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Middle East's elusive olive branch

While diplomatic efforts to end conflicts may intensify, success will be in short supply

In 2018, most of the Middle East's conflicts look set to continue, and new ones could arise. The region is still undergoing a period of profound transformation, of which the 2011 Arab uprisings were a manifestation and a catalyst rather than a cause. The multiple civil wars now underway originated in a breakdown of state authority and legitimacy over frustrated economic expectations, anger at injustice and brutality, and poor leadership. Efforts to rebuild or redraw states, map out new nationalisms and identities, and find new economic models are all long-term projects with uncertain prospects for success. As such, complex conflicts will remain a feature of the region for years to come. But 2018 is likely to see new attempts to resolve conflicts, as well as moves contributing to them, as Gulf powers and Russia seek to carve out new niches for themselves at a time when the US role in the region is very uncertain.

In Syria, Libya, Yemen and Egypt's Sinai, conflicts have developed their own self-sustaining war economies, which will elude and weaken efforts at peacebuilding. In Syria, the key international powers—chiefly Russia and Turkey—are now trying to accommodate each other and de-escalate the conflict, but its root causes remain largely unaddressed and Assad seems increasingly likely to stay in charge of a reduced state. The conflict has been easier for international powers to stoke than to mend. There may be a fresh push for peace in Yemen under a new UN envoy, but it will be complicated by the many divisions within each side.

In Iraq, the military rollback of Isis immediately triggered a contest for power between Baghdad and the Kurds. The next round is likely to be an intra-Kurdish conflict, as the PUK blame the KDP for overreaching (by holding an independence referendum that almost all the Kurds' allies opposed) and the KDP think the PUK sold them out (by failing to defend disputed territories against the Iraqi army). But there may yet be some opportunities for political progress and reconciliation in Iraq, if prime minister Haider al-Abadi can prioritise nation-building over sectarian politics, with some economic support from the Gulf. Saudi Arabia's recent outreach to Iraq—including to Shia Islamist politicians—is likely to translate into greater Gulf investment there in 2018. Meanwhile, for once, there may be a chance for political reconciliation in Palestine, with Hamas and Fatah now grudgingly starting to co-operate in Gaza.

Much will depend on whether regional and international powers see the changing dynamics as an opportunity to stabilise through compromise, or as arenas where they can pursue wider contests for power. Saudi engagement with Iraq could contribute to conflict if it's designed over-ambitiously, not just to balance Iranian influence but destroy it. The Qatar crisis could still blow up the cautious reconciliation between Qatar-backed Hamas and the UAE-backed younger-generation Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan.

No one is sure what role the US will play in the region in the second year of Trump, encouraging other players—above all Russia—to explore new political opportunities for themselves. There's particular uncertainty over how Trump's new Iran "strategy" may translate from confrontational rhetoric into actual changes in policy in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere—and the risk of war is once again being discussed. Amid confusion about the US role, Russia will move into a new phase of outreach in the region, attempting to rebrand itself as a mediator with Qatar and Iran as well as Syria, in order to pursue defence and energy business opportunities with the Gulf. China isn't yet a significant player in Mena politics, but the threat of the Iran nuclear deal collapsing might draw it back into regional diplomacy.

In this context of real and perceived power shifts, competition between regional foreign-policy actors is intensifying. The Qatar dispute is likely to last throughout 2018, making it harder for the Gulf to act as any kind of stabilising regional leader. International governments will mainly focus on trying to stop the dispute spiraling into something harder, but few think the Gulf leaders are in the mood to reconcile. Still, surprises are to be expected. One wild card could be the beginning of Iran-Saudi dialogue and détente—something that still seems unlikely, but which would be a major step to unwinding several of the simmering regional conflicts.

Jane Kinninmont is Deputy Head of the Middle East and North Africa programme, Chatham House

This article is part of Outlook 2018, our annual book looking at energy market trends for the year ahead. To purchase a copy, click here

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