Losing the Middle East

Reuters

Soldiers loyal to the regime and civilians holding the Syrian national flag stand near boxes containing aid from the Syrian army in Qusair, after the army took control of the city from rebel fighters, June 5, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Assad forces have captured Qusayr: a harbinger of things to come?

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  • US non-response to Syria erodes our position in the Middle East

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  • To let Middle East burn is to play with fire

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After a three-week siege, the combined forces of Hezbollah and the Assad regime have taken the important crossroads town of Qusayr, which is just south of the even more important city of Homs in east-central Syria. “Whoever controls Qusayr controls the center of the country, and whoever controls the center of the country controls all of Syria,” crowed Syrian brigadier general Yalya Suleiman.

While that boast is as much propaganda as military fact, the capture of Qusayr is a happy moment for Bashar al-Assad—who has had few of them in recent years—and for Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, whose heavy investments in propping up the Syrian dictator appear to be paying off. Indeed, the Iranians “felicitated” Assad on the gain. As well they might, since the Syrian regime is becoming ever more dependent on Tehran; Assad’s army on its own had been unable to retake Qusayr. The specter that looms is nothing less than the near-complete collapse of the U.S. position in the Middle East.

This ought to be a further signal that, despite the predictions of some of the closest students of Arab politics, there is nothing inevitable about the fall of the House of Assad. Indeed, it may well be that the morale effects of retaking Qusayr prove more important than any tactical gain—although the deployment of large-scale and well-trained Hezbollah forces is also making a difference elsewhere in Syria. If they retake Aleppo, the effect on the Syrian opposition could be crushing. And strategically speaking, the momentum is with Iran. As former Obama State Department adviser Vali Nasr writes:The specter that looms is nothing less than the near-complete collapse of the U.S. position in the Middle East. --Thomas Donnelly

[E]vents in Syria are spinning in Iran’s favor. Assad’s regime is winning ground, the war has made Iran more comfortable in its nuclear pursuits, and Iran’s gains have embarrassed U.S. allies that support the Syrian uprising. What’s more, Iran has strengthened its relationship with Russia, which may prove to be the most important strategic consequence of the Syrian conflict, should the U.S. continue to sit it out.

It would be rash to draw too many conclusions from a fight over a town of just 30,000 residents, but the specter that looms is nothing less than the near-complete collapse of the U.S. position in the Middle East. In dry-eyed retrospect, even the biggest Bush-bashers ought to acknowledge that, compared with where we are now, 2008—as the surge forced a halt to the civil war in Iraq and the foundations were laid for a similar effort in Afghanistan—represented a high-water mark of American power and influence in the region. Then, both allies and adversaries seemed to reckon that the U.S. commitment to reconstructing the region’s politics was a deep one. 

But the “tide of war” turned with President Obama’s decision to put a time-clock on the Afghan surge. From that moment, the region increasingly has discounted the durability of the American commitment. The continuing retreat is both exposing and aggravating a multi-sided struggle for power across the western Muslim world. Across North Africa and southward through the Sahara, a congeries of al Qaeda affiliates are encroaching on weak regimes, not least in Libya, where the U.S. intervened to topple Qaddafi and then abdicated. Across South Asia, a pack of predators looks to see what will come in Afghanistan in 2014. And, perhaps most ominously, the Syria war is now a regional conflict pitting an Iranian-Shia bloc against a looser Saudi-led Sunni bloc that includes other Gulf states and various al Qaeda associates. Indeed, if Qusayr is any kind of leading indicator, it signals that the war is likely to continue, and to continue to expand; it’s already spilled over into Lebanon, western Iraq, and northern Jordan.

It used to be the role of the United States was to keep the worst from happening in the Middle East. That was not only a global public good but a critical component in reassuring allies elsewhere—not least in East Asia—whose economies rely upon the region’s energy supplies. To let the Middle East burn is to play with a very dangerous fire. After all, fires don’t usually burn themselves out if you refuse to fight them. Sometimes they spread and rage out of control.

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