A Cautious Middle East Forecast for 2014

A year of intensified Sunni-Shia bloodshed.

Militia fighters in Aleppo SyriaThe Middle East has been a reliable source of the unpredictable. It can always promise upheaval, and that is exactly what it provided us in 2013. In Egypt, Mohammad Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood led government was removed by the military in early July, following large scale demonstrations throughout Egypt. The demonstrators demanded a more secular Egypt, and the military seized this groundswell to get rid of an increasingly authoritarian and economically failing regime.

In Syria, 2013 was still as bloody as the previous year, with the casualty count exceeding 150,000. The international community has been impotent to bring the civil war to an end, and the number of Syrian refugees in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey is swelling. The chemical weapons used by the Assad regime in 2013 forced President Obama to issue a red-line, with the threat of military action. Secretary of State John Kerry, with the help of Russia’s President Putin, found a face-saving formula to avoid military action, pushing the Assad regime to give up its chemical weapons, but leaving Bashar Assad more secure than in the previous year.

Neighboring Lebanon has suffered the effects of the Syrian civil war as Sunni militants’ targeted Hezbollah assets in Beirut and elsewhere. Sunni Lebanese reacted to Shiite Hezbollah involvement in Syria on the side of the Assad regime against fellow Sunnis in Syria. In the meantime, the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is growing beyond capacity to absorb them. It is also disturbing the sensitive confessional balance.

The coming year will see the intensification of the Sunni-Shiite divide with Saudi Arabia contributing $3 billion to the Lebanese Army as part of the proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran. The disappearance of the U.S. as a power broker in the Middle East has created room for al-Qaeda in Iraq and increasingly in Lebanon. Elias Khoury, a Lebanese novelist and critic was quoted by the New York Times as saying “The West is not there, and we are in the hands of two regional powers, the Saudis and Iranians, each of which is fanatical in its own way. I don’t see how they can reach any entente, any rational solution.”

The U.S. departure from Iraq in December, 2011, brought about the predictable mayhem in a country similar to Syria based on artificial colonial boundaries and similarly tormented by religious and ethnic strife. 2013 was the deadliest year since 2008, with 7,800 Iraqi civilians killed and nearly 18,000 injured. A key factor in the renewed violence in Iraq seems to be the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq, and the raging civil war in Syria, which has given al-Qaeda renewed vigor. While many Sunni fighters entered Syria through Iraq’s Anbar Province, al-Qaeda fighters have now reentered Iraq (they renamed themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), aiming to restore Sunni rule.

Jordan, much like Turkey and Lebanon, has been inundated by a flood of Syrian refugees. Since March, 2011, Jordan has hosted over 600,000 Syrian refugees, almost 10% of its population, and many of them are Palestinians. Combined with the Palestinians who are Jordanian citizens, and make up almost 70% of the Jordanian population, they pose a serious concern if not an immediate threat to the Hashemite Kingdom, and the rule of King Abdullah II, who can truly depend on less than one third of the population.

The mid-January referendum in Egypt, the third in three years, was designed to approve a new constitution, and validate the actions of the military in ousting President Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. In order to prompt Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi to campaign and surely win the Egyptian presidency, he will need a large turnout of ‘yes’ voters for the new constitution. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and their supporters are boycotting the referendum.

Throughout the 86-year existence of the MB, it has engaged in violent clashes with secular regimes that have ruled Egypt. It included political assassination of leading figures of those regimes. It did not however lead to a civil war. During much of those years the MB was outlawed. The fall of the Mubarak regime in 2011, and the election of Morsi as President of Egypt in 2012, gave the MB a taste of power for the first time. Campaigning under the party name of Freedom and Justice, in a seemingly free and fair election, the MB won almost half of the seats in the Egyptian Parliament, while Morsi got 51.7% of the votes in the presidential contest.

In the past 86-years, the MB did not claim political power. However, in 2014, the sense of loss or more accurately, the feeling among many of the MB leaders and their supporters is that “power was stolen from them.” This can only engender a civil war, with the MB targeting, in particular, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi (who is responsible for removing Morsi). Therefore, we can expect intensified violence by the MB against the government and military. Al-Qaeda and other Islamists groups, taxing government resources, will take advantage of the lawlessness to further weaken the secular government, especially in the vastly uncontrolled Sinai Peninsula. Any newly elected secular president and parliament will not be recognized as legitimate by the MB.

The various measures the Obama administration has taken against the Egyptian military following the overthrow of Morsi, has soured relations between Washington and Cairo.  As a consequence, the U.S. defense industry will suffer from a decline in arms sales to Egypt, while the latter turns to Russia to be once again its arms supplier. This would be another Obama administration costly miscalculation. Saudi influence in Egypt will grow along with Russia’s, as the former provided $5 billion to Egypt to demonstrate its opposition to Obama’s policies.

In July, 2012, it appeared as if the Assad regime was about to crumble. The Sunni-Muslim rebels struck Assad’s National Security headquarters in Damascus. In 2014, the situation has turned around, as the Assad regime scores battlefield victories at the expense of the divided rebel camps. What began as a popular uprising has now turned into a full scale civil war and a struggle between diametrically opposed worldviews: radical Islam vs. a secular, albeit, dictatorial Syria, aided by Iran and the terrorist organization Hezbollah.

The inability of the secular Syrian opposition to form a common stand against the Assad regime has made the radical al-Qaeda associated organizations such as The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Jabhat al-Nusra, the most powerful opposition forces in Syria. For the minority groups, such as the Christians and Druze, Assad and not rebels, appear as the secular alternative to the intolerant Islamists. The Kurds have forged an autonomous region, and seem to stay out of the bloodletting, unless attacked.

The Second Geneva Conference, scheduled to convene on January 22, 2014 is unlikely to end the bloodletting. Russia and Iran will back the Assad regime against the West’s insistence that he leave office. The terror of the al-Qaeda affiliated groups now operating in Iraq and possibly Lebanon will provide the Russians with the argument that Assad is the only guarantee of secularism in this volatile region. Only the assassination of Assad and top members of his regime can possibly change things, or alternatively, the total defeat of the rebels and the killing of their leaders. 2014 promises to be another bloody year in the Middle East, with Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon in turmoil.

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