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A growing Middle East mess

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By Condoleezza Rice
Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012, 8:52 p.m.
 

The civil war in Syria may well be the last act in the story of the disintegration of the Middle East as we know it. The opportunity to hold the region together and to rebuild it on a firmer foundation of tolerance, freedom and, eventually, democratic stability is slipping from our grasp.

Egypt and Iran are states with long, continuous histories and strong national identities. Turkey is as well, but there is the matter of the Kurds, who are still largely unassimilated.

Every other important state is a modern construct, created by the British without regard for ethnic and sectarian differences. The results: A Bahrain that is 70 percent Shiite, governed by a Sunni monarch. Saudi Arabia was created with a 10 percent Shiite population in its richest provinces to the east. Iraq is 65 percent Shiite, 20 percent Sunni, and a mix of Kurds and others, all ruled until 2003 by an iron-fisted Sunni dictator. Jordan's population is almost 70 percent Palestinian. Lebanon is roughly evenly divided among Sunnis, Shiites and Christians. And then there is Syria: a conglomerate of Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and others, ruled by the Alawite minority.

This fragile state structure has been held together for decades by monarchs and dictators. But as the desire for freedom has spread, authoritarians have lost their grip.

The conflict in Syria is pushing Iraq and others to the breaking point. At the same time, U.S. disengagement has tempted Iraqi politicians to move toward sectarian allies for survival. If Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cannot count on the Americans, he will take no risks with Tehran.

The great mistake of the past year has been to define the conflict with Bashar Assad's regime as a humanitarian one. The regime in Damascus has been brutal and many innocent people have been slaughtered. But this was no replay of Libya. Much more is at stake.

As Syria crumbles, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds are being drawn into a regional web of confessional allegiances. Iran envisions the spread of its influence among Shiites, uniting them under the theocratic flag of Tehran. Iran uses terrorists groups, Hezbollah and the Shiite militias in southern Iraq to do its bidding. Syria is the linchpin, the bridge into the Arab Middle East.

In response, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other neighboring powers arm and support Sunni factions. The Turks are being drawn into the conflict, desperately fearful that the Kurds will break away in Syria and push their brethren in Turkey to do the same.

But where is the United States? America has spent 12 months trying to get the Russians and the Chinese to agree to toothless U.N. resolutions to “stop the bloodshed,” as though Moscow will abandon Assad and Beijing really cares about chaos in the Middle East.

In recent days, France has stepped into the diplomatic vacuum to recognize a newly formed opposition that is broadly representative of all Syrians. The United States should follow Paris' lead. U.S. weight and influence are needed.

The breakdown of the Middle East state system is a grave risk. Iran will win, our allies will lose and for decades the region's misery and violence will make today's chaos look tame.

War is not receding in the Middle East. It is building to a crescendo. America must act.

Condoleezza Rice was secretary of State from 2005 to 2009.

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