Expert forecasts deterioration in the Middle East for 2013. Drawing by Niyaz Karim

Drawing by Niyaz Karim. Click to enlarge the image.

In the Middle East, 2012 ended without a major conflict. However, the growing tension throughout the region that has sucked in countries from Africa, Europe, and Central Asia is likely to continue, especially as the stand-off gradually morphs into a bloc confrontation.

These blocs are essentially groups within the Islamic world that enjoy external support. The main protagonists are the Wahhabis in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, on one side, and the Shiites in Iran, on the other. Arab media sources claim that the West supports the former and Russia supports the latter, but the real picture is more obscure.

Islamism on the move

Doha and Riyadh share a common desire to confront Tehran, eliminate Arab secularism, and spread political Islam. Nevertheless, the two countries are rivals and backed by very different forces: Qatar's support mainly comes from the Muslim Brotherhood; for Saudi Arabia, it is the Salafis.

As shown by the events of September 11, 2012, the interests of these movements do not always coincide. The Brotherhood and related movements were the main beneficiaries of the "Arab Spring," coming to power in Tunisia and Egypt. The disempowered Salafis have been sidelined, despite their legal right to take part in politics.

Generally speaking, the global spread of Islamism, as well as the Syrian Islamists' fight against Assad, is sponsored by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Tehran continues to support Damascus without interfering militarily.

Meanwhile, Russia and China refuse to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution that would allow outside intervention against Assad to commence. Judging by Russia's naval maneuvers off the coast of Syria, this course of action is not likely to change in the near future.

If Damascus clings on long enough to witness the start of a clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the regime has a chance of survival.

Gulf tactics

Whereas the West can still expect to parley with the region's governments, that option is off the table in dealing with the scattered revolutionary Islamic groups; with the participation of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, it may just be feasible.

However, cooperation with them or even with their neutrality cannot be hoped for. The 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington and the events of fall 2012 demonstrate that, having achieved their goals with the support of the West, the Islamists are not above turning to attack their Western benefactors.

The Gulf monarchies, watchful of their various groups, would like to see the terrorists weaken their rivals, yet they are keen to prevent them from seizing power in the monarchies themselves. Their mission is to redirect the energy of their dangerous clients abroad.

This tactic should come as no surprise to the United States, France, and Britain. Yet, as demonstrated in 2012, the Western powers have a tendency to close their eyes to the real state of affairs. According to the new secretary of defense and secretary of state appointed by President Obama on the eve of 2013, the U.S. will continue its policy of seeking dialogue with the Islamists.

Islamists in Russia

China, as one of the most promising markets for Arab energy providers, on the one hand, and the largest trading partner of the West, on the other, can afford to focus on its own interests — including cooperation with Iran — without harming its relations with the country's opponents.

Russia, meanwhile, given the Gulf countries' openly negative attitude toward it, is deprived of such indulgence. As the "Arab Spring" becomes mired in Syria, the belief is that 2013 will see the activation of Islamist movements in Russia and the CIS.

The launch pad for this "Central Asian Spring" could be Kyrgyzstan (where Qatar and Saudi Arabia opened embassies in 2012) and Tajikistan. The main targets of the movement would be Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, which the governments of these countries seem to realize.

The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2014 will be seen as a victory for the Taliban, which could exploit its new-found freedom. The consequence would be the displacement of foreign jihadists in Afghanistan, some of which hail from Russia and other former Soviet republics.

The countdown to war

2013 will be a watershed year for Iran. An Iranian nuclear bomb is now a near certainty. The situation in the region depends primarily on the country's escalating conflicts with the Gulf monarchies and Israel.

Iran's presidential elections in early summer 2013 will determine the direction of the main strike: it cannot afford a war on all fronts. A fight against Israel would be manageable, simply through proxy rocket strikes from southern Lebanon and Gaza.

However, the situation in the Gulf is less straight forward. Bahrain fears Iran because of the latter's support for Shiite unrest. The Ibadhis in Oman remain neutral. The United Arab Emirates, at loggerheads with Iran over a long-standing island dispute, does not look kindly on Sunni Islamists — a fact witnessed by the arrests of members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Emirates, despite the protests of Egypt.

Egypt, despite or because of the rapid “Islamization” of its politics, is a key country in the Arab world. The publication of statements made by Mohammed Morsi in 2010, denouncing peace with Israel and describing Jews as "descendants of pigs and monkeys," confirms the assumption that a war with the Jewish state might be the Egyptian leader's only way out of the country's impending economic crisis.

Israel is preparing for such a war, as it is also readying itself for war with Iran, the third intifada, and skirmishes with jihadists on its borders with Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.

Yevgeni Satanovsky is the president of the Middle East Institute. The opinion is abridged and first published in Russian in VPK Daily