What to Expect From the Middle East in 2013

2013 holds great potential for the Middle East and North Africa despite a number of substantial political and economic challenges. Today, the broader Middle East is experiencing a period of profound instability. The revolutions of 2011 paved the way for political transition in a number of countries throughout 2012 and the year ahead will see many of those same countries continuing to evolve politically, or, in other cases, degenerate further into violence. Meanwhile, the U.S. is continuing to assert a stronger role in eastern Asia and with the current focus domestically and around the world centered on the economy, questions remain whether Washington can or will continue to have a strong presence in the region. The most influential countries in the region today are also those that face the most severe threats in terms of political freedoms and human rights: Egypt, Syria, and Iran.

Egypt, the region's most populous and influential country continues on the path to democracy but has proven that path is wrought with potential pitfalls that could lead to violence in 2013. Political instability in Cairo has nearly boiled over as opposition forces and the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government have clashed over the new constitution. Meanwhile, the country's economic recovery remains limited despite efforts to secure loans from wealthy Arab countries and the IMF. In fact, the IMF loan conditions have been a source of tension and could lead to further divisions when austerity measures hit Egypt's struggling population. Calls for a retrial of deposed president Hosni Mubarak may satisfy some if a harsher sentence is laid down but the need for consensus among political groups, branches of the central government, and the military, remains a distant hope, severely limiting economic progress and the development of a government that rules by consent.

In Syria, the civil war has escalated beyond the scope even of the activists who have served as the world's window to the war inside a country where the media is severely restricted. Near Damascus, violence continues to rage on despite repeated pleas from international observers. The U.N. recently released figures from a study it conducted in Syria that showed that more than 60,000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted 18 months ago. Syria has the potential to undermine the stability of neighboring Jordan and Lebanon where the already stretched social fabric is being further tested by massive influxes of refugees. With world powers largely on the sidelines, either because of a lack of political will or an intractable position vis-à-vis a country with significant strategic weight, the outlook in Syria remains grim for the year ahead.

Iran, a country with inextricable links to the Syrian regime, has seen little progress with the U.S. diplomatically but rather increasingly severe sanctions and fewer and fewer options to engage with Washington or the region. Their role in supporting the Assad regime has grown in importance as the country becomes increasingly isolated in the international community. With U.S.–Russia relations as strained as ever, Iran's own isolation has only increased and will likely continue to increase during the coming year. 2013 also marks a year that Iran will hold presidential elections in which the two-term President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is no longer eligible to run. The 2013 election will dictate a great deal about the path forward for Iran and the state of the opposition.

In the final months of 2012 Mahmoud Abbas jumpstarted his push for Palestinian statehood, this time in the form of a watered-down bid for observer status at the U.N. The move garnered substantially less enthusiasm from Palestinians and saw limited international media attention in a climate dominated by political upheaval in the region and ongoing violence in Syria. While the bid has limited legal implications, it could be the start of a more robust campaign for recognition among other U.N. agencies, most notably the international criminal court. In terms of negotiations, President Obama may look to his second term as a time to press for the resumption of talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

In the Gulf, ongoing violence against political activists in Bahrain is fostering the growth of an increasingly militant opposition as crackdowns on peaceful protestors continue with growing force and limited condemnation from Washington. With the United States unlikely to press the country's rulers on human rights issues the risk of escalating violence remains a real threat in the year to come.

In the broader Middle East, the most important question for the U.S. in 2013 is not only whether it has a role to play inside the region working to help resolve political disputes, as in the case of Egypt, or violent conflict, as in the case of Syria, but what Washington is effectively capable of achieving. The desire to refocus attention on eastern Asia and to limit the U.S. military footprint overseas raises important questions for the year ahead. A refocus away from military engagement is indeed the right move, but to withdraw attention from the region during this chaotic period would be a mistake with lasting effects.

The U.S. should focus on its diplomatic and economic relationships especially with those countries that have shown promise in democratic growth such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya while working with the region's power brokers to help secure a peaceful resolution to the Syrian war. A dynamic similar to that of Egypt today exists in Iran, where we will be closely watching the coming election in the hopes of a fresh start for relations and a move towards greater political openness. In Israel-Palestine, Obama has an opportunity in his second term to push more aggressively for a return to the negotiating table and build on the momentum of the Palestinian's newly granted status at the U.N., a move all parties have agreed is no substitute for talks.

The year ahead is one where the future of the Middle East and the United States' role in the region is in question but is also a time where constructive engagement through diplomacy and development and economic aid has a crucial role to play in supporting the peaceful transition to democracy.