Only a fool offers longer term predictions about the Middle East. I offer the following shorter term predictions about the Middle East for 2015.
1. ISIS will decline in power and influence.
I do not believe ISIS is viable as a state; it lacks any coherent and functional ideology, any serious political and social institutions, any serious leadership process, any ability to handle the complex and detailed logistics of governance, and any opportunity of establishing state-to-state relations in the region. Additionally, it has alienated a majority of Sunni Muslims in the world, regardless of deep dissatisfactions among Sunnis in Iraq and Syria.
Ideally ISIS should fail and fall on its own, that is, without massive external, and especially Western, intervention that in some ways only strengthens its ideological claims. To be convincingly and decisively defeated, the idea of ISIS, as articulated and practiced, needs to demonstrably fail on its own and in the eyes of Muslims of the region.
2. The role of Iran as an actor in the region will grow.
Despite all the hurdles, I feel optimistic about U.S. negotiations with Iran. Both parties desperately need success in this regard. Normalization is ludicrously long overdue and necessary to the regional order.
Furthermore, Iran and Turkey, are the only two "real" governments in the region today with genuine governance based on some kind of popular legitimacy -- for all their faults. Turkey is democratic, Iran semi-democratic (presidential elections, while not fully representative, really matter).
These two states espouse many of the aspirations of the people of the region in ways no Arab leader does. The Gulf will be forced to accommodate itself to the reality of a normalized Iran; the two sides have never really been to war, despite all the occasional bellicose noises that have emerged from them periodically over the past century. Iran is post-revolutionary power with a vision of a truly sovereign Middle East free of western domination -- none of the Arab states truly are. Iran's influence in the region will also grow in supporting growing regional challenges to Israel's efforts to keep the Palestinians under permanent domination.
3. President Erdoğan in Turkey will find his influence beginning to crumble in 2015.
After a brilliant prime-ministership for the first decade of AKP power, he has become mired in corruption charges and has lashed out in paranoid fashion against any and all who criticize or oppose his increasingly irrational, high-handed, and quixotic style of rule. He is in the process of damaging institutions and destroying his and his party's legacy. I continue to have faith that Turkey's broader institutions, however weakened by Erdoğan, will nonetheless suffice to keep the country on a basically democratic and non-violent track until such time as Erdoğan loses public confidence -- which could be sooner rather than later.
4. Russia will play a major role in diplomatic arrangements in the Middle East, an overall positive factor.
Russia's ability to play a key diplomatic (and technical) role in resolving the nuclear issue in Iran, and its important voice and leverage in Syria represent significant contributions to resolution of these two high-priority, high-risk conflicts that affect the entire region. It is essential that Russia's role be accepted and integrated rather than seen as a mere projection of some neo-Cold War global struggle -- a confrontation in which the West bears at least as much responsibility as Moscow. The West has insisted on provoking counter-productive confrontation with Moscow in trying to shoehorn NATO into Ukraine. Can you imagine an American reaction to a security treaty between Mexico and China that included stationing of Chinese weapons and troops on Mexican soil?
5. The Taliban will make further advances towards gaining power within the Afghan government.
After 13 years of war in Afghanistan, the U.S. failed to bring stability to the country as a whole, or to eliminate the Taliban as a major factor in the national power equation. The Taliban is much more than an Islamist movement; it has in many ways been a surrogate for nationalist Pashtun power within Afghanistan (although not accepted as such by all Pashtun). The Pashtun lost out big when the Taliban government was overthrown by the U.S. in 2001; inclusion of mainstream Taliban within the new government is essential to future Afghan stability. The Taliban will seek to strengthen their power on the ground this year in order to enhance their powers of political demand in any possible future negotiations over power sharing. They cannot be functionally excluded. Desperately needed stability in Pakistan also depends in part upon such a settlement.
Okay, that's enough predictive risks for one year. . .