Old alliances and barriers have fallen away in the Middle East in the wake of new waves of “traditional” Islamic terrorism and the withdrawal of American leadership. “Traditional” is the right word, because, despite politically correct commentaries to the contrary, the history of the spread of Islam has always been accompanied, if not led, by violence. Nobody called Muhammad “the Prince of Peace.”
Many axioms are in flux. For example, although one manifestation of the present scene is the traditional Sunni versus Shia split going back a thousand years, new alliances have jumped that “unbridgeable” hurdle. The Hamas terrorists who dominate Gaza and have made great inroads among the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria, the West Bank occupied by Israel, were the spawn of the Muslim Brotherhood, one of whose basic tenets was death to Shia. Yet now Hamas continues to receive weapons from the mullahs in Iran, who despise the Sunni no less than they despise Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians and other ancient Middle Eastern faiths.
The maelstrom of the many currents sweeping the area is centered in Syria. There, a once multi-ethnic pseudo-nation-state, an outgrowth of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, is a battleground for all the contending forces. Increasingly, Iran’s mullahs are participating directly with their forces as well as weapons as the regime of Bashar Assad crumbles. Sunni radicals of every stripe, offshoots of both al Qaeda and the new the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, struggle to bring down Mr. Assad. Christians, once allies of the Assad regime, are decimated or fleeing by the hundreds of thousands, endangering neighboring Jordan and presenting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with near chaos in southeastern Turkey.
It’s probably futile to envisage the look of a new order arising when these conflagrations either are decided on the battlefield or exhaust themselves in blood. But there does seem to be a pattern which will have to be recognized by American and European leaders. All is complicated by Europe’s continued reliance on oil and gas from the Middle East.
The withdrawal of American leadership — sometimes after making bold and brave rhetorical commitments — has loosened the relationships that kept a marginal peace before the Arab Spring explosion of 2011.
President Obama’s attempt to reach a nuclear weapons agreement with Tehran, as a means to moderate the regime and to reach wider understanding, has frightened U.S. allies in the region. Despite Mr. Obama’s insistence on an Israeli-Palestinian settlement as fundamental to regional stability, its significance has been replaced in the Arab states by a tacit alliance with Israel against what they see as the threat of Iranian dominance.
The U.S.-Israel alliance is jeopardized by the loggerheads at which Egypt, the leading Arab military power, meets the United States, despite their mutual needs.
All these factors gravitate toward an outbreak of a general war in the region, between the Arabs and Iran with internal struggles in each country among conflicting Muslim sects. The big questions are whether this drift will accelerate before American leadership is either reasserted by President Obama, which seems unlikely, or by a new administration in Washington that can reframe a successful American strategy when it arrives in 2017.