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Apr 10, 2017 | 09:32 GMT

2017 Second-Quarter Forecast: Middle East and North Africa

In the Middle East and North Africa, the primary focus of the second quarter will be the fight against the Islamic State.

The Syrian Civil War

The Fight Against the Islamic State

The Battle for Mosul

The Kurdish Struggle

Turkey's Resurgence

Iran's Arc of Influence

Israel's Survival Strategy

The Saudi Survival Strategy

The Yemeni Civil War

The Libyan Civil War

The Difficulties of North African Reform

The Syrian Civil War

The United States faces heightened risk on the Syrian battlefield this quarter at the same time it prepares to kick off a major offensive against Islamic State in Raqqa. A U.S. limited strike on a Syrian air base in response to a Syrian chemical weapons attack was designed to demonstrate the United States’ decisiveness in military matters (a message not lost on North Korea,) but it also came with risks. Russia has long attempted to leverage the Syrian battlefield in its broader negotiations with the United States, but the United States is not leaving much room for a bargain with Moscow. Russia thus has to rely on negative influence to try and draw the United States into a dialogue and will try to play the role of spoiler on the Syrian battlefield to raise operational risks for the United States. There will be potential for the two sides to negotiate on deconfliction, but that will likely be the extent of their cooperation this quarter as Washington focuses on the fight against the Islamic State.

Russian forces will be active elsewhere in Syria, however, supporting the Syrian army's offensives against rebel forces as well as the Islamic State in theaters such as Deir el-Zour. After a few shaky months in place, the cease-fire that Russia, Turkey and Iran brokered between the rebels and loyalists in December 2016 has broken down completely. Its failure underscores the futility of the attempted peace talks that took place throughout the first quarter. In the second quarter, Syria's deepening economic woes, evident in the country's food shortages and collapsing currency, will threaten the government's hold on loyalist territory

Syrian fighters backed by the United States will lead the charge in RaqqaThe United States' battle plan, which also includes deployments of U.S. troops, will rely on the most effective fighting force available in the short term: the multiethnic Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF has made swift work of the fight so far, having nearly encircled the city. With help from the freshly deployed U.S. forces, artillery support has also been put in place.

But by emphasizing the SDF in the battle for Raqqa, the United States will further strain its already tense relations with Turkey. The forces include members of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), a militia Turkey considers a terrorist organization and an active threat to its national security. Still, Ankara's dismay will not discourage Washington from working with the force. And though Turkey will try to finagle a more prominent role for the forces it supports, including Turkish-trained Arab tribal forces, the United States will prioritize winning the fight against the Islamic State by the most expedient means available over appeasing Turkey. Turkey will nonetheless try to draw the United States deeper in a fight against the Syrian regime and push its proposals for establishing a no fly one and safe zones in in Syria. 

Washington's battle plan for Raqqa is just one of many complications Ankara will have to contend with in Syria in the second quarter. By the time Turkey took al-Bab from the Islamic State during the last quarter, it had already accomplished many of its objectives in northern Syria under Operation Euphrates Shield. But its efforts to keep Kurdish forces from establishing control over a contiguous swath of territory in the northern part of the country are still in progress. To achieve that objective, it will have to tread lightly so as not to step on Russia's toes. Ankara and Moscow's alliance of convenience has mostly run its course in Syria, especially since Russia foiled Turkey's plans to take the city of Manbij. Nevertheless, the two countries need to keep the lines of communication open to ensure that their troops don't end up in conflict. If their priorities in Syria continue diverging, Turkey may start looking for other ways to gain leverage over Russia — by joining in on negotiations over the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, for instance, or increasing its coordination with fellow NATO members in the Black Sea. And even though Turkey will have less room to maneuver in Syria this quarter, it will still have some leeway to deepen its involvement in northern Iraq.

The Fight Against the Islamic State

In the Middle East and North Africa, the primary focus of the second quarter will be the fight against the Islamic State. The battle to oust the extremist group from its strongholds in the region will reach milestones in multiple theaters in the months ahead. in Iraq, for instance, the battle for Mosul will come to a close, at least in the city itself. And in Syria, the operation to reclaim the city of Raqqa is about to get underway. These events, though notable, will hardly herald the demise of the Islamic State. In fact, the organization will redouble its terrorist activities, not only in its core area of operations in the Middle East but also internationally, in an attempt to maintain its relevance as it loses territory.

The Battle for Mosul

Five months into the fighting, the end of the Mosul offensive is now in sight. Before the operation ends, though, Iraqi forces will deploy to other Islamic State strongholds such as Tal Afar and Hawija to sweep the extremist group out of those pockets. As the main battle comes to a close, the divisions among the Iraqi coalition's constituent groups will become clearer than ever. The risk of infighting among the alliance's Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni militias will be high throughout the quarter, particularly in the northern border regions of Nineveh province.

That Iraqi army forces are engaged in fighting in the city itself has improved the central government's reputation among Mosul residents; the boost will help Baghdad gain legitimacy and establish its authority over the city. But stabilizing the reclaimed territories around the city will be a tall order for Baghdad. Rifts within Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish groups will prevent them from reaching a coherent political settlement over Nineveh province's future this quarter. Iran and Turkey, meanwhile, will continue to vie for influence in Iraq, primarily through proxy battles in the disputed territories that will soon be reclaimed from the Islamic State. The Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) each claim control of Tal Afar, Kirkuk and Sinjar, making these areas most susceptible to fighting and disputes over territory and resources.

As Iraq's political parties gear up for provincial elections in September, regional powers such as Turkey and Iran will have yet another opportunity to try to gain influence in the country. Tehran will use its sway among Iraq's Shiite political parties and militias to goad Baghdad to prioritize its ties with Iran and to block Ankara's attempts to get involved in the political settlement process through Sunni parties. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will face mounting political pressure from all sides, including Iraq's nationalist parties, as he tries to appease Turkey, Iran and the West simultaneously. Adding to the mix, Saudi Arabia will make economic and diplomatic gestures in an effort to strengthen its ties with Baghdad. (U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has been pressuring the kingdom to help loosen Iran's grip on Baghdad's political and security spheres.)  

The Kurdish Struggle

In Iraqi Kurdistan, disagreements will prevent the region's various political factions from forming a united front. In fact, the divisions are widening. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has started pushing back more forcefully against its main political rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), to increase its share of oil revenues from Kirkuk and weaken the KDP's alliance with Baghdad. The dispute is good news for Baghdad, at least. Should the PUK make another attempt at disrupting the flow of oil from Kirkuk to win concessions from Baghdad or Arbil, the Iraqi government will feel less threatened than it would if the KDP were also in on the plan. But Kirkuk could become a flashpoint this quarter regardless, as the governments in Baghdad and the KRG, not to mention the rival Kurdish parties, fight over control of the province and its oil production.

Iraqi Kurdistan, similarly, will be a primary playing field in the competition between Turkey and Iran. Ankara will use the presence of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which it considers a terrorist organization, in northern Iraq as a pretext to deploy proxy forces in the region to defend its interests there. Turkey might consider, for instance, dispatching the Rojava Peshmerga, a Kurdish militia aligned with the KDP, to fight on its behalf in the event that ethnic conflict flares up after the Mosul offensive winds down. To keep Ankara in check and support its own interests in northern Iraq, Tehran will rely on the mostly Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces positioned near Turkish-backed forces, as well as its ties with Baghdad.

Turkey's Resurgence

In Turkey, voters will head to the polls in mid-April to decide whether to go ahead with proposed constitutional amendments that could change Turkey's political future. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a lot riding on the success of the reforms, which would increase the powers of the presidency and curtail those of other branches of government. But when voters cast their ballots on April 16, they will have other concerns on their minds, such as the country's flagging economy. Turkey's high dollar-denominated debt and weakening currency — set to further deteriorate as the dollar strengthens — have exacerbated its financial troubles recently. If the referendum falls short of the simple majority it needs to pass, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will still retain power, though the loss would be a blow for Erdogan's campaign to consolidate institutional control.

To try to improve its chances of success, the AKP has been using the country's security concerns to stoke nationalism and stir popular support for the referendum. The wave of nationalism sweeping Turkey will buoy the ruling party, win or lose. Nevertheless, the results of the referendum will reveal strong support for and opposition to the AKP, laying bare the country's sharp political divisions.

Iran's Arc of Influence

Iran will also hold an important vote this quarter. Voters in the country will elect their next president May 19. As the election approaches, even the Islamic republic's hard-line politicians are trying to avoid instigating conflict with the United States. Washington, likewise, will be careful not to provoke hostilities with Tehran by changing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal — especially since the GCC countries support keeping the agreement in place rather than risking uncertainty by scrapping it. But that won't stop the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from keeping up its usual defensive posturing and staging missile tests or military exercises in a bid to stay relevant. And as U.S. lawmakers have made clear, Congress will not hesitate to impose additional sanctions against Tehran in response to any perceived aggression.

The threat of new sanctions from the United States will compound Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's economic worries in the runup to the elections. When campaign season kicks off in April, the incumbent leader will face challenges from opponents in Iran's hard-line and conservative camps alike. And though Rouhani has experience, momentum and his role in Iran's economic recovery to date on his side, the country's lingering financial troubles will weigh heavy on voters' minds as they head for the ballot box. Inflation has fallen under Rouhani's administration, but unemployment is still high — a vulnerability his opponents may seize on during the campaign.

As the Islamic republic gears up for its election, one of its prized proxy forces, Hezbollah, could derail a vote in Lebanon. The militia's allies and enemies are still at odds over electoral reforms and a new budget, and their disagreements could postpone elections set for May. Notwithstanding the current dispute, the Lebanese government has come a long way over the past several months. A new prime minister and president have managed to reshuffle the country's military leadership and, more important, revive its stagnant energy sector. Their progress highlights the pragmatic approach Lebanon's main political parties have taken to try to find a viable compromise to solve the country's persistent problems. But as the lingering differences over electoral reform demonstrate, no solution is perfect.

Hezbollah will also be a source of growing concern for Israel during the second quarter. The group's military buildup in Syria over the course of the civil war there, combined with its growing presence in the Golan Heights, has put Israel on high alert and fueled fears of an impending war at the country's northern border. To prevent Hezbollah from getting any stronger, the Israeli government will continue attacking its arms shipments in southern Syria. Nevertheless, the conflict could escalate during the second quarter.

Israel's Survival Strategy

If the Israeli government keeps pursuing its settlement policy in the West Bank without objection from the White House, moreover, the proliferating communities could provoke a violent response from Palestinians there. The risk of renewed conflict, sparked by competing Salafist groups or merely by chance events, will loom large in the Palestinian Authority, though its two main political parties, Fatah and Hamas, will each try to avoid confrontation with Israel this quarter. In addition, the political divides between the parties could further postpone legislative elections in the Palestinian territories, scheduled in the West Bank for May.

Hamas and Fatah will each be focused on their own internal objectives this quarter rather than on bridging the divide between them. Hamas is working to modify its political charter for the first time in decades, breaking with tradition to recognize the 1967 Palestinian borders. The party's turn toward moderation, however slight, is meant to curry favor with Arab partners such as Egypt, whose support Hamas needs more than ever now that the Islamic State's Sinai faction is threatening its supply routes and legitimacy. (Israel will put little stock in the group's efforts at change, though, and will continue its operations against Hamas.) Fatah's leaders, meanwhile, will be focused on establishing a succession plan for aging party leader and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The enduring rifts between the rival Palestinian parties will prompt Arab states in the region to get more involved to try to resolve the struggle.

The Saudi Survival Strategy

For Saudi Arabia, the second quarter will hinge on OPEC's May 25 meeting. The summit, during which Riyadh will cajole its fellow members in the oil cartel to extend the production cut instated in November 2016, will be a turning point for the Saudi government's economic reform initiatives. Even though the production cap hasn't boosted oil prices as much as Riyadh hoped it would, the kingdom is in no position to risk oversaturating the market by scrapping the deal. Doing so, after all, would further destabilize the price of oil, jeopardizing Saudi Arabia's oil revenues in the process. Whether the country can persuade the rest of OPEC to stay the course with the production cut will determine every other economic action that the Saudi government takes for the rest of the year.

The Yemeni Civil War

With all sides of the conflict locked in a stalemate, Yemen's civil war will enter the second quarter more or less stagnant. The rifts in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) military coalition against Yemen's Houthi rebels are more pronounced than ever. The United Arab Emirates is focused on training and supporting its own forces in the south. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is looking to the United States for help negotiating a political resolution to end the fight. But until Riyadh compromises in its adamant support for Yemeni President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi, and the Houthi rebels agree to relinquish territory to the government, the prospects for peace will be slim. So though the United Nations will make another attempt at forging a peace plan for the country, it will make little headway in this endeavor.

Evidence of Iran's efforts to train and equip the Houthi rebels, meanwhile, has prompted the Pentagon to request more support for the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition. If the White House approves, the United States will share more intelligence and boost its logistical coordination with the Gulf coalition to try to limit Iran's influence in war-torn Yemen and stabilize the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait. At the same time, Washington will pursue a more aggressive strategy against al Qaeda in the second quarter since the group's slow and steady approach has enabled it to grow in Yemen as well as Syria.

The Libyan Civil War

Oil production will also play an important role in Libya this quarter, as multiple conflicts rage on in the country. Libyan National Army chief Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter has reclaimed the critical As Sidra and Ras Lanuf oil export terminals in eastern Libya, after the Petroleum Facilities Guards and Benghazi Defense Brigades militias overran them in early March. Though the fighting stalled oil production in Libya, it will likely maintain export levels over 400,000 barrels per day throughout the quarter.

In western Libya, meanwhile, rivalries between the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord and the General National Congress, two of the country's three rival governments, will breed divisions in Misrata and Tripoli. Outbreaks of violence between the governments' corresponding militias will continue to be a constant this quarter, particularly in the capital. International support for Libya's governments will be less divided, by contrast. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates will continue to back Hifter, while Russia increases its support for his Libyan National Army. (Unless he can bring more ground forces under his control, however, Hifter will have trouble increasing his influence in eastern Libya, and his efforts to draw new recruits will run up against tribal divisions.) And although the European Union will push for political resolutions to the various battles in Libya, negotiations will stay at a standstill this quarter.

The Difficulties of North African Reform

Elsewhere in North Africa, Algeria's government will fight a political battle of its own this quarter, albeit more quietly. The country's citizens are frustrated since the government passed a new budget that slashed public spending and raised taxes. The austerity measures, which sparked public protests, will be at the forefront of voters' minds as they head to the polls in May for legislative elections, and more demonstrations are expected in the meantime. Whatever the vote's outcome, however, the Parliament lacks the political clout to bring change to Algeria's tightly controlled political system, even if opposition parties perform better than they have in years past. Many of President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika's close allies have ensconced themselves in important ministries and positions over the past few years, including, during the first quarter, the head of state oil and gas company Sonatrach. Infighting among the country's elite will be a strong undercurrent in Algerian politics for the rest of the quarter, though it will take place largely behind closed doors.

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