In conversations last week with Middle East experts from the U.S. government and from the region, a disturbing set of themes recurred. First, there was a growing sense that absent some major initiative that currently lacks a leader, concept, and resources, Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria could hold on for years to come, perhaps even as long as another decade. Next, were that to be the case or even if Assad were to fall sooner, Syria would remain an open wound, an ever more desolate, violent, chaotic battleground. Finally, even in the wake of a conflict-ending settlement, if Syria were to land in the hands of extremists, the aftershocks would reverberate around the region, spreading outward from Syria to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Israel, and the Palestinian territories.
Combine all this with the growing sense of unease about the outcomes of "Arab Spring" upheavals in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt and concerns regarding regimes in the Persian Gulf -- not to mention Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa -- and there is a credible scenario that calls for years of unending ebbing-and-flowing upheaval from Mali to Pakistan with few reliable pockets of stability in between. It is by no means a certainty, but one possibility is that we go from having been concerned about failed states to having to grapple with the harsh realities of a failed region.
We could be in the midst of what will someday be seen as decades of interconnected conflicts. For this reason and because most of the world's major powers fear this outcome and the potential costs it would pose for them, there is a growing sense that rather than focusing on democratic outcomes to all this upheaval, the United States and others will soon be contenting themselves with another generation of strongmen throughout the Greater Middle East. The U.S. willingness to embrace dubious "partners" like Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai or Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki and U.S. reluctance to publicly criticize leaders with questionable values such as Egypt's Mohamed Morsy are seen as signs of this growing predisposition.
Similarly, these analysts see U.S. reluctance to undertake policies that might meaningfully affect outcomes in some of these at-risk countries as a contributing factor both to the coming era of protracted instability and to the likely rise in our appetite for strongmen. Syria is again a signature case. While the United States has in recent weeks ratcheted up its rhetoric and its peripheral involvement in the situation there, America's inaction is still seen as more important to the situation on the ground as its action.
Sending 200 troops into Jordan, making a commitment to provide more night-vision goggles, or having the CIA sort through the opposition in the hopes of finding a leader we can live with are all positive steps. But they are offset, and their true character as symbolic or halfway measures is revealed, by articles such as that in April 23's New York Times once again noting that the Israelis (like others) have concluded that Assad has used chemical weapons in his own country, thus crossing U.S. President Barack Obama's "red line."