The first days of 2023 have already shown us that the potential for wider conflict and escalation in the Middle East is a very real concern.
A recent airstrike on Damascus International Airport illustrates that Iran continues to try to entrench itself in Syria. In addition, the decision by National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir (Otzma Yehudit) to visit the Temple Mount appeared ready-made as a potential incendiary one. Jordan has since warned Israel against upsetting the status quo in Jerusalem.
Here is a list of some potential conflicts that could erupt as well as peace deals that may be signed this year.
Another conflict with Hamas and Islamic Jihad
Iran has emboldened Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to attack Israel in the past. In May 2021, Tehran encouraged these terror groups to escalate tensions over Jerusalem during Ramadan, which resulted in an 11-day conflict. It is possible that Iran, under pressure at home due to protests and encouraged by new drone deals with Russia, could push Hamas to provoke Israel.
Hamas continues to test rockets and may seek to destabilize the West Bank in order to cause this crisis to grow. Islamic Jihad, as well, has ample resources in Jenin and elsewhere. Constant attempts by Israeli security forces to keep these threats in check are important, but they can always boil over.
A breakdown in Palestinian control, rise of violence in West Bank
The last year has seen a massive increase in violence in the West Bank. While most of this was limited to clashes between the IDF and terror groups in Jenin and Nablus, it is possible that the Palestinian Authority is losing its grip.
Although PA security forces were trained by the US, and Palestinian police have been trained by the EU, the authority itself is losing power, its aging leadership being out of touch with the current reality. This means that enterprising young men, armed with the flood of illegal weapons that have been a phenomenon of late in the West Bank, could challenge the authorities.
This could lead to violence in which Ramallah quietly asks Israel for greater support. With a new right-wing government, the Jewish state’s actions to tamp down the violence could end up inflaming tensions instead. Jordan, angry about alleged changes to the status quo in Jerusalem, could also seek to play a role.
Normalization with Saudi Arabia
There have been hints of a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia ever since the Abraham Accords were announced in September 2020. Riyadh was also supportive of the peace deals with Bahrain and the UAE, which means that there are ample opportunities for Israel and Saudi Arabia to work together on many issues in the future.
Shared interests and economic issues underpin this relationship. However, the kingdom has also been keen on a peace initiative for the Palestinians that requires Israel to take bold steps in the West Bank. It’s not clear how Riyadh can climb down from proposals that it supported two decades ago regarding Israel withdrawing to the 1967 lines – though with some changes – in exchange for full relations.
Riyadh may also need to find a way to appeal to the Palestinians in this respect. Small steps toward normalization are more likely than a big peace deal.
Turkey-Syria reconciliation, backed by Moscow
A deal between Turkey and the Syrian regime may be in the works. Recent meetings that have taken place in Moscow between officials from the two states show that they may be moving in that direction. Turkey had been supportive of Syrian rebels for many years but has sought to channel them into a proxy force to fight the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Ankara’s main goals today in Syria are to return Arab refugees from Turkey to Syria and to defeat Kurdish forces in Syria because Ankara views the Kurdish YPG as “terrorists” and prefers the Syrian regime. Turkey could get backing from Russia through more energy or weapons deals and come to some kind of agreement with Syria in which the regime agrees to suppress the YPG – and Turkey, Iran, Russia and the regime agree to work against the US role in eastern Syria.
This could set in motion a new Turkish invasion, but could also lead to other conflicts, such as the destabilization of eastern Syria and prison breaks by ISIS members.
Yemen and Libya
Yemen and Libya are both in the midst of civil conflicts where temporary agreements, or ceasefires, have reduced the conflict over the last year. Iran backs the Houthi group in Yemen, which is fighting the Saudi-backed Yemen government. It’s unclear how an agreement in Yemen can succeed beyond a ceasefire because the two sides are very far apart. At the same time, Iran has hinted that it wants to use Yemen as a platform to threaten Israel.
In Libya, Egypt has backed the eastern Libyan forces led by Khalifa Haftar, while Turkey has backed the government in Tripoli. However, there is more at work in Libya. While there could be a deal, there are also major differences that would need to be bridged. Turkey wants energy deals with the Libyan government and has signed deals that put it on a collision course with Greece for potential conflict. Furthermore, France, Russia and the US are vested in what happens in Libya.
Turkey has been threatening Greece with an invasion and armed conflict for years. Some see this as merely propaganda by Ankara, using anti-Greek sentiment to get votes for the ruling AKP Party.
Both countries are NATO members, and it is highly unusual for members to stoke wars with one another. Turkey’s threats have grown in the last few years, including incursions by Turkish planes. Ankara claims that Athens is at fault, but its track record of threatening others, including Israel, Armenia and Egypt, shows that Turkey is doing more than just talking – it is actually threatening.
On the other hand, Turkey has worked hard to restore ties with Israel, likely hoping to use those ties to reduce energy deals between Israel, Greece and Cyprus and to re-route Israeli trade via Turkey to make Jerusalem dependent on Ankara in future energy developments off the coast of Israel.
With Netanyahu back in power, it remains unclear whether Ankara will have as much success encouraging the Israeli relationship and using pro-Israel voices to lobby for the regime. As such, Turkey may sense that a return to tensions with Greece, and even Israel, could benefit it.
Azerbaijan and Armenia
After the 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenian forces, the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh have faced an increasing siege. The Armenian minority in this region is an ancient community, but due to Soviet-era decisions, they find themselves in a disputed area claimed by Azerbaijan. After the 2020 war, the Armenian community there was left with only one road connecting it to Armenia.
Protesters and nationalists in Baku have been occupying the road, making it difficult for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to carry on with their daily lives regarding trade and energy, as well as other necessities. Azerbaijan claims that it is merely laying claim to its area and that these protesters are environmentalists concerned about mining in the area.
Russia and Turkey are both fanning the flames. Just as in Syria and Ukraine, the overall role of Moscow and Ankara tends to be Janus-faced: They may appear on one side or the other, but they profit from the conflict.
For minorities like the Armenians, this means that their daily life is controlled by the whim of Russia and Turkey and others. It’s possible that more pressure on Nagorno-Karabakh could lead to more conflict or force people to flee. Armenia is isolated and poor and its army doesn’t have the resources to confront another major conflict with Azerbaijan. Russia has made Yerevan dependent and prefers to break its will to make it even more dependent.
Russia-Iran-US tensions in Syria
Russia is dealing with the fallout from its war in Ukraine. It is plausible that it could seek a distraction in Syria. This could mean enabling Iran to move air defenses to Syria or enabling a new Turkish invasion as a way to erode support for the US in eastern Syria.
The Biden administration doesn’t want eastern Syria to be a distraction to its preference for confronting “near-peer” adversaries like China and Russia that know this. It could stoke tensions in Syria to weaken US resolve.
This could also set up potential tensions with Israel. The new Netanyahu government prefers less tension with Moscow and could find itself caught in the middle of the machinations of Russia, Iran and Turkey.