Although it may be presumptuous to predict the future of the Middle East and what kind of changes we should expect by 2020, the political volatility of the region and the nature of the conflicts that have been raging for decades have created certain facts on the ground that cannot be changed, short of catastrophic events. These facts will eventually determine certain outcomes, regardless of the continued instability or even the possibility of another major violent eruption. To envision what the Middle East will look like in 2020, it is necessary to identify these facts in each conflicting area and place them in their historical perspectives. The five most likely conflicts that will be subject to a dramatic change for better or worse are the Israeli-Palestinians conflict, the dispute between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights, the future stability of Iraq, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the war in Afghanistan.
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict:
After more than six decades of continuing violent conflict resulting in the death of tens of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians, it appears that the two sides have settled on an overall solution based on the idea of two-states—Israel, and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet this is not to suggest that an agreement between the two parties is at hand. There remain many intricate and intractable issues that stand in the face of reaching an accord, specifically regarding questions over the future of East Jerusalem, the final borders, and a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. But as certain facts on the ground have evolved, the fundamentals of such an agreement have left both sides to conclude that a two-state solution is the only viable means to bring a lasting resolution to the conflict.
From the Israeli perspective, the question of demographics has rendered the continuation of the occupation simply unsustainable. If the Israelis wish to maintain the Jewish national identity of the state—which is a national prerequisite—they must ensure a sustainable Jewish majority. This is simply impossible through continuing the occupation, as sooner rather than later Israel will be faced with two unacceptable choices: either give the Palestinians in the occupied territories equal political rights, which will almost immediately make the combined Palestinian population in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel proper the ruling majority, or deny them such equality, and thereby inadvertently create an apartheid state, which would be unacceptable even to the Israelis themselves. Israel has ruled out the expulsion or the forced resettlement of Palestinians from the occupied territories, and successive Israeli governments have come to accept the international consensus that a two-state solution is the only viable option.
From the time Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, the Palestinian national movement has gone through a major transformation. Although the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) initially made the destruction of Israel the pillar of its national goal, it too, has gone through an agonizing process of survival and introspection, forcing it to painfully conclude that Israel is a fact on the ground that cannot be defeated and must be reckoned with. Even Palestinian extremist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad who still advocate the destruction of Israel, too have quietly came around to accept the undisputable fact that Israel’s military cannot be overcome now or at any time in the foreseeable future. Without publicly admitting, they too have resigned themselves to finding some kind of modus-operandi to live side-by-side with the Israelis in peace, even suggesting a 30-year ceasefire. Decades of continuing violence have demonstrated that neither side can dramatically improve over their current position, regardless of how much longer the conflict persists. Therefore, both sides may have reached a point of exhaustion, where they have finally reached a ripe moment to make peace. Moreover, in addition to the internal movement within the Israeli and Palestinian factions, there is a solid international consensus, supported by the Arab states through the Arab Peace Initiative, that a two-state solution is the only solution that could end the Middle East’s strife. All international assistance is now focused toward that end, and the United States must play a direct and active role in facilitating the negotiation process.
Looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from this vantage-point suggests that although future violent encounters or even war cannot be ruled out, the likelihood is that the Israelis and Palestinians will reach a peace agreement in the next decade. In the months and years to come though, both sides still have a ways to go in strengthening the political, economic and security pillars necessary to sustain a peace.
The Israeli-Syria Conflict over the Golan Heights:
Unlike the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Israeli-Syrian discord over the Golan Heights is probably much easier to resolve, as the conflicting issues between the parties are clearly defined and the solution is limited to the formula of land for peace—while accommodating each other on the important issues of water and security. Twice in the past decade, in 2000 and in 2008, Israel and Syria came extremely close to reaching an agreement based on this formula, but due to internal discord in Israel and the political vulnerability of its leaders, neither Prime Minister Barak nor Olmert were able to deliver the promised peace. This history, however, does not change certain facts that will make the achievement of peace between Israel and Syria most likely in the next decade.
Damascus has long since made peace with Israel a strategic option. This principle position has withstood the test of time more than once, most recently as Israel attacked Syria’s nuclear reactor in September 2007. Although Damascus is determined to recapture the Golan, it has ruled out the use of force to achieve this objective, and has largely adhered to the 1974 disengagement agreement with Israel, providing further evidence of its commitment to a peaceful solution.
Although Israel is not under intense domestic pressure to negotiate an agreement with Syria, most Israelis understand that without peace, Israel will ultimately remain under a constant security threat from its northern frontier. Successive Israeli governments have fully appreciated the fact that Syria not only holds the key to peace with Lebanon, and that it exercises significant influence over Hamas and Hezbollah. Without peace with Syria, Israel will be denied normalization of relations with the rest of the Arab states. As a result, a growing number of Israelis are coalescing around the idea that peace with Syria ought to be sought first, thereby changing the dynamic of the Arab-Israeli conflict in a fundamental way. Adding to this realization is the fact that Iran poses an existential threat to Israel, and peace with Syria could significantly weaken Iran’s influence in Lebanon and particularly in Gaza. In addition, unlike the Bush administration that sought to isolate Syria as a state sponsor of terror, the Obama administration has opened a direct dialogue with Damascus, which is likely to lead to a normalization of relations between the two countries and will position the United States to push both Israel and Syria to resume negotiations toward achieving a peace agreement. This does not rule out the possibility that Turkey, too, may resume its mediating role in conjunction with US efforts.
Based on this historical context, it appears more than likely that Israel and Syria will reach a comprehensive peace by 2020. This is due mainly to the fact that neither the Syrians nor the Israelis have any illusion about the requirements for peace, knowing full well that neither side can significantly improve their bargaining position through renewed hostilities.
The future stability in Iraq:
Six years of devastating war in Iraq has left much of the country’s infrastructure in ruin, and even more important to the future of the country, the Iraq war has torn apart the Iraqi society and created a vastly new political and social landscape that still remains in flux. There are, however, a number of facts on the ground that allow for some posturing as to what the future stabilization of Iraq will look like in 2020. Some of these conditions were developed as a consequence of the war, and some exist because of the inherit conditions in Iraq that will dominate the future development in the country.
The first is the fact that the Shiite majority has come to power for the first time in Iraq’s history, and is unlikely to relinquish it under any circumstances, as they constitute the majority of the Iraqi population. The new Iraqi constitution is based on democratic principles that allow the various Iraqi provinces to self-govern with some loose federal ties, which might eventually ensure political stability. This, however, bears two potential problems: whether the central government led by the prime minister can limit its power as prescribed by the constitution, and whether or not the Sunni provinces will opt to remain as an integral part of the central government, or instead chose a more independent path fashioned along the Kurdish semi-autonomous entity within the federal system. The passage of an oil law and a resolution to the future of Kirkuk would keep the Sunni- Shiite conflict at bay, and would also mitigate the simmering tension between the Kurds and the central government over the future of Kirkuk.
That being said, a growing number of Iraqis seem to agree that notwithstanding the enormous problem the country is facing in terms of shortages, government services and security, Iraq has the potential to recover—not only because of its natural wealth, but because of the historical industriousness of the Iraqi people, who are ultimately determined to chart their own destiny. However extensive Iran’s influence is over Iraq’s political, commercial and social life, the Iraqi people will not allow any outside power to exercise undue influence over their internal affairs. This also means that following the American troop withdrawal in the coming months, there would be no American military bases left in Iraq, except a security arrangement which will govern the future bilateral relationship between the US and Iraq. Finally, unlike Iran, religion will not be the dominating political force in Iraq, which will translate into a more politically moderate state in its relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict and with its predominantly Sunni neighbors.
Since many political, economic, social and security factors have not completely played out as yet, Iraq will still experience many ups and down between now and 2020. But after decades of brutal rule under Saddam Hussein, an eight-year war with Iran, the Gulf war, and the current US war, the Iraqi people have reached a point of exhaustion where in the coming years they will likely focus inward in an attempt to rebuild a semblance of normalcy. This more than anything else offers insight into the hope of Iraqi people that in the next decade Iraq will have a sense of stability domestically and with its neighbors.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions:
During the next decade, Iran may capture the day-to-day news headlines as it continues to experience internal political struggles and remains at odds with the West in connection with its nuclear program. Whereas the Islamic revolution might have been able to succeed had it pursued the principles of a Republic, with a parliament and a government that rules by laws, instead, the Iranian clergy, led by its supreme leader, and the Revolutionary Guards have forfeited the very tenants of the revolution by forcefully amassing dictatorial powers with a tight military rule. The political unrest and instability that has ensued in the wake of the last election may be contained by the use of lethal force, but it is not likely to disappear, primarily because many of the early supporters of the revolution have now risen against the government’s egregious practices. This internal struggle is likely to further complicate Iran’s handling of its nuclear program, as domestic vulnerabilities often translate into a hard-core foreign policy—particularly in connection with the nuclear dispute with the West, which Iran sees as a source of national pride. Tehran’s ambitions to become a regional hegemon equipped with nuclear weapons—a most unsettling prospect not only for Iran’s Sunni neighboring Arab states but in particular to Israel—may result in serious international action, including an attack on Natanz and Qom should the Iranian regime remain intransigent.
Many other problems continue to plague Iran, including a lack of government services, dependence on the import of refined gasoline, a crumbling infrastructure and most of all an economic atmosphere that is preventing the middle class from engaging in the global economy. One thing, however, remains clear: the Iran of today will not be the Iran of 2020. A number of major developments may take place in the next ten years that will shape the future of Iran. The future of Iran will depend in part on how Iran’s nuclear impasse with the West is to be resolved. It is obvious from the history the international community has in negotiating with Iran that the regime will do its best to play for time. Should Iran eventually comply and allow its nuclear material to be shipped to either Russia or Turkey for enrichment, the long-term success of the regime is still dubious. Iran has a growing class of people who see the economic benefits the Turks have gained from engagement in the global economy, and they are growing restless under a government relying on subsidies and inhibiting development. Yet should the hubris of the Iranian regime continue down the path of international defiance on the nuclear issue, there are a number of states—led by Israel and the US—who will strike Iran’s nuclear facilities before it reaches a viable breakout capacity. In this instance, the power struggles among the clerical regime, Revolutionary Guards, and growing liberal reformists may boil over into a serious domestic conflagration.
But as the Iranian government continues to struggle with these multiple problems, it may revert back to its earlier practices of fomenting troubles elsewhere in the region to distract the international community, but perhaps this time to no avail. Indeed, many of Iran’s troubles today are likely to be with us in 2020, and many of these problems may become considerably worse.
The war in Afghanistan:
Very few countries have been ravaged by so many wars, violent conflicts, and occupation like Afghanistan. The tragedies that have been afflicted on its people by outsiders and by the hands of their own rulers are too many to numerate.
The American war in Afghanistan is the second longest war in American history, and it will certainly become the longest war by the time it comes to an end. How Afghanistan will be shaped in the next decade will depend largely on the success of the US mission in the next few years, and the willingness of the Afghan people to take a stake in their country following the US withdrawal. There are a number of objectives that the United States can in fact realize in Afghanistan in the coming year that will shape the direction of the country for the next decade.
First, The United States’ objective to weaken and marginalize Al Qaeda must remain the administration’s main focus; this objective is within reach provided that the Pakistani army fully cooperates in this effort. To this end a troop increase and targeted counter-insurgency campaign along the border with Pakistan have some effect on crippling the organization. The second objective is to ensure that in the next 4-5 years Afghanistan develops its own military and internal security forces to maintain its nation-wide security once American forces are fully withdrawn. This, too, is a fundamental prerequisite without which Afghanistan will fall back into the hands of the Taliban and thereby defeat the whole premise of the war. The third objective is the development of a strategy that will distinguish between moderate and hard core Taliban. The administration must keep in mind that not all the Taliban have the same motivation, and continued stability of the country will depend on the extent to which the majority of the moderate Taliban take stake in their local communities and join the process of political and economical promotion. The fourth objective must focus on sustainable development to provide the means—capital and limited technology—for self running projects that will create jobs and provide a dignified living. In this respect USAID and the numerous non-governmental organizations, both local and international, should work in tandem to employ and train thousands of Afghans in agriculture and infrastructural projects that will build up a nascent Afghan economy and work force. Sustainable development will provide the economic core and future grassroots for the political and social development of Afghanistan, and will be instrumental in eradicating poverty in the long-run.
The situation on the ground in Afghanistan is constantly changing, and the strategies effectiveness of military and central government will vary in each province. The Afghanistan we see a decade from now will depend largely on the flexibility and agility of US and international troops, the numerous aid organizations, and the local civilians to adapt to the changing circumstances. The nature of a state new to centralized, democratic government suggests that it will likely be many years before Afghanistan is politically secure and economically viable. For the future after the US troops withdraw, a more realistic achievement would be stability.
The Middle East is known for its constant surprises and unpredictability, which has made its people capable of enduring and outlasting the numerous wars and occupations of the past century. Successive American administrations have attempted to understand the nature of the region, and often intervened to remake the Middle East in its own image. Yet if anything, the deep diversity and cultural history of the Middle East shows a proud people whose survival instincts are unmatched. The countries mentioned have proved capable of withstanding war and conflict for decades. Yet as the world is opening up to an ever-globalized, open, and interdependent society, the greatest struggle of the Middle East in the next decade will be to reconcile its traditional culture with the advantages of a globalized world. The threat of terror and violence throughout region will undoubtedly still be prevalent ten years from now, but the ultimate resolve of the moderates to overcome this legacy and pursue a more peaceful and open Middle East will remain constant and unwavering.