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Expect a tumultuous 2020 in the Middle East

The embassy assault in Baghdad is just the beginning. Here are 3 trends to watch.

- December 31, 2019

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that 2020 will be tumultuous in the Middle East. Libya’s civil war has taken a dangerous turn, with Russian mercenaries and Turkish forces joining the fray as Gen. Khalifa Hifter’s forces push into the capital. Yemen is still ravaged by economic blockade and war, despite recent efforts on all sides to de-escalate the conflict. Syria’s civil war continues to metastasize, with a massive new wave of refugees fleeing violence in Idlib. Large-scale popular protests are challenging Iraq’s government, which is bracing for fallout from the growing confrontation between the United States and Iran. Israel and the Palestinian territories could dramatically change their relationship, as the prospects of a two-state solution dissolve. And protest movements throughout the region could shake up half a dozen regimes.

Here are three trends to watch in the Middle East over the coming year.

1. Every government is on edge about the U.S. 2020 election

Usually, when the U.S. government changes hands, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East remains steady and consistent. No more. If a Democrat replaces Donald Trump in the Oval Office, Middle Eastern regimes expect sharply reversed policies on such front-line issues as the nuclear agreement with Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, relations with Turkey and alliances in the Persian Gulf region. If Trump remains in office, he will be unleashed, convinced by his electoral success that even his most controversial policies were right.

Facing such different possible futures, Middle Eastern governments could choose one of two approaches. They have good reason to be cautious, reaching out to both sides of the American partisan divide to ensure continuity in their relations. But some may see a closing window of opportunity for cherished goals — including potentially destabilizing moves that the Trump administration may wish to encourage, seeing possible political advantages. That means there’s an unusually high risk that Israel will annex the West Bank or launch a major military strike against Iran or Hezbollah over the next 11 months.

Key regional players such as Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, the United Arab Emirates and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu placed their bets on Trump’s presidency. Their enthusiastic embrace of Trump brought near-complete impunity for their regional adventurism, atrocities such as the murder of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi and controversial domestic policies. That close relationship came at a cost, though: Both Congress and the U.S. public increasingly identified them as Republican allies. Should a Democrat take the White House, Saudi Arabia in particular can expect serious repercussions. The Saudis’ assessment of the likelihood of a new U.S. administration in 2020 will likely guide their decision-making in the coming months.

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2. Conflicts in the Persian Gulf region are getting harder to control

The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran has inflicted economic pain — while accomplishing few or none of its strategic objectives. For all its internal problems, the regime is unlikely to collapse. Seeing no diplomatic openings ahead, Iran and its proxies have launched escalating attacks on U.S. interests. After avoiding responding to such earlier incidents as suspected Iranian attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, the United States bombed Kataib Hezbollah targets in Iraq. While all players have thus far managed the conflict to avoid escalation, this will become increasingly difficult. Expect continued escalation between Iran and the United States across the Persian Gulf region, Iraq, Syria and even Lebanon as these dynamics continue. While neither the United States, its allies, nor Iran wants war, the complexity of the situation, the number of potential spoilers and the uncertainty generated by Washington’s turmoil raise the risk of unintended escalation.

Even without war, Iraq will suffer the collateral damage of this confrontation, as it is torn between its close relations with both Iran and the United States. Remarkably, the Trump administration has abandoned the U.S. strategic consensus that it’s essential to support the Iraqi government that the United States largely created — and has instead single-mindedly focused on confronting Iran and its allies, even when that endangers the coalition’s campaign against the Islamic State. The U.S. strike against an Iranian-backed militia has been predictably destabilizing. Militia supporters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, as popular opinion, which had been focused on Iran’s presence in recent weeks, has turned sharply against the United States. Don’t be surprised if Iraqi politicians begin demanding that U.S. forces leave the country.

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3. Protests and more protests

2019’s wave of protests across the Middle East rivaled those of the Arab Spring in 2011 — and in some ways were more impressive. Protests challenged regimes in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon; forced political change in Algeria; and overthrew the Sudanese regime. More will come. Lebanon’s economic crisis is intersecting with the protests in unprecedented ways, while the sudden death of Algeria’s military strongman and the election of a new president have opened the door to the possibility for real change. Sudan’s remarkable democratic transition will be sorely tested. Popular dissatisfaction had been building in these countries — and others — for years, with widespread discontent over worsening unemployment, food shortages, crippled or nonexistent public services, and corrupt or repressive governments being amplified by a new generation’s impatience. New protest waves were only a matter of time.

Sudan’s remarkable success offers a glimmer of hope that protest movements may break with recent patterns of failure in 2020. Protesters have learned from past failures, showing remarkable resilience, creativity and political discipline. However, keep an eye on whether these sustained peaceful protests will tip over into violence, as loosely organized opposition coalitions fray and impatient regimes use harsher policing tactics. In Iran, brutal repression seems to have quashed its 2019 protests, but the underlying grievances simmer. In Iraq and Lebanon, the governments’ violent attacks on protesters haven’t yet slowed those demonstrations — and could escalate from arrests and beatings to slaughter.

Don’t be surprised if protests erupt in other countries this year. Egypt’s government has been intensifying its repression, arresting journalists and shuttering civil society while its economy has struggled. Jordan’s economic struggles have become more pressing under the weight of Syrian refugees and reduced aid from the Gulf, and Israel’s annexation of the West Bank could spill over onto Jordan’s territory. Oman’s long-ruling sultan is reportedly critically ill, and his succession is of great interest to its bickering Gulf neighbors. While renewed protests in Syria against Assad’s brutal regime are difficult to imagine, the dramatic spillover of Lebanon’s economic crisis into Syria poses a challenge that the regime cannot kill its way out of, and few if any other nations are likely to send assistance.

Expect these three trends to bring numerous crises during this U.S. election year, shaping the challenges that will await the next administration.

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