2017 fourth-quarter forecast

Middle East and North Africa

The Middle East and North Africa is the world's crossroads. It encompasses the Arabian Peninsula, the mountains of Iran, the plains of Turkey, the deserts of the Levant, the lands north of the Sahara and all coasts in between. The story of the region, as is so often the case of places stuck between foreign players, is the story of trade, exchange and conflict. The traditional powers of the region are Turkey and Iran — Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the current Arab powers — and their competition for influence over the region's weaker states makes the Middle East and North Africa an arena of violence and instability.

13 MINS READSep 28, 2017 | 13:56 GMT
The Middle East and North Africa encompasses the Arabian Peninsula, the mountains of Iran, the plains of Turkey, the deserts of the Levant, the lands north of the Sahara and all coasts in between.
(Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

The Middle East and North Africa encompasses the Arabian Peninsula, the mountains of Iran, the plains of Turkey, the deserts of the Levant, the lands north of the Sahara and all coasts in between.

section Highlights
  • Whether or not the White House certifies Iran's compliance with the nuclear deal this quarter, the United States will not abandon the agreement entirely, even as it puts more financial and military pressure on Iran in an effort to contain its influence in the Middle East.
  • Though Iran will respond to rising tension with the United States by easing its relationships with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Tehran's competition with its regional rivals will continue to play out in proxy battles throughout the Middle East.
  • An independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan will lend new momentum -- and tension -- to negotiations between Arbil and Baghdad over oil revenue-sharing and disputed territories as Iraqi politicians prepare for crucial elections in 2018.
  • As the Islamic State continues to lose ground in Syria, the U.S.- and Russian-backed forces combating it will risk coming into contact with each other, increasing the danger of clashes between them that could draw their foreign sponsors further into the fray.
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Against the Nuclear Deal, the U.S. Stands Alone

From war in Syria, Iraq and Yemen to the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran will have a hand in nearly every pressing issue in the Middle East this quarter. The region will thus be watching closely to see how Tehran interacts with the world, especially at a time when its nuclear deal with global powers is more fragile than ever. In an effort to curb Tehran's expanding influence in the Middle East, many U.S. officials are lobbying to reimplement some of the sanctions against Iran that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has frozen. U.S. President Donald Trump has also advocated extending the deal's duration, a stance that runs counter to the views of the accord's other signatories — namely, China, Russia, Germany, France and the United Kingdom.

The issue will come to a head on Oct. 15 when the U.S. State Department, following the president's recommendation, will decide whether to recertify the nuclear deal. Because most evidence, including the findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency, suggests that Tehran has upheld its end of the bargain, it will be nearly impossible for the White House to justify withholding certification on the grounds of a material breach by Iran. But Washington could choose not to issue the certification by arguing that the deal is not in the best interest of U.S. national security. Should the White House refuse to submit its certification — or to submit a report at all — the U.S. Congress would have 60 days to mull the reinstitution of sanctions tied to Iran's nuclear program.

Looking at the JCPOA

Given the enduring support for the agreement among Washington's allies, coupled with the intense U.S. focus on North Korea this quarter, U.S. lawmakers would not take a proposal to reinstate sanctions against Iran lightly. After all, the move not only would violate the deal but it also would hurt European and Asian companies that interact with Iran. Moreover, the United States would lose the trust and buy-in of its foreign partners, making it difficult to hammer out the extension of the deal's time frame that the president desires. Taken together, these consequences suggest that though the JCPOA is fragile, it will likely stay intact through the end of the year. Nevertheless, the White House will make its distaste for Iran's political and military activities throughout the Middle East known, and it will hem in Tehran where possible by layering on new sanctions unrelated to the country's nuclear program and by ordering swift military responses to Iranian provocation.

Despite wavering U.S. support for the JCPOA, Iran will try to keep the deal in place by firming up its ties with other parties to the agreement, maintaining compliance and improving its international image. Unshackled from a heavy sanctions regime, the Iranian economy has rebounded since the JCPOA's implementation, and few factions in Tehran are willing to undo that progress. In fact, the broad scope and quantity of Iran's recent economic deals with countries across Europe and the Asia-Pacific attest to its eagerness to leave its international isolation behind. In much the same way, Iran has begun to rehabilitate its image as a rogue state, albeit in part to deflect attention away from its use of proxies in conflicts throughout the region.

Iran Keeps Its Enemies Close

Iran's attempts to normalize its role in the international community won't end with its recent trade deals with Europe. As pressure from Washington mounts, Tehran will seek relief elsewhere by gradually rekindling ties with Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Less hostile relations with these longtime competitors would enable Iran to keep its rivals close while achieving certain goals, including the repair of its reputation.

Since Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shiite cleric in early 2016, inciting an attack against the Saudi Embassy in Iran, ties between Riyadh and Tehran have been particularly acrimonious. But the kingdom will have motive to explore a limited rapprochement with Iran: Saudi Arabia is preparing for a sensitive leadership transition, and it aims to mitigate the extent to which Tehran can undermine the government in Riyadh. Iran, for its part, hopes to prevent Saudi Arabia's influence from stretching into its own diplomatic strongholds.

While the longtime rivals test the waters of cooperation, the competition between them will persist. Their contest will take center stage in Iraq, which has found itself at crossroads of sorts. Over the past few months, Saudi Arabia (and to some extent, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates) have made inroads into Iraq's political and security apparatuses, offering support to Iraqi politicians from many different religious and ethnic backgrounds as the war-torn nation prepares to rebuild itself — and to hold provincial and parliamentary elections in the first half of 2018.

Iraq's top Shiite politicians will have to find a way to balance the nationalist demands of voters with the insistent support of its historical ally, Iran, and the fresh aid of its newfound partner, Saudi Arabia. The Sunni kingdom has made clear its intention to broaden its appeal throughout the country — and to increase its presence in territory Iran has traditionally considered its domain — by preparing to build two consulates in the central Shiite-majority regions of Iraq. The move will demonstrate the Iraqi government's independence from Iran and boost politicians' legitimacy among Arab voters ahead of the 2018 votes.

A Slow Burn in Syria and Yemen

The interests of Saudi Arabia and Iran will collide on yet another Middle Eastern battlefield: the Yemeni civil war. With no end in sight to the protracted conflict, the cracks within the country's northern and southern alliances have begun to spread. To the north, the pragmatic alliance between the Houthis and the followers of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh has come under increasing strain as the two factions' members have fought each other. Still, the rebel coalition will endure as long as a political resolution to the war remains elusive. And with each new attempt by Houthi rebels to launch missiles toward Saudi Arabia, Riyadh will become more convinced that Iran is lending weapons to them, worsening the threat on the kingdom's border. The southern movement, meanwhile, will seek more autonomy from the Gulf states and Aden-based government on its side.

In the Levant, Syrian forces backed by the United States will wrap up their operation against the Islamic State in Raqqa this quarter. As the extremist group steadily loses ground in Syria and Iraq, troops loyal to Damascus will consolidate their positions in Deir el-Zour before pressing eastward toward the Iraqi border. They will race to get to their destination before the U.S.-aligned Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) can intercept them by striking southward along the Khabur River, but the risk of intermittent clashes between the two groups will be high. Though efforts by the United States and Russia to deconflict the battlefield will prevent the situation from escalating, both parties will vie for control of oil fields in the area — including Syria's largest, the al-Omar field.

The Iraq-Syria Battlespace

In the meantime, Turkey will concentrate its efforts on reversing the gains of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). To that end, Ankara will launch fresh attacks against the group in its stronghold, the Afrin canton. But there Turkey will encounter stiff resistance from Russia, which maintains a military presence in the area and has repeatedly blocked the movement of Turkish forces in Syria before, despite Ankara's attempts to negotiate with Moscow (and Tehran) for an opportunity to pursue its offensive against the YPG. Turkey likewise will remain frustrated by continued U.S. support for Kurdish fighters and their close ally, the SAC.

Within the Syrian peace talks hosted in Astana, Kazakhstan, Russia and Iran have tried to persuade Turkey to rethink its aid for rebel groups in Idlib. And as it happens, an unlikely source of support for their cause has emerged: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Cognizant of a loyalist attack on the horizon, the Salafist militant group has shored up its defenses in Idlib province for months, beating back Turkey's rebel partners in the process. Eager to reclaim the ground and influence it has lost to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Turkey may choose to take a more active military role in the province's north as Russian- and Iranian-backed loyalists attack the group in the region's south and east over the next few months.

As the momentum of the Syrian civil war shifts in the loyalists' favor, one of their primary allies — Lebanese militant group Hezbollah — will be free to amass its forces on Israel's borders once more. Aware of the impending return of its Iranian-backed adversary, Israel will step up its strikes against Hezbollah and its partners before the organization has a chance to regroup. Iran's increasing influence in Syria could encourage Israel to take even swifter action against Hezbollah, though doing so would first require complex negotiations with Russia. Regardless, Israel will move aggressively in Syria in the coming quarter as Iran's lasting presence there becomes more and more assured.

Kurdish Independence Is Still Just out of Reach

One of the few things Middle Eastern powers can agree on is the Kurdish referendum. The stateless nation's long-awaited vote to claim independence from Iraq's central government took place on Sept. 25, resulting in a resounding "yes" that granted the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) the popular mandate it sought. Now the party will use that mandate to fortify its position at the helm of Iraqi Kurdistan and to improve its standing in negotiations with Baghdad over energy rights, finances and disputed territories. But the KDP's biggest rivals — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Gorran party — will work to secure their share of political and financial power during talks with Baghdad, which will begin in earnest in 2018 after the central government's fury with the referendum subsides. And as the Kurdish parties try to ensure that the plebiscite's outcome is realized, the fissures among them will deepen, fueling discord that will be made clear in parliamentary and presidential elections slated for November.

Actual and Claimed Territory of Iraqi Kurdistan

Kurdish infighting will only worsen as the KRG's biggest financial backers — Turkey, Iran and the United States — support Baghdad's position and withhold additional aid to Arbil to keep the referendum from becoming anything more than a symbol, for the sake of stability throughout the region. Now that the immediate Islamic State threat has diminished, the Kurdish and Arab forces arrayed against it are at risk of turning their ire toward one another as they struggle for control over valuable territories. Arbil and Baghdad both have militias in disputed regions such as Kirkuk and Diyala, and as tension between them rises, so will the risk of clashes on the ground. United in their disapproval of the referendum for fear of the precedent it will set for their own Kurdish communities, Iran and Turkey will use their proxies in Iraqi Kurdistan to defend their interests in those territorial disputes this quarter. And as they work with Iraq's central government to contain the fallout from the vote, their relationships with Baghdad will grow ever closer. 

Rows and Reforms in the GCC

Across Iraq's southern border, Saudi Arabia will be dealing with a few crises of its own. In recent months, the kingdom has led a handful of its peers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in a campaign to isolate Qatar as punishment for some of its policies. The spat has laid bare the flaws in the bloc's plans for greater integration by exposing its members' conflicting imperatives. For instance, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates share the goals of halting the spread of both Iranian influence and Islamist groups — two of the main motives behind the blockade against Qatar — but their operational priorities diverge. Qatar's recent resumption of ties with Iran, moreover, has shown the extent to which the blockade has backfired, as well as the extent to which Doha is banking on its relationships with Tehran and Ankara to resist the damaging effects of its isolation.

In the long run, the blockade will weaken the fabric of the GCC in its entirety. Tit-for-tat media wars will continue long after the two sides reach a diplomatic solution to the standoff, and their enduring enmity will be on full display during the bloc's annual summit in December — if it is even held. Nevertheless, the GCC states will individually try to pull together their 2018 budgets and meet their agreed-upon January deadline to enact a common value-added tax. Mutual mistrust, fanned by the feud with Qatar, will not make either of these goals easier to achieve.

As this quarrel plays out, Saudi Arabia will face the added challenge of seeing through several sweeping changes within the highest ranks of its government. Recently anointed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will be keen to ensure that he has the firm support of the country's leaders and populace, particularly after overhauling the kingdom's security agencies. His attention to his political base has only increased amid rumors of the king's impending abdication, indicating that he will likely assume the throne in the near future. Saudi authorities' recent arrest of several prominent clerics, activists and scholars signals the prince's intent to clamp down on dissent as the royal succession looms and as Riyadh's financial problems persist. The kingdom will struggle to boost its non-oil revenues during the fourth quarter while putting into practice the latest iteration of a plan to increase employment among its citizens. All of these tumultuous changes will give Saudi Arabia added reason to seek calm where it can, including in its relationship with Iran. 

In Libya, a Peace Process Renewed

Libya will be anything but calm in the coming quarter as the representatives of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives continue to negotiate a political resolution to the conflict, a new constitution and the role of Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter's army in any future unity government. Though a United Nations-led action plan unveiled in September has reinvigorated the talks, they are unlikely to lead to a breakthrough before the end of the year. After all, Hifter is still a divisive figure in western Libya who controls enough of the country — and boasts enough foreign support — to continue holding out as his political rivals in the west weaken.

Libya's Governments

Libya's oil production will remain as volatile as its politics. Though output peaked at about 1 million barrels per day in July — the highest figure seen since 2014 — the spike was short-lived. Security personnel and militias shut down several key pipelines and oil fields in August and September in an attempt to barter for higher salaries or unpaid wages. The use of pipelines as leverage by local communities and militias is a consistent feature of Libya's energy industry and will likely continue over the next few months.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State's Libyan branches have resurfaced. After launching several attacks during the third quarter, the militants will likely continue to threaten security checkpoints and oil and water infrastructure through the year's end. Their activity will encourage tactical cooperation between rival Libyan forces who share the goal of stamping out the Islamic State, such as Bunyan al-Marsous and Hifter's Libyan National Army.

The return of Islamic State branches will not be unique to Libya. As the extremist group loses ground in Iraq and Syria, it will revert back to the insurgent and terrorist tactics it relied on before the establishment of its so-called caliphate. At the same time, it will focus on boosting its wilaya, or provinces, in the Sinai Peninsula, North Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan to divert attention from its setbacks on the battlefield. Despite its loss of territory and manpower, the Islamic State still has viable propaganda outlets capable of inspiring grassroots attacks around the world. But though these outlets have called for sophisticated and elaborate operations, from cyanide poisonings to train derailments, the types of attacks the group's followers are more likely to conduct will be tactically simpler knife and vehicular assaults.

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