The year 2013 is going to be one of uncertainty. I don’t think the Middle East will be the most dangerous place in the world. Africa may just take that title. The conflict between North and South Sudan could get out of hand and the future of Ethiopia is very uncertain because of the transition there. The South China Sea could also turn into a global problem. The Middle East will certainly be the region of most uncertainty though. And it’s not just about what happens with Syria, Iran or Gaza.
There are other issues. Take the internal realignments in Turkey and Jordan, for example. The two countries set to go through major transitions are traditionally the most stable in the region. They both play a major role regionally; what happens within them will have major knock-on effects. It's not just the headline countries that play a role.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will step down in 2014 and the big question is who will replace him? Until 2010, Turkey was the main catalyst of peace in the region, serving as prime negotiator between Israel and Syria, and Israel and Palestine. This was highlighted when a senior Syrian diplomat once said that there could even be a phased solution with Israel, but only if Turkey sponsored it.
From an economic stand point, Turkey and Jordan took the lead on creating a golden quadrilateral: A Free Trade Area between Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. They even invited Iraq but it wasn’t able to join. Within six months, Turkey and Jordan had created a visa-free movement regime, common banking standards and a customs union that oversaw removal of trade tariffs. Then things changed. In February 2011, Turkey and Syria set up a ‘friendship’ dam on the border. One month later, Turkey started working to bring down the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad. Turkey has done a complete U-turn with respect to its foreign policy and many within Erdogan’s ruling AK Parti, feel this change of stance was down to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and the [foreign minister’s] post along with Turkey’s regional role could change with the new leadership. Even Turkey-Israel relations took a turn for the worse after Israel bombed Gaza in 2008. Things deteriorated further after the infamous ‘Flotilla’ incident, where eight Turkish activists were killed by Israeli soldiers as they tried to reach Gaza. There hasn’t been a formal apology from Israel.
It is telling that one of the principal region negotiators and facilitators is rethinking its duty, but it must make its mind up because a challenger has emerged.
Egypt is positioning itself as the region’s trusted peacemaker in 2013. If President Mohamed Morsi can ride out the storm he is facing after introducing his controversial new decrees, Egypt can play an important role. The year will see significant internal competition for the political space, newly opened since Hosni Mubarak’s demise. An equilibrium is proving understandably tough to find but once reached, the government can push on.
A stable Egypt is crucial for the Middle East. It has already shown its mettle, mediating a ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas.
Realistically speaking, there is little chance of lasting peace between Israel and Palestine in 2013. Internal politics within each nation, characterised by hardliners gaining increasing power, will mean that we can see a ceasefire at best. There won’t be a land invasion but tension and skirmishes will be here to stay.
The only hot war in this hot-cold war region could occur if the status quo changes in Syria. What happens post Assad? There are doubts about unity of territory, social and ethnic cohesion and this fragmentation could lead to chaos and civil war that would have direct implications for Lebanon and the strength of Hezbollah. Here we’ll see just how interconnected factions in the region are: If things deteriorate in Syria, the government could ask Hezbollah to attack Israel to divert attention from the rebellion and this could lead to Israel going to war with Lebanon and/or Syria. Hezbollah, in turn, will not launch attacks without consent from Iran. What makes it so interesting is an unspoken, tacit understanding between two mortal enemies, Israel and Iran. Iran will not give Hezbollah the go-ahead to attack Israel and, in return, Israel will not destroy Iran’s nuclear sites. Watch out though, because the rhetoric will be the complete opposite.