NEW YORK – Among today’s geopolitical risks, none is greater than the long arc of instability stretching from the Maghreb to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. With the Arab Spring an increasingly distant memory, the instability along this arc is deepening. Indeed, of the three initial Arab Spring countries, Libya has become a failed state, Egypt has returned to authoritarian rule, and Tunisia is being economically and politically destabilized by terrorist attacks.
The violence and instability of North Africa is now spreading into Sub-Saharan Africa, with the Sahel – one of the world’s poorest and most environmentally damaged regions – now gripped by jihadism, which is also seeping into the Horn of Africa to its east. And, as in Libya, civil wars are raging in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, all of which increasingly look like failed states.
The region’s turmoil (which the United States and its allies, in their pursuit of regime change in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, helped to fuel) is also undermining previously secure states. The influx of refugees from Syria and Iraq is destabilizing Jordan, Lebanon, and now even Turkey, which is becoming increasingly authoritarian under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Meanwhile, with the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians unresolved, Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon represent a chronic threat of violent clashes with Israel.
In this fluid regional environment, a great proxy struggle for regional dominance between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran is playing out violently in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and Lebanon. And while the recent nuclear deal with Iran may reduce the proliferation risk, the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran will provide its leaders with more financial resources to support their Shia proxies. Further east, Afghanistan (where the resurgent Taliban could return to power) and Pakistan (where domestic Islamists pose a continued security threat) risk becoming semi-failed states.