the situation there is going to worsen, despite the creation of the G5 Sahel coordination network, because a military approach won’t resolve the bad socio-economic and political situation in the region’s countries. We might witness another crisis in Mali like the one in 2012–2013. France might have to face the fact that Mali is its own Afghanistan, a quagmire from which it will not exit anytime soon.
Mohanad Hage Ali | Director of communications at the Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut
Lebanon and Syria should be at the top of the 2018 watch list. The outcome of the Lebanese elections, scheduled for May 6, remains unpredictable. Most importantly, these elections, which will be held for the first time on the basis of proportional representation, will determine whether Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri will be able to reassert his position as the uncontested leader of the Sunni community. The firebrand Ashraf Rifi, a former justice minister and Hariri’s main foe among the Sunnis, has already declared his intention to challenge the current prime minister in all Sunni-majority districts except Sidon, which holds only two Sunni seats. Any change in the current status quo would potentially put Lebanon on track for more turbulence. Should Hezbollah and its traditional allies win a comfortable majority in parliament, they might swiftly normalize Lebanon’s relations with the Assad regime in Syria, which may heighten sectarian tensions and increase the chances of turmoil.
In Syria, the battle for Idlib between Syrian regime forces and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, is expected in 2018. Yet this seems increasingly intertwined with the fate of the autonomous Kurdish-held region in northeastern Syria. Turkey might expand the areas that it now controls through the Euphrates Shield operation by moving into Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham-held areas and Afrin, currently controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, in return for backing the regime’s advance into Idlib. This would redefine the Syrian battlefield.
Marc Pierini | Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, Brussels
From Brussels I will be watching possible Turkish moves in Syria. The Turkish army is present in the north of Aleppo governorate, aiming essentially to ensure that the Kurdish-controlled districts of Afrin and Kobane remain separate. Both are controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Ankara considers the PYD-YPG as offshoots of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Ankara has often hinted at sudden moves on Afrin and on the town of Manbij, in the latter case aiming to push the SDF back to the eastern shore of the Euphrates River. In the past few days, Turkish leaders also mentioned the possibility of moving against Tel Abyad and Qamishli. This entails risks, including possible encounters with U.S. and French forces present in those areas.
In addition, Turkish forces are present in Idlib governorate, which is still largely under the control of Islamist militias. The Turks’ stated goal is securing safe zones for the local population, but also fending off any attempt by the SDF to create a link between Afrin and Syria’s coastline. Electoral choices in Turkey—in other words maintaining a high-pitched nationalist and anti-Kurdish narrative—more than Ankara’s alliance of convenience with Russia and Iran, might push the Turkish leadership toward risky military moves south of its border.
Jake Walles | Nonresident senior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program
I’ll be watching for the Trump administration’s next move on Israel and Palestine, following President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The decision provoked an angry reaction from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who declared that the United States could no longer serve as an intermediary in peace negotiations. Will Trump still put forward a peace plan under these circumstances? Predicting what this president will do is never easy, but I suspect he will go ahead with a plan. To do otherwise would appear to validate his critics who said that the decision on Jerusalem would undermine prospects for peace.
If there is a plan, then, I’ll be looking first to see how it addresses permanent-status issues, especially Jerusalem. Unless the administration is prepared to make a clear statement about a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem—an unlikely step—the Palestinians won’t reengage and the plan will go nowhere. Trump’s team may instead focus on aligning Israel and the Gulf states more closely. Such an approach may serve the administration’s regional objectives vis-à-vis Iran, but it would do nothing to bring Israel and the Palestinians any closer to peace.
Maha Yahya | Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut
The year 2018 may bring changes in Iraq’s political landscape, marked by three significant factors. First, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s tacit support for Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s efforts to rebalance Iraq’s relations with Iran on a state-to-state basis is lending these efforts considerable credence among Iraqis.
This is particularly important in light of the second factor, the upcoming parliamentary elections, which are likely to trigger a change in the country’s political makeup and represent a challenge to Abadi, because of the participation of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The PMF played a key role in the liberation of Iraqi territory from the Islamic State, and many of its groups are supported by Iran.
And finally, Abadi’s (and Muqtada al-Sadr’s) opening to Saudi Arabia has sought to meaningfully reset the country’s relationship with its Arab neighbor for the first time since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Visits by trade delegations and increasing Saudi investment in Iraq are already underway. But beyond political gains, this rapprochement can further soften Sunni-Shi‘a polarization in Iraq and reinforce the overall mood of national unity set by the liberation of Iraqi territory from Islamic State control.
In Lebanon, Saudi-Lebanese tensions that were most apparent in the events surrounding the momentary resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri are far from over. Two battlefronts will take shape in the coming few months. The first is parliamentary elections, scheduled for May 2018, in which Hariri’s alliances are likely to be dictated by a growing rapprochement with President Michel Aoun and his party as well as their close ally Hezbollah.
The second is the Lebanese government’s declared policy of regional dissociation, reinforced by Hariri when he rescinded his resignation, and which is likely to face considerable challenges in the year to come. Upcoming battles in Syria as well as in Yemen may put this policy to the test for a government with few effective means of implementing it.
Meanwhile, the push to repatriate some one million Syrian refugees will likely be used again to pressure the government to normalize relations with Syria’s regime, something Hariri has declared he will not do. So, while international support for Lebanon may guarantee a measure of political and economic stability, addressing the country’s woes in a turbulent region necessitates concerted concessions by the party that believes it is winning.
Sarah Yerkes | Fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program
One thing I will be watching is whether and how President Donald Trump’s statement on Jerusalem continues to reverberate across the region. While much has been written on the implications of the U.S. policy shift in countries surrounding Israel, such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, few are paying attention to more far-flung Arab states such as Morocco and Tunisia.
I was in Tunis when Trump made his announcement and witnessed the intense emotional reaction of many Tunisians. At a national conference that had nothing to do with Palestine, the head of the national anti-corruption body had a scarf ceremoniously draped around his neck with images of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Tunisian flag. Thousands of Tunisians went into the streets to protest the U.S. decision, with some burning images of the American flag. The powerful Tunisian General Labor Union called the statement a “declaration of war” and Tunisia was one of only three countries (along with Morocco and Iraq) to summon the U.S. ambassador immediately after the announcement. This may not be surprising in a country that once hosted the Palestine Liberation Organization. However, Tunisia is also one of the United States’ most committed partners, so it will be interesting to see what impact Trump’s decision has on the U.S.-Tunisia relationship, or if the fury over this fizzles out in the early days of 2018.