In the history of the Middle East, 1917 was a tumultuous year. A century ago, Western powers beat back the Ottoman Empire in Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and bequeathed the region (under their tutelage) to tribes and sects who had hitherto coexisted under Istanbul’s rule with relative harmony. The wars that erupted over who gained what parcel of land have flared ever since.
If there is one certainty in the Middle East in 2017, it is that its sectarian flashpoints will remain unresolved. The most brutal will be the transition of Islamic State (IS) from a predominantly territorial force to an extra-territorial guerrilla one. Rolled back by Western bombardment and local armed groups, its fighters could disperse across the region and beyond, revitalising al-Qaeda’s original globalist strategy of fighting the “far enemy”. Within the region, the vacuum they leave behind will ignite fresh battles for land.
Attempting to reverse their flight from the north in 2014, Iraq’s army will struggle to prevent the country’s plethora of battling militias from dominating the field. Kurdish Peshmerga, claiming patronage of Christian, Shabbak and Yazidi sects, may swoop down from Erbil to claim the adjoining Nineveh Plain and its lucrative oilfields. Unrestrained, they could clash with Shiite militias heading north along the Tigris in a race to dominate Iraq’s second city, Mosul. Divided since time immemorial, Sunni Arab tribes might aspire to establish their own enclave, but will struggle to do more than play off one overlord against another.
Syria’s five-year-old civil war will drag on wearily into a sixth. Regional powers will follow global ones in dropping plans for a future beyond President Bashar al-Assad. Around the capital, Damascus, one pocket of rebel Sunnis after another will succumb to Mr Assad. Sunni armed groups will retreat to the peripheries astride the borders with Jordan and Turkey. Anxious to plug an exodus of refugees (including jihadists with a global agenda), both countries will try to use them as buffers. The closer they get to Israeli forces the more Mr Assad’s Iranian and Hizbullah allies could seek to chip at the ring of Sunni Islamist militias around the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
With both Israel and Hizbullah considering their 2006 war unfinished business, the prospect of confrontation, this time on Syrian soil, is real. Turkey’s army, too, will view the Kurdish forces America has built up in northern Syria as an extension of the Kurdish nationalists it is suppressing in Turkey, and could press its violent assault.
A continuation of the war involving the Arab world’s poorest state, Yemen, and its richest, Saudi Arabia, serves no one, but it could still rumble on for want of a formula to stop it. Yemen’s north and south will pull further apart. Al-Qaeda’s reach in the south-east could spill along well-established smuggling routes into Oman, despite efforts by Yemen’s neighbours to build a containing wall.
As budget deficits mount in the Gulf states (thanks to the costs of their war in Yemen) and Iran (aggravated by America’s reluctance to allow it back into global financial systems), they will seek to shift attention away from their internal woes through heightened criticism of each other. The campaign for Iran’s presidential election in May 2017—pitting hardline ideologues against President Hassan Rohani’s pragmatists—will reduce prospects for compromise. These Saudi-Iranian rivalries will further deepen the region’s Sunni-Shia divide, but fortunately there are enough proxies through which the two giants can jostle for influence without them directly waging war on each other.
Just another powder keg
Perhaps the least likely flashpoint is the one which a few years ago would have been most expected to cause trouble. The year 2017 marks the centenary of Britain’s Balfour declaration, which promised a homeland in Palestine to the Jews, and the half-centenary since Israel took all of Palestine with its conquest of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Once the catalyst of regional strife, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is slipping ever further down the agenda. There seem to be simply too many other more pressing places to worry about.