Q17: What will the significant players in the Middle East: Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia gain or lose in 2020?
New Year’s Eve 2019 Forecast:
Ed. Note: This forecast was asked and answered before the Soleimani strike.
I predict Saudi Arabia will lose the most, Turkey will gain the most, and Iran will struggle to hold its recent gains and avoid collapsing back in on itself. Taking these in order.
Iran has completed its strategic encirclement of the GCC with Syria stabilized. The Kingdom has lost Congressional, if not Presidential support, due to Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia is still pinned in Yemen with no relief or exit in sight and as that conflict grows into Syrian levels of suffering world support will continue to evaporate. Houthis and Iranians have proven they can reach-out-and-touch key infrastructure and locations via done strikes with impunity. And even their southern border isn’t safe from Houthi raids such as when they seized a battalion of SANG mercenaries. The mastermind of Iranian maximum-pressure, former NSA Josh Bolton is now gone and there is no good strategic mind for how to confront the likes of Soleimani in the Gulf left. MBS came to the same conclusion over the summer it seemed and began entertaining rapprochement with both Iran and now Qatar. But they have a weak hand to play. I expect reconciliation with Qatar will bolster the GCC, but any detente with Iran they’re going to come out on the losing end of.
Iran is in the middle of the pack, and the most complex. On paper it’s foreign policies should have it in the strong-hand position in the region. They picked the winning side in Syria, can now complete their heavy-rail line across Iraq and formerly Kurdish areas to their naval base in Latakia on the coast. They’re also building a major military depot at Imam Ali compound capable of holding considerable war reserves and logistics operations to support forward operations in the eastern Mediterranean, all without having to worry about the Suez choke point. On the southern side their support of the Houthi insurgency has strengthened over the years from what was minor to now a major commitment. They’ve completely encircled not only Saudi Arabia, but potentially Israel as well. I’ve described this regional encirclement strategy as the Zulu “horns-of-the-bull.” The problem here is one of the horns is infected. Along the northern arc there is no a band of instability threatening Iranian interests in Lebanon and Iraq. And the bull’s head itself possesses a brain-tumor. The cancer of domestic instability, economic failure, and potential collapse. Unless they can find some way to monetize or otherwise capitalize on this strategic position it’s unclear how they’re going to recoup the significant invested and ongoing cost of maintaining it. Israel for sure isn’t going to sit idly by while Iran builds up a fleet in their near-waters and we see what’s going on in Iraq. Maintaining this encirclement means continued cost, and that cost reduces what they can do to placate or resolve the economic woes at home. They are in a quandary as where to spend because any area they don’t invest in they risk losing. But if they can solve this significant contingency it may create a historic win for Iran. I’m trying to recall the last time an indigenous Iranian state was able to broadly project into the Mediterranean and I’m thinking it was Persia under Darius the Great before Alexander.
Of the three Turkey is ascendant and gains the most in a sustainable way. President Erdogan maintains strong (speaking for a dictator) domestic support, the Turkish economy is recovering from sanction-imposed hardship and recovering. He’s got a booty-call bestie in President Trump (“one call does it all!”) and came out on top of the Syrian exchange among all participants IMO. They are now looking, as we’ve discussed to expand west. Erdogan still holds a lot of cards he can play against the EU (refugees), Russia (northern Syria status), Iran (access through the territory they now control) and the ability to provide soft-influence financial support to governments. This will let Erdogan pick or choose whether he wants to support status-quo or “new” governments arising out of this band of instability in Lebanon, Iraq, etc. because he’s not in-bed to the extent Iran is with any one. All of this without having to worry whether Israel will turn their holdings into a crater at will for sneezing too hard. Even if Erdogan backs off expanding west, as is being reported might be an option if General Hatifar ceases his attacks on Tripoli, that still leaves his powder dry to play elsewhere. The only significant challenge I see Turkey facing in the upcoming year continues to be gains by domestic opposition, but so far President Erdogan has successfully cracked down and jailed enough dissenters to hold onto power, without signs that that is leading to the kind of mass instability we are seeing in Lebanon, Iraq, Iran or Hong Kong.