Almost a hundred years ago, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the last in a succession of Islamic caliphates stretching back more than a millennium, transformed the Middle East – first, into European protectorates, later into a collection of independent nation-states. A second historic transformation – not just the blossoming of a sunshiny “Arab Spring” – is now underway. That’s news, don’t you think?
Start with Syria which, as it enters the fourth year of a grueling civil war –140,000 killed and 9 million refugees to date -- has fractured into three de facto entities.
Bashar al Assad, backed by Iran’s Islamist regime, holds power in the west, his military bolstered by elite units of Iran’s own Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, as well as fighters from Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanon-based foreign legion.
Sunni Jihadist groups, several closely tied to al Qaeda, are vying for control over much of eastern Syria.
Syria’s Kurds have so far successfully defended – from both Assad and the jihadist forces -- their territories in the northeast adjacent to Iraqi Kurdistan which, over the years since American forces toppled Saddam Hussein, has become independent in all but name.
Over the months and years ahead, any number of scenarios may unfold in Syria. The least likely: that it will again be a unified nation whose citizens identify primarily as Syrians.
Jihadist groups also operate in the west of neighboring Iraq whose government, since the departure of the American forces that once defeated al Qaeda in that space, has become increasingly – and predictably -- beholden to Iran. The Syrian conflict is spilling over into Lebanon, too, with Hezbollah itself targeted by Sunni terrorists.
The U.S. supported Sunni regime in Yemen fights against both an Iranian-backed Houthi rebellion, as well al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Across the Gulf of Aden is Somalia, a failed state, effectively divided into three weak entities with al Shabaab, another al Qaeda franchise, particularly active in the south.
Three years ago South Sudan broke off from the Republic of Sudan, which is Islamist and not a real republic. Rebellions continue in the north nonetheless: Last week, a court sentenced 18 rebel leaders to death, including the head of a delegation that was supposed to be negotiating with the government.
In Egypt, the Sunni military government that seized power from the Muslim Brotherhood is fighting Sunni jihadists, some AQ-linked, in the Sinai.
Turkey, once seen as an island of stability, secularism, democracy and industry, is being pounded by protests over corruption as its government turns increasingly Islamist and authoritarian. The Saudis view Iran as an existential threat, no less than Israel. So does the monarchy in nearby Bahrain. Libya remains less a nation than a collection of feuding tribes and militias.
The Palestinians have evolved a two quasi-state non-solution. One state is in the West Bank where Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority maintains control only thanks to Israeli assistance – a fact not discussed in polite diplomatic company.
Abbas clearly has no intention of ending the Palestinians’ conflict with Israel. Even if he did, he has no mandate: he’s now in the ninth year of a four-year term as president. Abbas also knows that were he to sign a deal he’d be painting a bulls-eye on his back -- one that every jihadist in the region, Sunni and Shi’a alike, would be eager to draw a bead on. One more thing: Why would Abbas’ successor see himself as bound by anything Abbas agreed to?
Gaza is the second Palestinian quasi-state. Abbas dares not even set foot there. Hamas took power eight years ago promising good governance, and the continuation of the fight to “liberate” every inch of Israel from the despised Jews. Today, Gaza’s economy is crumbling and Hamas’ ability to wage war is limited.
Nevertheless, last week, for the first time since 2012, scores of missiles were fired at Israel from Gaza. This time, however, Hamas almost certainly did not give the order. Instead, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a shadowy group backed by Iran, took responsibility.
A few days earlier, the Israeli navy interdicted on the high seas a ship loaded with advanced Iranian missiles bound for Gaza. U.S. government officials, living in what scholar Walter Russell Mead calls “cloud-cuckoo-land,” do not see any of this as a violation of the spirit of the negotiations now underway with Iranian officials determinedly characterized as “moderates.”
Meanwhile, throughout much of the Middle East, ancient Christian communities are being driven out. In response, the United States and Europe shrug their collective shoulders.
It’s hard to predict when these earthquakes will subside, how much destruction they will leave behind, which nations will live and which will die or be fundamentally restructured, whether ties of blood, land or religion will be the salient factor, whether coexistence will be seen as preferable to chronic conflict or whether the largest peoples – Arabs, Persians, Turks – will continue to persecute and, eventually, “cleanse” the weaker minorities from what they see as their realms.
I’m not going to tell you we have the power to shape this historic geo-political transformation. But neither is it sufficient for the United States to be merely a bystander and spectator. At the least, we should recognize that it’s happening, imagine the outcomes most dangerous to America’s national and security interests, and formulate strategies to prevent them if possible, and mitigate the damage if not. I’m not confident that within the current administration such work is underway.