The Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region has known challenging times before, but rarely have its ethnic, sectarian and tribal fault lines combined to create such potentially toxic conditions as confront the political scene in 2013. The sense of crisis is palpable from Marrakech to Manama, with a lengthening list of trouble spots that seem immune to easy resolution.

Syria’s bloody conflict continues to worsen, with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime under intense pressure. Iran remains the subject of intense international attention over its nuclear ambitions. Lebanon and Jordan are experiencing a spillover effect from Syria; and Iraq faces renewed challenges as Kurdish and state forces move closer to confrontation. Palestine, as shown by a flare up of hostilities with Israel in Gaza in November, still has the capacity to plunge the region into violent conflict.

Leaders struggle with domestic discontent

The monarchies of Bahrain and Jordan, meanwhile, remain vulnerable to domestic discontent, while Kuwait’s political dysfunction risks morphing into something more serious. In Egypt, President Mohamed Mursi is facing riots over his changes to the power of his office. Violent Sunni Islamist extremism – on the retreat in Iraq in recent years – is showing signs of reviving, fanning out from Damascus.

These differing pressures are intertwined to a degree, each influenced by the broader divide that has pitted Iran and its allies against a Sunni-dominated mainstream encompassing the Gulf states, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and the Maghreb. “What happens in Syria affects Iran, and what happens in Iran affects the rest of the region,” says Theodore Karasik, a Gulf-based director at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis. “The interconnectivity of all of these issues is going to be the driving force for what happens in 2013.”

What happens in Syria affects Iran, and what happens in Iran affects the rest of the region

Theodore Karasik, Institute for Gulf Military Analysis

Syria inevitably must top the list of critical issues in 2013, since the country has long been a geopolitical pivot whose fate also determines the overall political balance in the region. Previous attempts to configure a coherent political force to succeed Al-Assad have foundered. More hope is being invested in the National Coalition for Revolutionary Forces and the Syrian Opposition, which takes in exiled political opponents and internal armed factions. The coalition’s allies in the US, Doha and Riyadh hope that its leader, Moaz al-Khatib – the former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus – will provide the kind of leadership around which the opposition can rally effectively and accelerate the fall of the ruling regime.

That, however, is not a foregone conclusion. One key question is whether the new Syrian opposition’s political leadership will be able to coordinate with the military. “What we haven’t seen so far is any real linking up between fighters on the ground and the political opposition abroad,” says Christopher Phillips, Syria analyst and associate fellow at the UK’s Chatham House. “If we see some cohesion between military figures and the political leadership, then it’s possible that this group will be able to pack a punch internationally and look like a realistic government in exile.”

Regional elections in 2013
23-Jan Jordan Parliamentary elections
20-Apr Iraq Provincial council elections
14-Jun Iran Presidential elections
June Tunisia Presidential and parliamentary elections
June Qatar Parliamentary elections
Source: MEED

The formation of the coalition was also significant in that it has brought Saudi Arabia and Qatar together in a closer embrace. Up to now, the provision of arms and money by these countries lacked any coordination. This time around, senior officials anticipate a more coordinated Gulf response to the Syrian crisis.

Spillover from Syria will nonetheless remain a key risk through 2013. The country’s civil war can still threaten neighbouring Lebanon’s stability, and drag other regional states deeper into the mire. 

However, Lebanon’s political establishment has so far been successful at halting attempts by the Syrian regime to turn its conflict into a Lebanese conflict, and even Hezbollah – closely allied to the Al-Assad regime – has been averse to escalating the crisis, wary of testing a disaster scenario.

Lebanese parliamentary elections are set for the summer of 2013 and will be a key test of whether Syria’s conflict will remain self-contained. If Al-Assad is overthrown before those elections, it could precipitate a bigger crisis than if he were toppled afterwards. 

“If Al-Assad were to fall just before [the Lebanese] elections you would see desperate attempts at coalition-building between the pro- and anti-Syrian camps and that might present opportunities for violence as the old certainties have gone,” says Phillips. “If he fell after the elections, you would have a five-year period when new coalitions could be built from within the existing parliamentary structure.”

Troubled Jordan

Jordan, another Syria neighbour, is gearing up for parliamentary elections scheduled for January. The Hashemite kingdom, shaken by fuel price protests in late 2012, has so far struggled to develop a convincing reform process and seems destined for further political tumult through 2013 as its intractable economic and political problems weigh heavily.

King Abdullah’s constitutional changes have so far failed to satisfy popular demand for a more lasting transfer of power from the throne to parliament. Pressure will mount from Jordanians of Palestinian origin to ditch the electoral law they accuse of favouring the Transjordanian community, which is the source of support for the monarchy. 

Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood party will challenge the king’s remit, although the overthrow of the monarchy looks an unlikely prospect. The Gulf states, which have a vested interest in another monarchy’s survival, would be unlikely to support such a prospect and, as they showed in the case of Bahrain in March 2011, may step in militarily if need be.  

Iraq could figure more prominently in 2013 as a crucible of the broader regional conflict. Provincial elections set for April will reveal whether the Shia-led governing coalition of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will remain the dominant political force.

Perhaps more importantly, rising tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), centred on disputed provinces such as Kirkuk, could unravel the fragile state of security that has held since the exit of US forces in 2011.

Relations between Al-Maliki and KRG President Massoud Barzani are at a low point and this will affect the ongoing battle for territory and resources. The next year could see Erbil make a more concerted effort to shift its allegiance firmly in the direction of Ankara rather than Baghdad. Over the past five years, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has forged close economic and political ties with the KRG and, equally crucially, with the other main non-Shia actors in Iraq’s north, such as the Sunni Arab and Turkmen communities.

Turkish union

“Turkey wants to create an economic union of kindred groups in the north,” says Joost Hiltermann, deputy director at Spain-based International Crisis Group. “It is getting along extremely well with the Kurds and is closely allied with Sunni leaders in the Mosul and Anbar provinces. These are within the Turkish sphere of influence and bring with them energy resources.

“Turkey will try to create a real buffer between [the north] and the rest of Iraq that it sees as being controlled by Iran. That isn’t Plan A, but these things tend to take on their own momentum and the Kurds are certainly trying to push things that way.”

Iran, meanwhile, is set for a change in senior officials in 2013. Whether or not targeted by Israeli military action, which the re-election of Barack Obama may have made somewhat less likely, Tehran will doubtless be the focus of much attention. Should the Al-Assad regime fall, Iran would be under renewed pressure to come to the negotiating table.

By June 2013, the Islamic Republic will have a new president, replacing the controversial Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The most likely consensus candidate is Ali Larijani, a senior nuclear negotiator. However, the office of the presidency itself has lost much of its influence compared with the real centres of power in Iran, which are Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iranian Revolution Guards Corps.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government is tasked with consolidating the political gains of last year. The key challenge for President Mursi will be to deliver on the economy while providing wider support for the Brotherhood in other countries such as Syria, Palestine and Jordan. Mursi has shown he is willing to act tough domestically, awarding himself new powers in November that make his presidential decisions immune from legal challenge until a new constitution is drafted. Amid rioting and political outcry he then rescinded his decree. But the country is still divided.

The Gulf states, meanwhile, look set to reinforce their domestic security focus, clamping down on domestic dissent, while seeking to provide diplomatic support to its allies elsewhere in the region. “The GCC may have to take extra security measures and release subsidies to police and the army to keep the overall system intact, for if one monarch falls, there will be major problems for the Gulf’s political and economic coherence,” says one Gulf-based security analyst.

Kuwait could be the key Gulf country to watch, given the large protests it saw in late 2012, which the Gulf monarchies suspect were influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Kuwait opposition boycotted parliamentary elections in December 2012.

Political Islam

The next 12 months should see a further emboldening of political Islam as a model for governance across the region. For the Gulf states, discomfited by the rise of the Brotherhood in Egypt and other countries, this presents a clear challenge.

“The situation in Kuwait is unique to that country but it could spread, and on top of that you have the issue of the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] and how their politics could affect the GCC,” says Karasik.

In Saudi Arabia, the promotion of a younger breed of princes to senior positions will accelerate the generational shift under way at the helm of the region’s largest economy.

The appointment of 53-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as interior minister is a clear sign that the younger generation is ready to take a greater role in decision-making, as does the elevation of 63-year-old Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the US, to become the new head of intelligence. Prince Bandar will be expected to push a hardline agenda against Iran and its regional proxies.  

One key threat that all political leaders will have to deal with is the potential resurgence of Jihadi militancy. “These groups are active in Syria and they are going to have an impact on Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Palestine,” says Karasik. “It’s all part of the Syrian effect.”

The upheavals of the Arab uprisings could prove to be the early stirrings of a new order in the Middle East, which could radically reshape the regional dynamic. Managing that change will test policymakers from Morocco to Iran.