The Middle East Heads towards a Meltdown

And there may not be much Washington can do about it.

Syria and Iraq are crumbling before our very eyes, and a new protocaliphate may be emerging from the wreckage. This, however, is just the beginning. The entire region is in a state of turmoil.

Other countries have already become, or are in danger of becoming, failed states, including Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya, north and south Sudan and Somalia. Some face ongoing dangers of civil war and even of breaking apart, such as Lebanon, Libya and Yemen, while others face grave domestic crises, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Jihadists are taking over lawless areas and now even entire states. The Shia-Sunni schism remains a key driver of regional tensions, as the growing role of religion in regional politics makes conflicts even more intractable. The primary forces that gave rise to the upheaval—an untenable population explosion, deep poverty and lack of economic opportunity, corrupt and repressive regimes, religious hatred—will continue to shape events in the region for decades.

The tragic truth is that no one has an answer to Egypt’s economic ills. With a burgeoning and poverty-stricken population of about 90 million, it is likely to become a failed state. Long the linchpin of U.S. policy in the region, the largest and traditionally most influential Arab state, it is unclear whether Egypt will remain a reliable ally, capable of playing a moderating regional role and committed to peace.

Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a deep succession crisis; its leaders are mostly in their eighties and nineties. It is unclear if Saudi Arabia can successfully weather the succession process, whether the king’s policy of glacial domestic change will succeed, or the entire House of Saud will come crumbling down. One of the most radical regimes domestically (albeit heretofore moderate externally), Saudi Arabia could become a radical state—one that spends excessively on what is already a large military with newfangled American weapons, exhibits the potential for adventurism and engages in a theological conflict with Shiite Iran.

Jordan has been gravely affected by the meltdown in Syria and Iraq. With approximately one million refugees from both, almost 20 percent of its total population, Jordan faces a dire economic crisis and a threat to its stability, already endangered by its growing Palestinian majority. The long-term future of the monarchy (in recent years, the United States’ closest Arab ally) and its moderating regional role is increasingly in question.

For Iran, events in Syria and Iraq carry the possibility of great gains, with both countries potentially becoming virtual protectorates, but also posing significant dangers. Iran faces a large, young and impoverished population, an opposition that has been suppressed (but is waiting to erupt again) and a deep economic crisis. Therefore, the long-term future of the regime is uncertain. Even if a nuclear deal is reached, Iran is unlikely to forgo its long-term nuclear ambitions, merely awaiting more propitious circumstances. Together with its ongoing hegemonic aspirations and millennia-long conflict with the Sunni majority in the region, Iran will continue to be a source of great instability for years to come.

In Turkey, the influence of Islam on domestic and foreign policy is likely to continue increasing, leading both to growing internal tensions and to friction with other countries that oppose its aspirations for regional leadership, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Turkey’s future as a leading American ally and stalwart of NATO remains murky.

Libya is in danger of splintering, tensions continue to bubble in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, and the prospects of Gaza truly reuniting with the West Bank appear as bleak as ever. Nonstate actors (e.g. Hezbollah, Hamas and ISIS) continue to gain power and threaten the regional order.

As for Syria and Iraq, no resolution is in sight. Syria, already undergoing the worst refugee crisis in decades, is a jihadist haven that will take decades to recover from its crushing civil war, and it is questionable whether it will even remain a united country. Likely to be a far weaker state, it will come under much greater Iranian and Hezbollah influence and may have to become even more radical to prove its Arab nationalism. A fragmented Syria is also likely to be highly destabilizing.