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The Middle East in 2013 just needs to weather the storm

Geopolitical risk in 2013 will be defined by the "shock of the new", instability created in the wake of the Arab Spring.

'The shock of the new." That phrase, coined by the critic Robert Hughes to describe how new trends in modern art receive out-sized attention and eclipse the old, has its place in the dark art of political-risk assessment, too.

Any list of top political risks for a year is often defined as much by what is left out as by what is included. Well-worn conflicts such as Kashmir and North Korea become muted, as they are already priced in to the calculations of global markets, military planners, policymakers and statesmen. The "new" quite justifiably carries the day.

But even though the Arab Spring is now a widely recognised trend, it still deserves attention from policymakers and investors. There are "new" elements as the risk evolves.

As the research firm Eurasia Group said in its report Top Risks of 2013: "The Middle East is now plagued with various overlapping tensions: sectarianism, especially an increasingly violent confrontation between Sunni and Shia both within and between countries; rising extremism, especially the resurgence of Sunni extremism in the form of jihadist and Al Qaeda-related groups; regional great power tensions, as the traditional western powers, especially the United States, remain mainly on the sidelines and new actors jostle for influence; and continued political tension and the lack of economic progress in the states that were at the forefront of the 'Arab Spring'."

To consider what 2013 may bring, look at what has already transpired. Gone are long-standing dictators of pro-western, pseudo-secular Sunni rule: Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh. In the Levant, meanwhile, Hamas remains at odds with Fatah, a division that enables Israel to forestall serious peace talks.

For Iran, the result has brought some of its regional opponents together. Tehran's meddling in Syria, and the appearance of the same on behalf of Bahrain's disgruntled Shia population, has prompted Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to draw closer to Turkey, which has embraced Iraq's Kurds as Baghdad leans towards Tehran. These countries are acutely engaged in containing Iran, even if some prefer to keep the United States at arm's length.

Paradoxically, this change of fortunes for Iran - recently seen as the mastermind of a Shia revival by some hawks in the US and Israel - has come despite waning US influence. With troops out of Iraq and leaving Afghanistan, Washington is suffering from what might be called "expeditionary fatigue". Longer-term trends, driven by the US production of domestic oil and shale gas, and a pivot to Asia, will tend to diminish the importance of the region to US strategists.

The US could find itself drawn more deeply into the Sahel, where arms and mercenaries from the fallen Libyan regime have helped to fuel the overthrow of Mali's government and France's new military intervention. More likely, the exasperated US will prefer to step up counter-terrorism programmes for Nigeria, Chad, Mauritania and other governments challenged by Islamist militancy.

For Israel, all of these trends should be sobering, but signs of sobriety in Israel elude us. The Netanhayu government, entering a general election with a commanding lead in the polls, has failed to display creativity in the face of this change, responding to Syria's civil war with a fence, the Hamas-Hizbollah rift with inaction and Egypt's revolution with nary a strategic rethink. All of this, along with the mishandling of once-close ties with Turkey and a general propensity to flout international law by expanding settlements, has profoundly isolated Israel.

So where will the momentum of the Arab Summer take the world next? It appears an end game has started in Syria - although when President Bashar Al Assad actually falls is anybody's guess.

What might post-Assad Syria look like? The West's decision to largely forego involvement has left conservative GCC states as the patrons of the rebels. If past experience is any guide - Saudi involvement in Afghanistan in the late 1970s, the Yemeni civil war and the Bosnia conflict in the 1990s - a destabilising Wahabbist strain of militancy may take root in Syria in the ashes of Mr Al Assad's dictatorship.

An optimistic scenario might see Turkey as kingmaker, reaping the benefits of its own aggressive support for the rebels and fashioning a caretaker transitional government led by moderates that keeps a lid on sectarian and tribal vengeance.

But it is as easy to imagine the anti-Assad forces turning on each other. Such a scenario could severely undermine Lebanon, with all the contingent risks of a new war involving Israel. Under the circumstances, with Syria in flames, the US on the sidelines, Russia discredited, Turkey's ambitions rising, Iran's influence blunted, Hizbollah threatened, Saudi Arabia providing arms and Israel in a hair-trigger defensive crouch, a new round of warfare in Lebanon would be disastrous.

And what of the Iran nuclear threat - what are the chances of military action against Iran? For all the rhetoric and "five minutes to midnight" tremolo, we believe that for the three main players at this point - the US, Israel and Iran - stasis remains preferable to confrontation. While there is ample room for miscalculation, if all three pursue their interests, a status quo path is feasible.

For 2013, the risk more closely revolves around the likelihood of a growing shadow conflict - a cycle of mutual killings, cyber-attacks and proxy battles between Iran, the US and Israel - that accelerates because of biting sanctions.

So while the Arab Spring may not carry the "shock of the new", it's sure to produce many new shocks throughout 2013.

 

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk consultancy. Michael Moran is executive editor of Renaissance Insights, a division of Renaissance Capital

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