- - Tuesday, March 18, 2014

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.

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 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 Mr. 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 is 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. Across the Gulf of Aden is Somalia, a failed state, effectively divided into three weak entities with al-Shabab, 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 al Qaeda-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 does. So does the monarchy in nearby Bahrain. Libya remains less a nation than a collection of feuding tribes and militias.

The Palestinians have evolved into 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.

Mr. 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. Mr. Abbas also knows that were he to sign a deal, he’d be painting a bull’s-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 Mr. Abbas’ successor see himself as bound by anything Mr. Abbas agreed to?

Gaza is the second Palestinian quasi-state. Mr. 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.

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