Monday, December 21, 2015


Think 2015 was off the hook?

Look out for 2016!

1. The Assad Endgame

2015 was the year that the civil war in Syria truly became a great power proxy war. Russia's October entry into the conflict on behalf of its client, Syrian President Bashar Assad, has only increased the likelihood of a stalemate in the war, and the addition of Russian air power -- coupled with Iranian ground support -- has given the Syrian government a much needed lifeline.

As rebels and world powers continue to negotiate a possible resolution to the war, the one major sticking point remains Mr. Assad's future in the country. While outside powers like Turkey and Saudi Arabia have long insisted that Assad must be removed from power, others -- most notably the United States -- have struck a more equivocal tone in recent months, agreeing that Syria would be better off without the embattled president, but fearing what would become of the Syrian state should his departure precipitate its complete collapse.

Many rebels still insist that the Syrian strongman must go; Moscow and Tehran obviously think otherwise -- can a compromise be reached?

2. Keep an Eye on the Intifada

Buried beneath the headlines this year by war and upheaval across the rest of the region, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather quietly took a turn for the worse in 2015. Displeasure with a rumored change in the administration of the holy Haram al-Sharif site sparked a violent uprising this fall, and led to a series of deadly lone wolf terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers.

Dubbed the "Knife Intifada" by some, this current uprising appears to be a largely organic one comprised predominantly of young, educated, and frustrated Palestinians.

Appearing increasingly out of touch with its own people, the Palestinian Authority has attempted to lasso this unpredictable movement and make it its own, but to little avail. More troubling for the old guard in Ramallah is the possibility that this nascent movement may soon turn its ire away from the Israeli occupation, and instead direct it toward them.

3. Iranian Elections

In the span of approximately 18 months the Islamic Republic of Iran will hold three critical elections that may determine the long-term direction of the country. With the 2017 presidential race looming just beyond the horizon, Iran's rival political factions look to reinforce their positions this February by securing more seats in parliament and the influential Assembly of Experts.

Pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani remains a highly popular figure in Iran, but finds himself under pressure at home to deliver on much needed economic reforms once international sanctions against the country are lifted early next year.

"Rouhani is in need of a political victory, even if the economic impact of sanctions removal will take more time to be felt by voters," writes Al-Monitor's Arash Karami.

4 The slow Demise of the Muslim Brotherhood

The transnational Islamist political organization known as the Muslim Brotherhood has been banned throughout most of the region, and in Jordan -- where it has maintained a presence since 1945 -- the organization has been bogged down by infighting and fragmentation, and the monarchy there has masterfully exploited ethnic and tribal differences to foster fissures.

The continued regional crackdown on the Brotherhood could invite negative long-term consequences for much of the Middle East. Marginalized politically by their own governments, many young Islamists are turning instead to violence.

"With the relative decline (for now) of the Muslim Brotherhood and other mainstream Islamist groups that had made their peace with parliamentary politics, radicals and extremists have quickly moved to fill the vacuum," writes Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, alluding to the rapid and violent rise of ISIS and its ilk.