Assad Collapses, Syria Festers, and the Mideast Trembles
Bashar al-Assad is toast. The Syrian leader's Iranian and Russian supporters are already desperately in Plan B mode. His local backers are shifting their last assets out of the country and heading for the hills. The problem is that with his downfall will come a period of transition to a new regime that may introduce a new term to the geopolitical lexicon: "the fog of peace." As many members of the very uncohesive opposition are bad guys, troublemakers, or potential Assads as there are any who seek a more democratic or at least vaguely civilized future for the revolution-torn country. Instability in Syria means problems for its neighbors, including Jordan (where refugees add to growing threats to King Abdullah and his family's long reign in that country), Turkey, Israel, Iraq, and Lebanon. Perhaps most affected will be the latter two as Iran shifts its regional hegemony chips onto those spaces. As for Iraq, the year should see more stirrings of trouble in the country the United States invaded a decade ago and about which George W. Bush once declared "mission accomplished." In fact, Obama and incoming Secretary of State John Kerry will find they spend much of the next four years trying to avoid having it look like both big American wars in the region actually resulted in on-the-ground realities that were the same or worse as the ones we found prior to going into those combat zones. Iran's doubling its bets on Hezbollah also, of course, will have implications for its other client in the neighborhood, Hamas, making Israel-Palestine peace talks harder. And, of course, the embarrassment of backing Assad won't look good for the regime in Tehran at home - especially at a time when economic sanctions are really taking a toll. That'll make them more nervous and less predictable. (See below for the upside.)
Bibi Netanyahu Irritates the World
A key to good prognosticating is always to throw in a few sure things. Predicting Bibi Netanyahu will irritate the world is like predicting that the U.S. Congress will fail to come to grips with America's deficit problem or that Lindsay Lohan will get in trouble with the law. We've seen this movie before. We don't like it but when in doubt, the universe repeats itself. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, success breeds success, tomorrow's weather has an 85 percent likelihood of being the same as today's, and the Israeli prime minister is-no doubt with the best of intentions-a dependable pain in the world's tush.
No War with Iran
Iran has problems (see above). Sanctions will make them worse. They want time. Nobody wants a war. Iran will test the world's patience, push it to the brink, then "settle"...buying time until the next revelation it is not playing by the rules and the next cycle of brinksmanship. In the end, this approach is more than likely to ensure they will become "nuclear capable" and trigger a new arms race in the region and among emerging powers everywhere. But that won't happen in 2013. And that will pass as successful diplomacy -- until it turns out to have extraordinarily high hidden costs.
Meet the New Bosses, Same as the Old Bosses
In addition to Assad, 2013 will see the departure of Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In Syria, the fall of Assad will produce a power struggle and in the world's desire to produce stability, it is likely to bet on anyone tough enough to hold the place together. Which is likely to be a not very good guy. In Venezuela, the death of Chavez after his long battle with cancer will produce a successor regime that is increasingly weaker but attempts for the near term to ride sympathy for the departed Bolivarian bully. In Iran, President Ahmadinejad was never in charge in the first place so while the guy who takes over the presidency may change, the power remains with the Ayatollah-in-Chief as it has since the revolution. In short, we won't miss these bad guys when they go, but we're likely to get new ones and new problems in their place, at least in the short term. In fact, with the Middle East a creeping mess and with developed countries focusing on bigger problems at home, we are in a period that may, like the 1960s, see the world's major powers inclined to buy into a new era of strongmen who will keep a lid on their countries even if a few basic human rights have to get violated along the way. (Don't worry, though, we'll have elections so that the 21st century bastards smell nicer than the ones we had back when colonialism was in its death throes.)
America Enacts Immigration and Gun Reforms
The U.S. Congress is dysfunctional-but it is not stupid. Ok, maybe it is stupid, too. But it is nothing if not self-interested. Some progress on some legislation will be made. Expect passage of bills on assault weapons and some ammo bans possibly even before we even get to the next round of fiscal brinksmanship. Expect movement on immigration reform, which has supporters in both parties and should be easier in an economy trending upward. On everything else, expect the usual collective exercise in goat husbandry.
Gold Bubble Bursts
It has to happen sooner or later. Strengthening economies will soon lead to strengthening currencies. Or at least less aggressive U.S., Chinese, and European efforts to devalue their currencies. And when that happens people will start to realize that even golden trees don't grow to the sky. In the United States, where buying gold has taken on a political tinge as some on the hard right and Paulistas buy gold as a way of expressing their hatred for the Fed, the central government, and modernity, the gold crash will hit one political side harder than the other. Couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of economic troglodytes.