A UK-based Israel and Middle East think tank is predicting that 2019 will see Iran’s economy worsen and ISIS resurgent in Syria and Iraq.
Bicom (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre), in its The Middle East in 2019, published today, also predicts that Israeli elections will take place in May or June, rather than the due date in November.
Although current polls put PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party ahead of any potential rival, a decision by Attorney-General Avishai Mandelblit to indict Netanyahu on bribery charges could impair his ability to form a coalition, which could lead to the transformation of Israeli politics.
“Even if Netanyahu manages to win the election, he will find it difficult to form a stable coalition with the threat of indictment hanging over his head,” said Bicom.
Another possible spanner in the works is whether Donald Trump’s long-awaited, and many times delayed, peace plan – the so-called Deal of the Century – is published. The main question will be whether it is acceptable to the Likud. Bicom concluded that “the plan’s roll out will likely be postponed”.
Iran’s economy, said Bicom, “will get weaker under US sanctions, investment and oil sales will plummet and European investment will diminish, but the regime will not negotiate with the US or leave the [nuclear deal].”
Tehran would instead, the think tank forecast, try to “wait out the Trump administration”, while responding “aggressively to any internal domestic challenges”.
Despite the economic challenges, Iran will not leave Syria and continue to “equip Hezbollah’s missile arsenal with precision guidance systems. This work is reported to be taking place in underground weapons factories. Israel has prevented Iran doing this in Syria with air strikes; it is significantly harder to do this in Lebanon.”
The think tank forecasts that with nearly 30,000 fighters working to re-establish durable support zones, raising funds and rebuilding command-and-control centres, ISIS will return as a major force in Syria and Iraq.
As a result, the Idlib demilitarised zone faces a high risk of collapse into conflict. “Idlib’s population of 3.5m is 10 times that of east Aleppo,” said Bicom. “An assault on Idlib could send more than 250,000 Syrians refugees over the Turkish border. Use of chemical weapons by the regime will likely result in airstrikes by the US, France and the UK.”
Bicom’s guide for policymakers is based on interviews with current and former security officials and diplomats in the UK, the US and Israel.
Other predictions include:
- Western Iraq will become a new front in Iran’s war against Israel. Iran is supplying ballistic missiles to Shia proxies to strike Israel. If Iran continues to use Iraq in this way, there may be more Israeli strikes there in 2019.
- Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s modernisation agenda and his purported role in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been severely diminished by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. To balance against Western pressure, Saudi Arabia may seek closer ties with Russia.
- On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel and Hamas will avoid another war, but further cycles of violence are likely. It will be very hard to implement all the stages of a stabilisation agreement which include a ceasefire, the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority’s return to Gaza following Fatah-Hamas reconciliation.
- There is a real threat of increased violence and instability in the West Bank, despite close security coordination between Israel and the PA. In 2018, there was a substantial increase in terrorist attacks and attempted attacks and 250 Hamas cells were arrested compared with 148 in 2017. In 2018, 530 attacks (including kidnappings, suicide bombings, shooting attacks) were prevented, compared with 400 in 2017.