As 2023 begins, flux and instability remain the only constants in the Middle East. The Arab world today is filled with broken and partially collapsed polities. Yemen, Libya and Syria are subject to de facto division, and occupation by foreign forces. Lebanon and Iraq are under de facto control by Iran in key areas. The bright hopes momentarily raised a decade ago by popular mobilization seem very distant now.
Is change, for better or for worse, likely in the year ahead?
Prediction may seem like a fool's errand in a region where unexpected and dramatic events are the norm. But a glance at the regional map reveals processes already underway from which some inferences may cautiously be drawn.
Here are three Middle East arenas to watch carefully in the months ahead:
The demonstrations and strikes that began in Iran's Kurdistan province in September 2022, following the death at the hands of the authorities of a young woman, show no signs of waning. Mahsa (Jina) Amini was killed in custody after being arrested for improper wearing of her government-mandated headscarf. The unrest that followed rapidly spread throughout Iran. It is the most serious and sustained wave of anti-regime activity since the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979.
The demands of the demonstrators have long moved beyond the issue of the compulsory hijab. "Death to the dictator," is one of the most common slogans to be heard. More than 500 demonstrators have now been killed, including 69 children. Two protesters have been executed and another 26 are on death row. A number of members of the security forces have also been killed.
In the latest development, a member of the paramilitary Basij was killed this week by protesters in the course of a raid on a house in the city of Semiram, in Isfahan province, central Iran. Isfahan is a majority Persian area, testimony to the fact that the protests have long outgrown their beginnings in the Kurdish provinces, and now take in all elements of the Iranian population.
The unrest in Iran looks set to continue. The regime, however, does not currently appear in danger of imminent collapse. An Iranian revolutionary now resident in northern Iraq described to this author in November a scenario in which the ongoing unrest, and in particular strikes in crucial sectors of the economy, will over time cause a gradual loss of control by the regime. Optimism, of course, is a required ingredient for Middle East revolutionaries. For Middle East analysts, it is a substance only to be sampled rarely.
The Iranian uprising currently lacks cohesive leadership. It is not quite true that the demonstrations are entirely unorganized. Kurdish nationalist movements are assisting and advising the protests in Kurdish areas. Baluch and Ahvazi Arab groups are active also in their relevant provinces. Monarchist groups have some support among Persians. But there is no single, united leadership in a position to contest the issue of power with the Islamic regime.
As of now, there are also no signs of major splits in the security forces. In the beginning, the protesters hoped that elements of the "Artesh," the regular, non-political Iranian army, might come over to their side. This has not yet happened.
These two absences mean that the most likely scenario in 2023 is for the unrest to continue, hurting the regime, and keeping it busy, but without toppling it.
The Palestinian national movement is deeply divided, and Palestinian politics is in disarray. Probably, neither Fatah nor Hamas has the capacity to launch an organized, centralized, armed insurgency in the West Bank of the type witnessed in the 2000-2004 period. This does not mean that things are set to remain quiet.
Islamic sentiment, and particularly perceived threats to al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, are still able to galvanize anger among young Palestinians. Ramadan, a time of heightened religious focus and observance, tends to be the period when the Palestinian public is most susceptible to appeals detailing the supposed danger to the mosques.
The appointment of Itamar Ben-Gvir as National Security minister, and the latter's apparent determination to promote the issue of Jewish prayer rights at the Temple Mount, may increase the likelihood of clashes around this most combustible of issues. The year 2021 saw the outbreak of widespread rioting among Arab citizens of Israel following Hamas's firing of missiles at Jerusalem, again in response to a supposed threat to al-Aqsa. Meanwhile, the Ramadan period and the months following it in 2022 witnessed the emergence of two related phenomena. The first was a series of terror attacks carried out by Palestinians professing allegiance to the Islamic State organization (ISIS). Assaults carried out by them took place in Beersheba, Hadera and Jerusalem.
The second element was the emergence of loosely organized armed gangs of young Palestinians in the northern West Bank towns of Jenin and Nablus. The gangs in question, called the "Jenin Battalion" and in Nablus the "Lions' Den," represent a new form of armed structure. They are not initiated by or controlled by any Palestinian group, but rather are an ad hoc collection of young men connected to a variety of organizations or to none, but with access to weaponry and means of transport, and with a willingness to attack Israelis.
A series of terror attacks emerged from this nexus during Ramadan and the period following it. The latest indications are that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and their Iranian backers have taken note of the emergence of these organizations, and are finding ways to offer them assistance and duplicate arrangements of this kind in other West Bank cities. Ramadan in 2023 begins on March 22. Keep the date in mind.
Syria has for the last three years been in a situation of stalemate and de facto partition. Three areas of control exist: the Assad regime area, supported by Russia and Iran; the Kurdish/SDF area, supported by the US; and a Sunni Islamist/jihadi-controlled area, underwritten by Turkey.
Against this backdrop, Israel's campaign to prevent Iranian entrenchment and consolidation over Syria's ruins has continued apace. There are now indications that the diplomacy of the Syrian war is once more on the move. Specifically, Turkey appears to be edging toward rapprochement with the Assad regime, and alliance with it against what they regard as the PKK-controlled Kurdish area.
Ankara appears to be considering returning its own area of control to the Assad regime, as part of this rapprochement. In recent weeks, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been threatening a renewed military offensive against the Syrian Kurds. US and Russian pressure appear to have deterred him.
A Russian-brokered diplomatic process is now underway, intended to result in a summit between Erdogan, Vladimir Putin and Bashar Assad before the summer. Erdogan faces general elections in June 2023, and would clearly like to be able to present diplomatic achievements on Syria before that time.
The Turkish public would like to see the departure of the Syrian refugees. The opposition is making this issue a central point of its criticism of Erdogan, and anything pointing toward the eventual return of the refugees would be welcomed.
It remains unclear if the Russians will succeed in brokering an agreement to the satisfaction of both parties. But their effort – and the possible unblocking of diplomacy on Syria in a direction, which if achieved, would benefit Russia and its Iranian ally, at the cost of US allies – is worthy of close attention.
Jonathan Spyer is director of research at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.