Apocalypse Not Quite Yet
Notwithstanding sundry doomsday predictions—from the Mayans to Nostradamus and the ever-impending threat of Armageddon—we can now say with some assurance that the world did not end in 2012. The Middle East, however, continues to fl irt with the apocalypse. The revolutions, conflagrations, and confrontations now underway from the Sahara to the Hindu Kush are weakening national governments and calling into question borders that have lingered since European powers carved up the region after World War I. What is holding the map together now has more to do with fear than it does with hope, and if the old order fails, many in the Middle East suspect there may be no order left at all.The region has had a very strange respect for territorial lines and borders,” says Aaron David Miller at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. But those lines signified a “perverse stability,” Miller says. What kept people in line was tyranny. Some dictators may have been “acquiescent” in the eyes of the West, like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, or “adversarial” like the Assads. But they “are going the way of the dodo,” says Miller. “I am not saying the region is headed for a catastrophic meltdown, but we are at one of those hinges of history when profound changes are taking place that we are singularly ill-equipped to understand.”
The epicenter of the most urgent crisis is Damascus. Former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice recently warned that “the civil war in Syria may well be the last act in the story of the disintegration of the Middle East as we know it.” But the greater concern is that it will be the first. The mosaic of faiths and peoples inside Syria already has been shattered by the fighting. Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq are being sucked into the conflict as refugees flood across their borders and combatants exploit their territories.
The regional powers and the great powers, meanwhile, are treating the fight as a proxy war, scoring points against each other over the corpses of Syrian children. On the side of the rebels are the Turks, the Saudis, and the Qataris, who are uncomfortable allies at best, along with the United States, Britain, France, and other Europeans. The Assad regime gets its outside support from Iran, from its Hizbullah allies in Lebanon, and from Russia. Israel is doing its best to sit out this confl ict, but its northern outposts already have found themselves in the line of fire.
The wild card in the midst of the fighting is the role of foreign jihadists sympathetic to al Qaeda. They support the loosely organized rebels in combat, but undermine the revolutionaries’ credibility abroad and make it harder for them to get the weapons they badly need. When a convention of exiles cobbled together a new Syrian opposition coalition in Qatar in November, one of its architects declared the creation of the new group “a miracle.” But unless the coalition becomes a reliable conduit for weaponry, it will get little respect and have no authority among those who’ve stayed in Syria to fight the regime.
Looming like an enormous cloud—perhaps a mushroom cloud—in the background of the Syrian civil war is the danger that Israel will launch a preemptive strike against Iran to stop the mullahs from acquiring nuclear weapons. The United States has worked hard to find other means to stop the Iranians. Covert action and cyberattacks may have slowed Tehran’s progress, and a concerted diplomatic effort has led to sanctions, which have hit the Iranian economy hard.
But the atomic clock just keeps ticking, and politicians on all sides just keep on politicking. The Obama administration has taken a tough public stand, saying it will not let Iran acquire nuclear weapons under any circumstances. Facing reelection, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had to balance the kind of bellicose rhetoric he loves against the possibility that defying Washington and pressing ahead with war could forever damage Israel’s strategic partnership with the U.S. Meanwhile, Tehran’s fractious internal politics are more treacherous than ever. This is an election year in Iran, too, and the widening divide between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could affect the regime’s judgments, or misjudgments, about how far the Islamic Republic can push its confrontation with the West.
In A Peace to End All Peace, the classic account of the way Europe carved up the Middle East in the early 20th century, historian David Fromkin wrote that “the characteristic feature of the region’s politics” is that “there is no sense of legitimacy—no agreement on rules of the game—and no belief universally shared in the region that, within whatever boundaries, the entities that call themselves countries or the men who claim to be rulers are entitled to recognition as such.”