As Assad Teeters, Middle East Vertigo Deepens

July 24 (Bloomberg) -- A telling conversation last week in Ramallah, the rump capital of the non-state of Palestine: A senior official of Fatah, the mainstream, secular-leaning movement that makes up the core of the decaying Palestinian Authority, explained why he isn’t entirely unsympathetic to Israeli politicians who resist new peace initiatives.

A Palestinian negotiator willing to put himself in the shoes of his adversaries is only slightly more unusual than an Israeli political figure sensitive to the strategic conundrums of the Palestinians. Then the Fatah official added this self-interested thought: The upheavals shaking the greater Middle East should cause everyone, including the Palestinians, to pause before they attempt to negotiate their future. The future, he told me, is showing itself to be immune to rational intervention.

This official said that each morning, when he scans the news -- of one Arab dictator after another facing swelling popular unrest, and one previously unthinkable development after another coming to pass in the Middle East -- he’s gripped by feelings of uncertainty, horror and vertigo.

Uncertainty because clear patterns have yet to make themselves visible in the Arab Spring. Will the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad fall as quickly as is hoped by everyone, excluding the leaders of Iran and Russia? Will its fall be followed by the sort of gruesome sect-on-sect bloodletting the world saw -- and is still seeing -- in Iraq? Does Assad’s imminent downfall destroy the bridge between the Iranian regime and its proxy force Hezbollah, which, if American and Israeli officials are correct, is very much interested in escalating the radical Shiite conflict with Israel, as evidenced by the ghastly terrorist bombing of Israeli tourists last week in Bulgaria?

Horror and Vertigo

He told me he reacts with horror to the apparently limitless capacity of Arab dictators to murder their own people, and at the manner in which the victims of these dictators sometimes exact their revenge. He mentioned the very real fear that the Assad regime would use its arsenal of chemical weapons against its own people, or against Israel, as a means of provoking a wider war.

And vertigo sets in early each day because so much of what is happening now in the Middle East is thoroughly improbable, and volatile.

Consider a few recent examples:

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on her visit to Egypt last week, came under sustained rhetorical attack -- and her motorcade came under sustained tomato attack -- from Egypt’s besieged secular liberals, infuriated that Barack Obama’s administration would show any respect for the newly elected president of Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi. The anger of Egypt’s liberals -- already incredulous as they watch the revolution they sparked bypass them so comprehensively -- should cause the Obama administration to ask itself why its natural allies across the region don’t trust its intentions, or its spine.

A second vertigo-inducing moment: We’ve become habituated to the idea that the so-called Arab Spring is unleashing a tidal wave of Islamism over the Middle East. This is true enough in Egypt and Tunisia, and it may be true one day in Syria, but recent events in Libya provide a contradictory data point: In elections this month, the Libyan people soundly rejected the more radical Islamist parties in favor of the moderate, pro-business National Forces Alliance of Mahmoud Jibril. This development was as welcome as it was unexpected.

No-Man’s Land

Still, the news from Libya isn’t entirely joyful. Tribal violence plagues the country, and the uprising against the late dictator Muammar Qaddafi had the unfortunate side effect of spreading Libya’s weapons across North Africa. Now Mali, partly as a consequence, is under siege from impressively armed Touareg separatists and an al-Qaeda-linked Islamist group, which is hoping to turn Timbuktu into a Saharan version of pre-invasion Afghanistan (or a post-revolution Sinai, which has become yet another zone of chaos in a region of proliferating no-man’s-lands).

A third cause for vertigo: Iraqis who fled their homeland to Syria during the bleakest days of the civil war are now fleeing back to Iraq, and Iraqis along the borders are scandalized by atrocities on the Syrian side. Imagine Iraqis shocked by the scale and cruelty of Syrian violence. As if to remind those returning that they shouldn’t be so naive, Sunni extremists across Iraq have just reasserted themselves by killing as many as 100 people in a series of attacks.

These attacks serve as a reminder that for all the vertigo, certain constancies remain in the Middle East, the most critical one being the old and deadly competition between Sunni and Shiite Islam. Mursi’s pan-Islamist tendencies haven’t trumped his suspicion of Shiites, and he appears to be aligning Egypt with Saudi Arabia in its cosmic struggle against Shiite Iran, a struggle now being waged on the streets of Damascus and Aleppo, between the minority Alawite regime (the Alawites being a schismatic Shiite group) and the Sunni majority.

Do not be mistaken: When the Syrian government falls (and it will fall), Iran -- which is the octopus of the Middle East, its tentacles reaching into every zone of conflict, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Bahrain and Lebanon -- will be wounded. Syria is its only meaningful Arab ally. Already, one of Iran’s proxies, Hamas, has chosen to side with the Syrian rebels.

Assad’s coming downfall should be welcomed. He is a monster. But the short-term consequences of his overthrow will be profound: A full-blown sectarian civil war is possible, with spillover into Iraq and Lebanon and perhaps Israel.

Cornered Iran

The removal of Iran’s lone friend in the Middle East will be a positive development, except for this: A cornered Iran may be even more dangerous than a self-confident Iran. The regime is escalating its struggle against Israel. It has already attempted several attacks on Israeli targets this year (succeeding, in a manner of speaking, only in Bulgaria), and its nuclear program is advancing apace, largely immune so far from Western pressure and sanctions. A nuclear weapon, in Iran’s view, is an insurance policy against what it sees as a hostile alliance of Sunni Arabs, the Jewish state and the U.S. At times in the past few months, confrontation between Iran and Israel -- and Iran and the West -- has seemed almost inevitable.

It is for this reason that the U.S. allies in the Middle East -- Israel, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and the rest of the Gulf states -- are hunkering down now. They understand that their region hasn’t seen the last explosion, and they understand that vertigo is the natural and understandable response to the new Middle East reality.

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own. This is the first in a two-part series.)

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