If you thought 2011 was a historic year for the Middle East, 2012 is likely to be even more unpredictable.
The region was swept up by mass demonstrations that forced four dictators out of power, threatened the rule of several others, and created huge humanitarian needs.
But analysts say the region may get even hotter in the coming months, with serious consequences for security, displacement, livelihoods and access to food and water.
“2012 is going to be the year of crisis,” said Riad Kahwaji, founder and chief executive officer of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).
The following are some of the flashpoints and vulnerabilities to look out for:
President Bashar al-Assad’s vow on 10 January to fight “terrorists” with an “iron fist” has Syrian activists worried that the crackdown will only get worse. The UN says more than 5,000 civilians and army defectors have probably been killed so far, while the government says 2,000 members of its security forces have died in the violence.
According to the Turkish and Lebanese governments, more than 25,000 people fled Syria in 2011, though many have since returned. The UN has said there are pockets of humanitarian needs in the country, including reduced livelihoods, food insecurity and temporary cut-offs from basic services, which it said are likely to increase with the ongoing violence.
A mission of Arab League monitors sent to Syria is struggling: it has acknowledged it needs assistance to carry out its tasks; its members have come under attack; and one of its monitors resigned in protest at what he called a “farce” of a mission. Al-Assad mocked the League during his speech, saying it had failed for six decades to do anything for Arabs.
A failure of the Arab League mission means the UN will likely get involved, Edward Djerejian, a former US ambassador to Syria, told the BBC.
If Sunni powerhouses Turkey and Saudi Arabia funnel weapons to the majority Sunni opposition movement in Syria, “it’s quite likely that the uprising would take an even more sectarian tone and you would have the potential for a second Iraq in Syria whereby political allegiances are based entirely on sect and ethnicity, militias are formed, the state collapses and you have a full-blown civil war”, said Christopher Phillips, a lecturer in international relations of the Middle East at Queen Mary college, University of London. The Syrian regime could also use a civil war as a way of clinging to power, he told IRIN.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has said he expects al-Assad to fall within months and Israel has prepared for the eventuality of taking in fleeing refugees from al-Assad’s minority Alawi sect.
If and when al-Assad’s government falls, Syria will be confronted by various challenges, including the polarization of sects, possible revenge killings or sectarian war, and an unpredictable reaction from Lebanon-based Shia militant group Hezbollah, and its backers in Iran.
Iraq, Iran and Israel
Analysts warn the increasingly violent and sectarian nature of the conflict in Syria is already contributing to violence in Iraq, could lead to conflict in Lebanon, Israel, the occupied Palestinian territory and/or Iran, and could trigger a regional war.
An emboldened Sunni protest movement in Syria has already helped inspire Sunnis in Shia-led Iraq to rise up again, Phillips said. Suicide attacks, car bombs, and assassinations have targeted Shia neighbourhoods since US troops withdrew. Analysts say Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has failed to make the political elite inclusive, leaving Sunnis feeling threatened and causing them increasingly to try to exert their influence. Iraq is already on an escalating path of violence.
The risk of losing al-Assad, a key ally, has heightened Iran’s perception of risk and may have contributed to ramped-up rhetoric between Iran and both the US and Israel over Iran’s nuclear programme and its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway leading to the Persian Gulf through which one-fifth of the world’s oil passes.
“The sense of anxiety in Iran is quite high. This also increases the possibility of miscalculations there that could ignite a regional war,” Kahwaji said.
Al-Assad’s fall would also weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon and tempt Israel to try to take the group out once and for all. “With the Syrian regime gone, Hezbollah would lose all supply lines with Iran and will appear to Israel as easy prey,” Kahwaji told IRIN. An attack on Hezbollah would fan old sectarian flames in Lebanon.
The Israelis may also seek to weaken Hamas, the militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, which has been strengthened by the rise of moderate Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
Israeli military leaders have already warned that an attack on Gaza, similar to Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 is increasingly likely. Ron Gilran, manager of the intelligence department at Max Security Solutions, a risk consulting company based in the Middle East, went a step further, describing it as “inevitable”.
Some analysts say a US election year means Israel will face less opposition, due to domestic pressure, from the Obama administration and thus will have more room to act – both in Gaza and against Iran – “with any number of unexpected, unintended - and potentially disastrous - consequences”, Louise Arbour, president of the International Crisis Group, said.
However, others say the US is unlikely to greenlight a controversial Israeli attack during an election year.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s agreement to step down in February has halted mass protests that had engulfed the capital Sana’a and other cities, but observers are not convinced of a peaceful resolution.
“Yemen stands between violent collapse and a thin hope of a peaceful transfer of power,” Arbour said.
Elections scheduled for February could be very divisive and a failure to implement the political agreement could trigger further civil unrest and increased insecurity, according to the UN.
Violence due to ongoing conflicts between the government and rebels in the north, as well as Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants in the south, continues to displace people and challenge the government’s ability to provide basic services.
Aid workers expect the number of internally displaced and severely food-insecure people to rise to 700,000 and 5-7 million people respectively in 2012. They also expect this year to bring increased malnutrition, outbreaks of communicable diseases, and mortality for vaccine-preventable diseases for children, as well as decreased school attendance and water availability.
The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has identified Yemen as the country at most extreme risk of a humanitarian emergency in the Middle East in 2012, appealing for more than twice the funding it requested last year to meet needs in the country.
In those countries where uprisings have succeeded in pushing dictators out of power, the transitions have not been as smooth as many had hoped.
“There is the potential that by the end of 2012, things look far less democratic and positive than they are now,” Phillips told IRIN.
In Egypt, the failure of revolutionary youth and parties to make political gains after the uprising might be cause for trouble, according to Cairo University political science professor Amira Al Shanawany.
“They are not part of any of the post-revolution governments,” Al Shanawany said. “They could not make any tangible victories in the parliamentary election either.”
The resultant frustration might give rise to more political and social unrest in the next year in the form of more demonstrations and confrontations with military and civilian policemen, she said. Delayed reaction to results of the first elections, in which Islamists won the majority, could also spell trouble.
In Libya, militias hanging on to their weapons continue to pose a threat to the country’s stability as the interim central government struggles to exert control.
Economies hard hit by the Arab Spring - Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Tunisia - are unlikely to bounce back in 2012, according to Walid Khadduri, an adviser to the Middle East Economic Survey.
“A lot of the money – both Arab and international – pledged to these countries has not really arrived,” Khadduri said, and foreign investors are unlikely to return immediately amid continued instability.”
In Egypt, for example, a widening budget deficit (150 billion pounds or nearly US$25 billion), coupled with falling revenues, will reduce the government’s ability to subsidize basic commodities this year, contributing to increased poverty and malnutrition, according to Ain Shams University economics professor Yumn Al Hamaki.
Even in countries that do have the money, like Iraq (with projected oil revenue of $100 billion in 2012) and Libya (which is expected to return to pre-war levels of oil production by June), wealth may not trickle down to the people, Khadduri said, because of corruption or lack of functioning government.
Youth unemployment – a major driver in the Arab Spring – continues to be a major challenge for the region, with more than half the population in Arab states younger than 25 and unemployment largely exceeding the global average.
One-quarter of college graduates in Egypt and 30 percent of those in Tunisia cannot find full-time jobs, according to the UN Development Programme's (UNDP) 2011 Human Development Report (HDR).
The Arab region is the world’s most arid: one-quarter of the population lives on land that cannot be productively cultivated – more than in sub-Saharan Africa, the 2011 HDR said. Water problems affect more than 60 percent of the region’s extreme poor, it added. Arab states have the greatest urban pollution of all regions and the world’s highest dependency on fossil fuels.
Already, we were at a crisis. Now… it’s going to get worse.
“People are more concerned with security and how to manage these uprisings and new constitutions. Water and energy and food security will not be prioritized,” Rabi Mohtar, executive director of the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute, told IRIN.
“Already, we were at a crisis. Now… it’s going to get worse.”
In Sudan and Morocco, nearly 40 percent of people live on degraded land - four times the global average - seriously affecting long-term ability to meet food needs, the HRD said. In Iraq, more than half the population is unhappy with its water supply, the report added. In Egypt, farmers will find it more difficult to find the necessary water for their fields.
“Our population continues to grow, but our share of the water of the Nile [River] does not increase,” said Maghawry Shehata, an adviser to the Egyptian Irrigation Minister.
Countries in the region are prone to drought and the increasing effects of climate change - land erosion, expanding deserts and severe water shortages - could sharpen existing hardships facing Arab states, the HDR warned. Population growth and urbanization are further challenging the region.
“This is a slow-onset disaster, but very much a source of concern,” Abdul Haq Amiri, head of OCHA in the Middle East, told IRIN.
There are already signs of increasing malnutrition in Yemen and Egypt. The United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia all consume water at many times the sustainable rates, while Jordan and Syria threaten to exhaust their renewable resources - “heightening tensions within the countries and with neighbours”, the HRD said.
Troubles between Egypt and other Nile Basin countries are likely to grow as some of these countries, including Ethiopia, go ahead with plans to build Nile dams that might affect Egypt’s share, Shehata said. The positions of the newly created South Sudan and the new military regime in Egypt on this issue have yet to be fully understood and may also tip the balance.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions