Aftershocks and Transitions: an Unashamedly Speculative Look at 2012

If this year brought us an earthquake, then 2012 will be a year of aftershocks and transitions. Speculate as we might, we must still prepare for the predictable but watch for the surprises.

By Shashank Joshi's 2012 Perspectives Series

For more expert perspectives of the year ahead, go to

In 2011, the certitudes of the old Middle East dissolved with unseemly haste. A regional order that had remained outwardly steady since the death of Colonel Nasser gave way to a successful revolution, a revolution-cum-coup, two or three civil wars, a handful of frustrated insurrections, a full-fledged military campaign, and an orgy of state-sponsored blood-letting.

But - behind this bevy of black swans - deeper, older, and more predictable currents made themselves felt. Turkey and Qatar strutted across the Maghreb and Levant. Saudi Arabia and Iran locked horns in new arenas. The United States looked pitifully adrift, buffeted by waves it had grown accustomed to riding. Elsewhere, the US-Pakistan alliance began its predicted death spasms; Iran's nuclear programme inched forward under a thick fog; and Chinese seapower began to come of age.  

If this year brought us an earthquake, then 2012 will be a year of aftershocks: of transitions, real and aspirational; and perhaps the economic implosion of a political bloc that accounts for a fifth of world output. What follows is one version of what might await us; a narrative that errs on the side of speculation. 

Middle East


When the Arab world's history books are written for the last twelve months, it is neither Tunisia (the progenitor) nor Libya (the most violent) nor Syria (the most strategically consequential) that will dominate those accounts. Pride of place will go to Egypt, the region's behemoth and incubator of political Islam.

2012 will begin with prolonged instability, as Egypt's ruling body - the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) - tries to bully the electorally dominant Muslim Brotherhood into a sham constitutional process which ring-fences the army's political and economic privileges. That won't work, and the Brotherhood is likely to use its strong base in parliament to seek a clean break with praetorian politics. SCAF, which has consistently overreached, will find itself facing fresh crowds in Tahrir Square; concession after concession will follow.  

Fearful of a permanent Islamist majority in the legislature, liberals will push hard for a strong executive to be enshrined in the constitution. July's presidential elections could be won by Amr Moussa, the former head of the Arab League. Moussa is pragmatic and opportunistic, and he will happily work with both the Brotherhood and SCAF. But by then, Egypt's ballooning debt, perilously thin foreign exchange reserves, and stagnating growth[1] could produce a political crisis that leaves many Egyptians hungry for stability, and willing to tolerate a de facto three-cornered power-sharing arrangement between parliament, the presidency, and an entrenched army.


Syria's revolution, forged in greater violence than that of Tahrir Square, will pass through a 'Yemen phase' - a standoff, in which multiple groups hold territory in an uneasy stalemate - to a chaotic, unpredictable 'Lebanon/Iraq phase'.

Ever-growing patches of Syrian soil will escape from government hands. Defecting fragments of the army will turn cities like Homs into safe havens for the opposition. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), hosted by Turkey and eventually supplied by a consortium of countries, including the United States and Britain, will mount spectacular attacks at the heart of the regime. By the summer, it could be engaging in controversial political assassinations.

But the insurrection will struggle to stay united. Sectarian fears - intentionally stoked by the government - will spiral out of control, diluting the uprising's strength and resulting in waves of ethnic cleansing reminiscent of Iraq in 2007.[2] The Syrian economy will contract drastically, and Aleppo and Damascus will grow increasingly restive. Yet even if the Arab League imposes harsher sanctions, no-one will have the appetite to aggressively police them. Deep smuggling networks will spread across the Lebanese and Jordanian borders, and nothing will stop Syria becoming awash with weaponry.[3]

Towards the end of the year, Turkey might look to establish a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border - but with the intention of managing refugee flows and monitoring insurgents, rather than forcing regime change. Russia and China will refuse to withdraw their diplomatic shield over Syria. Iran - fearful of losing its anchor in the Arab world - will funnel in weapons, intelligence, and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officers. As 2012 draws to a close, Bashar Assad could be ruling over a rump Syrian state, buttressed by Iranians and backed by Hezbollah, beset by a civil war that makes Libya look like a light skirmish.  

Iran and Saudi Arabia

Iran will be active elsewhere, as US influence wanes. By the start of 2012, there will be more American forces in tiny Djibouti than in Iraq.[4] The government of Nuri al-Maliki will not only grow more authoritarian, subverting democratic institutions and imprisoning political opponents under the pretext of a Baathist threat, but it will also drift even closer to Tehran.[5]

Saudi Arabia will, of course, hit back at perceived Iranian expansionism. In Bahrain, for instance, Riyadh will look to outmuscle the reformers within the monarchy and block major concessions. The beleaguered Shia opposition, long accused of being Iranian stooges, will become progressively more radicalised. The Saudis will also continue aggressively to fund their own brand of Islamists in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt (Qatar, too, will reach out to these groups - but with a strategic, rather than ideological, purpose). Within Iran, Supreme Leader Khamenei will begin empowering his son Mojtaba as the problem of succession looms closer.

Despite these changes, the US presidential elections will foreclose any coherent debate about a range of subjects, and Israel-Palestine in particular. Israeli settlement construction will continue with impunity. Iran will not build or test nuclear weapons in 2012, but it will keep its enrichment programme deliberately shrouded in ambiguity. President Obama, under pressure from Republican adversaries and desperate to avert a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran, will hew to the present combination of sanctions and covert warfare, rather than seeking a chimerical grand bargain with the ayatollahs. Expect more mysterious explosions at nuclear facilities.



Pakistan's civil-military pantomime won't be as dramatic as it was in 2011, but the army will consolidate its position against the weak civilian government. American patience with Pakistan's support for the Afghan insurgency and other militant groups is now exhausted. As US cross-border raids into Waziristan escalate, Pakistan's army - if only for the sake of its own coherence, but also out of dramatic overconfidence in its own bargaining position - will be forced to hit back by blocking NATO convoys, expelling American intelligence officers, and curbing intelligence cooperation.

The US will, in turn, be compelled to deepen engagement with unsavoury Central Asian states, like Uzbekistan, to guarantee a flow of supplies into Afghanistan. The Haqqani Network, a Pakistan-based insurgent group, may be designated by Congress as a foreign terrorist organisation. Aid flows to Pakistan will thin out. Publicly, policymakers will stress the importance of continued engagement. Privately, White House officials will admit that a new strategy for Pakistan is beginning to take shape: containment.

No less worryingly, Pakistan's civilian government may be bullied into signing a peace deal with the Pakistani Taliban - a militant group active in Pakistan's northwest, and distinct from the Afghan Taliban.[6] This cannot fail to weaken the long-term integrity of the Pakistani state. As with nearly every such misguided deal over the last eight years, militants will further entrench themselves and ruthlessly dismantle existing political structures.  

The backdrop to this will be a worsening economic situation in Pakistan, as repayments to foreign lenders rack up from February. A full-blown balance of payments crisis could occur by the spring.[7] The US will be in no mood to help Pakistan secure decent terms from the IMF, and it's improbable that China - Pakistan's supposedly 'all weather friend' - will take up the slack. More broadly, Pakistan's army will prefer growing diplomatic isolation to any perception of subordination to American strictures.


As US forces draw down, and other countries leave altogether, the single most important question is whether Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) can take responsibility for securing vulnerable areas in the south and east of the country. Afghanistan will also face a raging war of perceptions.  The insurgency will focus on diminishing the Afghan government's already-thin credibility through an intensified campaign of political assassination, attacks on prominent targets in Kabul, and infiltration of ANSF so as to undermine recruitment and sow mistrust.

There is a considerable danger than the insurgency fragments to a greater degree than it already has. The end of 2011 saw a major attack against Afghan Shia worshippers. It was thought to be conducted by Lashkar-e Jhangvi al-Alami, a splinter of a Pakistani sectarian militant group. That would indicate 'a significant erosion of the Taliban's control over the battlefield' and a correspondingly unpredictable insurgency.[8]

Hamid Karzai, fearful of being outflanked by anti-Taliban northern political factions and despairing of Pakistan's intransigence, will take only desultory steps toward reconciliation with the insurgency. That will be kicked to 2013. In line with the India-Afghanistan partnership inked in 2011, New Delhi will step up its own role.  More and more Afghan officers will undergo training in India, and once-sceptical allies in Europe and North America will welcome that involvement as they look to extract themselves from the mess. In the meantime, British forces in Helmand will find themselves hopelessly stretched, forced to fight in the vacuum left by departing US troops.[9] 


India faces a different sort of political dysfunction. 2012 will see renewed struggles between the government and a surging anti-corruption movement, led by mock-Gandhian campaigner Anna Hazare. Hazare seeks to create a super-charged ombudsman that can hold anyone and anything in government to account. Outside observers have welcomed this movement as an invigoration of Indian democracy, but many Indians now see it as a deeply anti-democratic and dangerous project that could create 'an unparalleled concentration of power in one institution that will literally be able to summon any institution and command any kind of police, judicial and investigative power'.[10] Distracted by this, and hamstrung by mercurial coalition allies, the Congress-led government will struggle to produce a single piece of major legislation.

A pivotal moment will be the local elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). Congress' campaign is being spearheaded by Rahul Gandhi, widely considered to be the party's next leader and would-be prime minister. His success or failure in UP will shape his personal standing, but it will also affect the balance of power within the coalition government - possibly determining whether another round of economic reforms will be electorally possible. Mayawati, the present Chief Minister of UP and leader of a caste-based party, recently stymied an attempt to allow foreign investors to hold majority stakes in retail foreign direct investment.

In February 2011, Indian growth was forecast at 9 per cent; by the end of the year, that was revised down to 7.5 per cent. It would not be surprising to see it slump further over the next year. 2012, the fiftieth anniversary of India's crushing defeat at the hands of China, will see the gap between the two aspiring superpowers continue to widen.


Western Europe

The Eurozone has dismal prospects of survival; in its current form, it is unlikely to reach its teenage years. The 'fiscal compact' agreed in December is both inadequate and ill-conceived. Not only does it lack plausible enforcement mechanisms for spendthrift states, since Britain's 'veto' keeps it from fully utilising existing EU institutions,[12] but it also has a one-dimensional fixation with austerity. Europe's two bail-out funds are laughably small, and the European Central Bank retains a suicidally narrow focus - refusing to launch an unlimited bond-buying programme.[13]

Over 2011, 'Greeks have withdrawn almost 40 billion euros, or nearly $53 billion, in deposits from their banking system, equal to about 17 per cent of the nation's gross domestic product'.[14] The writing is on the wall. A Greek departure from the Euro in 2012 would result in Greek default, spiralling inflation, and incalculable damage to middle-class savers. But it would also generate prohibitively high borrowing costs for Spain and Italy, and place near-impossible domestic political demands on German chancellor Angela Merkel. General Martin Dempsey, the top US military officer has expressed concern over the 'potential for civil unrest [associated with] the break-up of the union'.[15] This is no longer implausible.

If the Eurozone does succeed in bearing these strains through 2012, will this leave Britain isolated? The 'Eurozone plus' group of countries will indeed meet separately. If it also votes as a bloc, it can outvote Britain on EU policy concerning some areas of financial regulation. But certain policies (like a financial transaction tax) will remain subject to a British veto, and the 'Eurozone plus' is more likely to be preoccupied with fire-fighting than attacking the City.

But next year will also see some European states begin to think harder about the strategic (rather than just economic) consequences of German dominance. Many will be eager to have Britain back in the room once the implications of a Franco-German axis become clearer.

Europe fares little better away from economics. NATO's campaign in Libya was a striking military success, but it highlighted major weaknesses in the alliance. Not only were two of the alliance's most important states - Germany and Turkey - vehemently opposed to the war, but European members proved unable to fight without continuous American support, from the destruction of Libya's air defenses to the use of armed drones.[16] Even the best-case outcome in Afghanistan represents a failure to meet the original war aims. When NATO (along with the G8) convenes in Chicago next May, it will be the meeting of a haggard, disunited, and drifting alliance.


On Europe's periphery, Russia is facing its most serious public protests since the days of the Soviet Union. But ten years of strong, authoritarian leadership won't be reversed overnight. Vladimir Putin's United Russia party have taken a major hit in parliamentary elections, but still won a share of the vote (just under 50 percent) that would be the envy of any West European political party.

The Kremlin has shrewdly avoided large-scale violence against protesters - and did not make a single arrest in Moscow. The Kremlin's tolerance of this mass mobilisation will not be without long-term consequences. The fear barrier has been broken, and an extraordinary array of groups - from Communists to anarchists to nationalists, all centred on the urban middle class - have made common cause. A series of limited concessions - such as sacking Vladimir Churov, the elections chief - may well bring the protests down to manageable numbers and drain them of energy. Putin retains considerable personal popularity and, over time, could be able to mobilise pro-Kremlin nationalist opinion to shore up the government. In 2012, much will depend on whether his administration can rely on buoyant oil prices to keep buying off discontent.


This overview skirts over a host of important forces that will shape 2012. In China, for instance, a new generation of leaders will come to power. Xi Jinping, likely replacing Hu Jintao, will have to deal with a new Asian environment in which mistrust of China's geopolitical ambitions is at its highest in many years. Libya's interim government must disband or tame its various militias, and begin forging national institutions that aren't captured by factional interests. 2012 could also see its own sharp discontinuities - another war between Hezbollah and Israel, a major terrorist attack at the London Olympics, or the assassination of senior Indian officials by Lashkar-e-Taiba. In other words: prepare for the predictable - Europe, Afghanistan, and Syria - but watch for the surprises.

Shashank Joshi is an Associate Fellow at RUSI and doctoral student at Harvard University.



The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI




[1] Robert Springborg, The Precarious Economics of Arab Springs, Survival, Vol. 53, No. 6, 2011, pp85-104

[2] For a foretaste of this, see Anthony Shadid, Sharp Spate of Killings Traumatizes a Syrian City, New York Times, 6 December 2011,

[3] Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, Inside Syria: the rebel call for arms and ammunition, Guardian, 11 December 2011,

[4] Craig Whitlock, Defense Secretary Panetta visits U.S. base in Djibouti, then travels to Afghanistan, Washington Post, 13 December 2011,

[5] Jack Healy, Tim Arango, and Michael S. Schmidt, Premier's Actions in Iraq Raise U.S. Concerns, New York Times, 12 December 2011,

[6] TTP Talks, Dawn, 24 November 2011,

[7] IMF sees 'challenging' outlook for Pakistan, Reuters, 23 November 2011,

[8] Anand Gopal, From Bad to Worse, AfPak Channel, Foreign Policy, 6 December 2011,

[9] Matt Cavanagh, Afghanistan: exit strategy, Prospect, 28 November 2011,

[10] Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Of the few, by the few, Indian Express, 7 April 2011,

[11] Joshua Kucera, Indians Now Looking At New Air Base In Tajikistan?, The Bug Pit, 21 November 2011,

[12] For a contrasting view, see Peter Spiegel, Rehn insists Brussels bodies can oversee treaty, Financial Times, 12 December 2011,

[13] Gideon Rachman, The summit will prove a footnote, Financial Times, 12 December 2011,

[14] Landon Thomas Jr., Pondering a Dire Day: Leaving the Euro, New York Times, 12 December 2011,

[15] Euro crisis: US General Martin Dempsey warns of unrest, BBC News, 10 December 2011,

[16] Shashank Joshi, Six Lessons from Libya, Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC), 13 October 2011,


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