Birth pains of a new order in the Middle East
In a sign of changing times, the list of global threats is now topped by climate change, China and other countries, rather than terrorism, the potential resurgence of Daesh or copycat violent extremists, according to US intelligence officials.
Much of what is outlined in an unclassified version of their report is not exactly unknown or hard to predict over the course of the year, but it does signal a changed and still changing world. The report should not be perceived as an indirect declaration of a fait accompli after a disastrous and costly two-decade War on Terror, on the heels of the decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan by September. Ongoing conflict, multiple socioeconomic and political crises as well as the pervasive specter of COVID-19 will continue to accelerate the destabilization of several countries in the Middle East, potentially driving some to the brink of collapse.
The region faces an ever-widening array of threats, not helped by the disruption caused by the pandemic, intensifying great power rivalry and medium powers seeking greater influence in regional affairs — enlisting proxies to sideline national will in favor of external interests. The increasingly visible signs of a warming climate, ecological degradation and water scarcity only further imperil global public health, spark new humanitarian crises, cripple even the most stable societies, compound unmitigated social woes such as inequality, and intensify political instability.
In the past decade alone, great power competition in the Middle East has shifted from the messy and costly short-sighted interventions between countries, to sporadic skirmishes or rivalries playing out within nations, on the ground, in the air and in cyberspace. The wider the array of threats, the greater their complexity and potential to spill into other arenas, making their resolution impossible. Already, Chinese and Russian technological and military rivalry with the US is fueling new tensions and new escalations, as both countries push to change global norms — by, for instance, normalizing Iran’s regional destabilization agenda or even indirectly supporting its malign activities in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. Elsewhere, a global race to enhance military, cyber, extra-terrestrial and other capabilities has only heightened risks, especially where conventional deterrence measures are no longer effective.
The findings of the US intel chiefs and the extrapolations to be made from them in the Arab world are not limited to the military, diplomacy, political or technology spheres. The report also came shortly after an International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecast an assessment of Middle East economies up to 2023. Last year, the IMF predicted GDP growth of about 3 percent, but as countries slowly recover from the worst of the pandemic that forecast has been revised upwards to 4 percent. Unfortunately, this “recovery” will be divergent, and probably a source of new headaches, since uneven economic development will spark irregular migration from countries the IMF termed “late inoculators” such as Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan, towards the “early inoculators” such as the Gulf states, Morocco and Kazakhstan.
Vaccine availability, access and acceleration of inoculation campaigns form most of the basis for upgrading the regional growth forecast, but this applies only to the few oil exporting Arab states that can afford them, due to relatively stable oil prices. Most of the region, however, is expected to not reach full vaccination until 2023, especially those that have significant tourism exposure or limited fiscal or monetary room to enact expansionary policies. Thus, the promised return to “normal” will be stalled in countries already reeling from pandemic-induced socioeconomic woes such as rising poverty, inequality, and youth unemployment.
The region faces an ever-widening array of threats, not helped by the disruption caused by the pandemic, intensifying great power rivalry and medium powers seeking greater influence in regional affairs — enlisting proxies to sideline national will in favor of external interests.
Another short-term threat stemming from the pandemic is how vaccine diplomacy is now part of the arsenal in intensifying geopolitical competition. COVID-19 is already straining Arab budgets, with some states ratcheting up debt to unprecedented levels. Failure to maintain or increase expenditure will only create new crises and political unrest, leaving some states vulnerable to prolonged instability and foreign encroachment in their domestic affairs. Generally, as the pandemic has persisted and crises deepened, so too has authoritarian fervor and a penchant for the undemocratic, fueling popular discontent and existing grievances, especially when governments consistently fail to answer expectations for much-needed reforms.
It is unsurprising, therefore, to see the Middle East written off as a region characterized by pervasive domestic volatility and conflict. Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria top the list of countries of concern; Tehran, for instance, is expected to remain a threat to interests shared by the US and its regional partners. Failure to curb Iranian provocation will only further endanger the wider region as Tehran seeks to project power, entrench its influence, radicalize overseas Shiite populations, deflect international pressure and target perceived threats to its sanctions-riddled regime. Iran’s economy remains in shambles, which limits how Tehran will try to advance its goals — by seeking concessional diplomacy, arming proxies with conventional weapons, not excluding cruise missiles and drones, or advancing its nuclear programs. It is through these that Tehran will remain a major destabilizing force in Iraq, and maintain an influence in Syria, Yemen and even Afghanistan.
In Iraq, while the threat of Daesh has largely receded and dented any prospects of a resurgence of terrorism in the region, the country’s fate remains firmly in the grip of Tehran-backed actors, deeply embedded in its society, economy and political processes. Some of these armed militants have become a vehicle for Iran to launch attacks on bases were US forces and other personnel are located. Threats of continued attacks will serve as some form of leverage as both Washington and Tehran look to enter into talks regarding the latter’s nuclear ambitions and pledges to enrich fissile material beyond the levels agreed in the 2015 nuclear deal.
For Libya, the Government of National Unity (GNU) faces the same security, political and economic challenges that led to the demise of its predecessors and diminished prospects of enduring national reconciliation. For now, a ceasefire holds but Russia, Turkey, Egypt and others will continue to funnel financial, military and material support to local proxies and non-state actors, which only heightens the risk of more instability and makes renewed fighting an inevitability. While the external actors have welcomed the GNU and voiced support for its mandate, none have committed to withdrawing about 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries. Until foreign forces leave Libya, no amount of progress or talks will reduce the risk of conflicts flaring up again.
Lastly, for Syria, while the fighting has subsided save for a few skirmishes, threats remain in the form of humanitarian crises and deniable attacks targeting US forces or Syrian Kurds. The Assad regime will continue to struggle with re-establishing control over all of Syria, including parts now occupied by Turkish forces, extremists and what remains of the opposition. Meanwhile, Syrian Kurds face declining economic and humanitarian conditions, combined with the inevitability of a US withdrawal from the region, which could leave them vulnerable to combined Syrian regime, Russian and Turkish pressure. Renewed fighting in the midst of a humanitarian disaster and severe economic decline will spark new waves of irregular migration, creating yet another crisis in a region already drowning in them.
From all the above, it is not difficult to see that our region will face another troubled year. One can still hope, however, that because of all this the region is simply going through the birth pains of a new regional order as many other nations have done before.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell