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Despite apparent bright spots, the Middle East outlook is not improving

A handout picture made available by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syrians with Syrian national flags during a protest in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in Turtus, Syria, 20 February 2014.

By Ian Bremmer

The Arab Spring failed to live up to initial hopes, contributing to a downward spiral of violence and uncertainty in the Middle East ever since.  Today, the situation isn’t improving¯in fact, we still haven’t hit rock bottom.  From peace talks in Syria to a potential nuclear agreement in Iran, I‘ll work through the various potential bright spots and explain why they should be met with guarded skepticism.

After last year’s military ouster of President Morsi and the ensuing upheaval, recent events in Egypt have been cause for optimism.  In January, Egypt’s constitutional referendum passed with more than 98% approval.  General Abdelfattah el Sisi is the favorite to win the presidency, which should usher in more political predictability as parliament and state institutions collaborate more smoothly under Sisi.  But even as underlying stability improves, Egypt’s economic and security situation will continue to deteriorate.  Violence and terrorism are on the upswing as a growing low-level insurgency becomes bolder and more sophisticated.  Security concerns will impact Egypt’s economy¯tourism in particular.  Egyptian society will remain divided.  The government will struggle with growing budget challenges as any substantial economic reform would be met with public backlash.

In Syria, last year’s Russia-brokered chemical weapons agreement and recent peace talks between Assad and the opposition have been billed as breakthroughs by the West.  But both the deal and the talks consolidate Assad’s position by cementing him as a legitimate actor.  Meanwhile, the talks are not bearing fruit and there are reports that only about 4% of known Syrian chemical weapons have actually been turned over to international disarmament teams.  Regardless, Western countries have no appetite for reopening the question of «what to do about Syria,» a prickly political debate back home.  There remains no viable pathway to end a conflict that has been responsible for over 130,000 deaths and more than 6 million internally displaced Syrians.

As the situation in Syria settles into ugly equilibrium, extremist attention will continue shifting to Syria’s neighbors and Iraq in particular, where weapons and recruits are flowing over the border with ease. The Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham’s recent invasion of Fallujah was an alarming attempt to weaken the Shia-dominated central government in Baghdad.  Many key voices in Gulf States support the rise of armed Sunni factions against Baghdad as part of their effort to undermine Iran’s allies.

Beyond Iraq, we are seeing smaller-scale Al Qaeda-linked action cells in Lebanon and the northern Sinai; these kinds of operations could spread to Jordan and beyond.  It’s true that the direct Al Qaeda threat to developed countries has faded in the wake of American-led attacks against the group’s organizational capacity and the killing of Bin Laden.  But Al Qaeda’s regional reach has never been greater as local groups with local objectives adopt the Al Qaeda brand.

Recent hopes for Turkey to assist with regional challenges beyond its borders have evaporated: Turkey is becoming a growing problem in its own right.  On top of its susceptibility to spillover from Syria, it’s likely that the ceasefire with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) breaks down after March local elections, leading to a return of sustained guerrilla activity. Prime Minister Erdogan’s increasingly aggressive behavior toward opposition, both inside and outside his party, threatens to further complicate and destabilize Turkey’s domestic political situation.

Even with recent momentum and John Kerry’s well-intentioned best efforts, we won’t see a lasting breakthrough in the Israel-Palestine conflict. That’s because a weak Palestinian government will struggle to implement any accord, and the whole Israel-Palestine question will increasingly take a backseat as the international community’s attention shifts to the Iran nuclear negotiations.

Deal or no deal, 2014 will likely be the make-or-break year for Iran nuclear negotiations.  We’ve seen a growing momentum for a comprehensive deal; the odds of success are better than even.  This is the upcoming game-changer for the region, with a dramatically different set of outcomes if a deal takes shape versus if it falls apart.  But while a cemented deal is clearly the preference for the West¯it would be a crowning achievement for the Obama administration and it would take pressure off global oil prices¯regionally, it largely just scrambles the local winners and losers.  A deal is no panacea by any stretch.  That’s because a final deal empowers Iran and paves the way for its return as a regional economic powerhouse.  That will reinvigorate its allies like the Assad regime and Hezbollah, and put it in deeper conflict with Sunni Gulf States like Saudi Arabia, displeased with Tehran’s rising influence¯and rising oil exports.

Despite the modest optimistic glimmers, don’t bet on a brighter Middle East any time soon. While the winners and losers may be shifting, the negative regional outlook remains the same.

*Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and author of “Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World.”

ekathimerini.com , Thursday February 20, 2014 (17:50)  
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