The overarching question imparting urgency to this exploration is: Can U.S.-Russian contention in cyberspace cause the two nuclear superpowers to stumble into war? In considering this question we were constantly reminded of recent comments by a prominent U.S. arms control expert: At least as dangerous as the risk of an actual cyberattack, he observed, is cyber operations’ “blurring of the line between peace and war.” Or, as Nye wrote, “in the cyber realm, the difference between a weapon and a non-weapon may come down to a single line of code, or simply the intent of a computer program’s user.”
The Middle East will witness a series of significant challenges and opportunities in the next two years for which the international community and the region itself appear little prepared. Looking beyond last night’s headlines, this presentation will consider a series of strategic issues and trends underway within the region and discuss how intelligence analytic and collection priorities should be focused in order to prepare policy makers to best respond during this period as well as to meet unexpected challenges and opportunities.
National redefinition and regional reassertion continue to be themes which will shape regional stability in the Middle East in positive and negative ways. Primary drivers within this dynamic will include the Saudi modernization campaign, the international response to post-conflict Iraq, Libya, and Syria; the management of the Yemen conflict, and the challenge of Iran and its employment of hybrid warfare within its near abroad. The region also continues to grapple with an aging leadership; growing authoritarianism; a large, often unemployed, and youthful population; and unprecedented ecological challenges exacerbated by global climate change.
But the region will likely continue to benefit from a series of positive trends. The UAE-Saudi partnership offers an unprecedented prospect of new regional political and economic growth. Sunni states and Israel continue to improve relations. The role of women in the region is expanding, and social media is connecting increasingly-better educated populations previously fragmented by national ideologies. Economic reforms are underway in many states and the region – while still dependent on hydrocarbon production – is aggressively looking to broaden economies. Although the threat of terrorism remains, ISIS has been defeated as a strategic threat. Along these same lines, while it is likely that the war criminal Bashar al-Assad will continue to rule Syria, the bloody Syrian civil war is moving into its final stages and this should reduce the violence endured by its people. Situated in the context of national and regional transformation, these positive trends must be considered in terms of how they impact intelligence priorities.