Forecasting the major international stories for the year ahead is a time-honored pastime, but the world has a habit of springing surprises. In late 1988, no one was predicting Tiananmen Square or the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the eve of 2001, the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan were unimaginable. So with that substantial disclaimer, let's peer into the misty looking glass for 2013.
More turmoil for Syria and its neighbors
If anything can be guaranteed, it is that Syria's gradual and brutal disintegration will continue, sending aftershocks far beyond its borders. Most analysts do not believe that President Bashar al-Assad can hang on for another year. The more capable units of the Syrian armed forces are overstretched; large tracts of north and eastern Syria are beyond the regime's control; the economy is in dire straits; and the war is getting closer to the heart of the capital with every passing week. Russian support for al-Assad, once insistent, is now lukewarm.
Amid the battle, a refugee crisis of epic proportions threatens to become a catastrophe as winter sets in. The United Nations refugee agency says more than 4 million Syrians are in desperate need, most of them in squalid camps on Syria's borders, where tents are no match for the cold and torrential rain. Inside Syria, diseases like tuberculosis are spreading, according to aid agencies, and there is a danger that hunger will become malnutrition in places like Aleppo.
The question is whether the conflict will culminate Tripoli-style, with Damascus overrun by rebel units; or whether a political solution can be found that involves al-Assad's departure and a broadly based transitional government taking his place. U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has not been explicit about al-Assad's exit as part of the transition, but during his most recent visit to Damascus, he hinted that it has to be.
"Syria and the Syrian people need, want and look forward to real change. And the meaning of this is clear to all," he said.
The international community still seems as far as ever from meaningful military intervention, even as limited as a no fly-zone. Nor is there any sign of concerted diplomacy to push all sides in Syria toward the sort of deal that ended the war in Bosnia. In those days, the United States and Russia were able to find common ground. In Syria, they have yet to do so, and regional actors such as Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran also have irons in the fire.
Failing an unlikely breakthrough that would bring the regime and its opponents to a Syrian version of the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian war, the greatest risk is that a desperate regime may turn to its chemical weapons, troublesome friends (Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Kurdish PKK in Turkey) and seek to export unrest to Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.
The Syrian regime has already hinted that it can retaliate against Turkey's support for the rebels -- not by lobbing Scud missiles into Turkey, but by playing the "Kurdish" card. That might involve direct support for the PKK or space for its Syrian ally, the Democratic Union Party. By some estimates, Syrians make up one-third of the PKK's fighting strength.
To the Turkish government, the idea that Syria's Kurds might carve out an autonomous zone and get cozy with Iraq's Kurds is a nightmare in the making. Nearly 800 people have been killed in Turkey since the PKK stepped up its attacks in mid-2011, but with three different sets of elections in Turkey in 2013, a historic bargain between Ankara and the Kurds that make up 18% of Turkey's population looks far from likely.
Many commentators expect Lebanon to become more volatile in 2013 because it duplicates so many of the dynamics at work in Syria. The assassination in October of Lebanese intelligence chief Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan -- as he investigated a pro-Syrian politician accused of obtaining explosives from the Syrian regime -- was an ominous portent.
Victory for the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels in Syria would tilt the fragile sectarian balance next door, threatening confrontation between Lebanon's Sunnis and Hezbollah. The emergence of militant Salafist groups like al-Nusra in Syria is already playing into the hands of militants in Lebanon.
Iraq, too, is not immune from Syria's turmoil. Sunni tribes in Anbar and Ramadi provinces would be heartened should Assad be replaced by their brethren across the border. It would give them leverage in an ever more tense relationship with the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. The poor health of one of the few conciliators in Iraqi politics, President Jalal Talabani, and renewed disputes between Iraq's Kurds and the government over boundaries in the oil-rich north, augur for a troublesome 2013 in Iraq.
More worries about Iran's nuclear program
Syria's predicament will probably feature throughout 2013, as will the behavior of its only friend in the region: Iran. Intelligence sources say Iran continues to supply the Assad regime with money, weapons and expertise; and military officers who defected from the Syrian army say Iranian technicians work in Syria's chemical weapons program. Al-Assad's continued viability is important for Iran, as his only Arab ally. They also share sponsorship of Hezbollah in Lebanon, which, with its vast supply of rockets and even some ballistic missiles, might be a valuable proxy in the event of an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear program.
Speaking of which, there are likely to be several more episodes in the behind-closed-doors drama of negotiations on Iran's nuclear sites. Russia is trying to arrange the next round for January. But in public, at least, Iran maintains it has every right to continue enriching uranium for civilian purposes, such as helping in the treatment of more than 1 million Iranians with cancer.
Iran "will not suspend 20% uranium enrichment because of the demands of others," Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said this month.
International experts say the amount of 20% enriched uranium (estimated by the International Atomic Energy Agency in November at 297 pounds) is more than needed for civilian purposes, and the installation of hundreds more centrifuges could cut the time needed to enrich uranium to weapons-grade. The question is whether Iran will agree to intrusive inspections that would reassure the international community -- and Israel specifically -- that it can't and won't develop a nuclear weapon.
This raises another question: Will it take bilateral U.S.-Iranian talks -- and the prospect of an end to the crippling sanctions regime -- to find a breakthrough? And will Iran's own presidential election in June change the equation?
For now, Israel appears to be prepared to give negotiation (and sanctions) time to bring Iran to the table. For now.
Egypt to deal with new power, economic troubles
Given the turmoil swirling through the Middle East, Israel could probably do without trying to bomb Iran's nuclear program into submission. Besides Syria and Lebanon, it is already grappling with a very different Egypt, where a once-jailed Islamist leader is now president and Salafist/jihadi groups, especially in undergoverned areas like Sinai, have a lease on life unimaginable in the Mubarak era.
The U.S. has an awkward relationship with President Mohamed Morsy, needing his help in mediating with Hamas in Gaza but concerned that his accumulation of power is fast weakening democracy and by his bouts of anti-Western rhetoric. (He has demanded the release from a U.S. jail of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, convicted of involvement in the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.)
The approval of the constitution removes one uncertainty, even if the opposition National Salvation Front says it cements Islamist power. But as much as the result, the turnout -- about one-third of eligible voters -- indicates that Egyptians are tired of turmoil, and more concerned about a deepening economic crisis.
Morsy imposed and then scrapped new taxes, and the long-expected $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund is still not agreed on. Egypt's foreign reserves were down to $15 billion by the end of the year, enough to cover less than three months of imports. Tourism revenues are one-third of what they were before street protests erupted early in 2011. Egypt's crisis in 2013 may be more about its economy than its politics.