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An Autumn Abyss?

BERLIN – In the coming months, several serious regional economic and political crises could combine into one mega-watershed, fueling an intense global upheaval. In the course of the summer, the prospect of a perilous fall has become only more likely.

The drums of war are being banged ever more loudly in the Middle East. No one can predict the direction in which Egypt’s Sunni Islamist president and parliamentary majority will lead the country. But one thing is clear: the Sunni Islamists are decisively altering the region’s politics. This regional re-alignment need not be necessarily anti-Western, but it surely will be if Israel and/or the United States attack Iran militarily.

Meanwhile, civil war is raging in Syria, accompanied by a humanitarian catastrophe. To be sure, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime will not survive, but it is determined to fight until the end. Syria’s balkanization among the country’s diverse ethnic and religious groups is a clearly predictable result. Indeed, a Bosnia-type scenario can no longer be excluded, while the prospect of the Syrian government’s loss of control over its chemical weapons poses an immediate threat of military intervention by Turkey, Israel, or the US.

Moreover, the Syrian civil war has become a proxy in an openly declared battle for regional hegemony between Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the US on the other. Staying on the sidelines of this Arab-Western coalition, Israel is playing its cards close to its chest.

Iran, for its part, has proclaimed Syria an indispensable ally, and is determined to prevent regime change there by all available means. Does that mean that Hezbollah’s militias in neighboring Lebanon will now become directly involved in Syria’s civil war? Would such intervention revive Lebanon’s own long civil war of the 1970’s and 1980’s? Is there a threat of a new Arab-Israeli war hanging over the Middle East? And, as Kurds inside and outside of Syria grow more assertive, Turkey, with its large and long-restive Kurdish population, is also growing restive.

At the same time, the regional struggle currently playing out in Syria is becoming increasingly entangled with the other major source of war sounds: Iran’s nuclear program. Indeed, parallel to the Syrian drama, the rhetoric in the confrontation between Israel and Iran over the program has become dramatically harsher.

Both sides have maneuvered themselves into a dead-end. If Iran gives in and agrees to a sustainable diplomatic solution, the regime will lose face on a critical domestic issue, jeopardizing its legitimacy and survival. From the regime’s point of view, the legacy of the 1979 Islamic revolution is at stake. But the international sanctions are hurting, and Iran risks losing Syria. Everything points to the regime’s need for success – now more than ever – concerning its nuclear program.

Similarly, Israel’s government has backed itself into a domestic policy trap of its own. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak cannot accept a nuclear-armed Iran. They do not fear a nuclear attack against Israel, but rather a nuclear arms race in the region and a dramatic shift in power to Israel’s disadvantage. From their point of view, Israel must either convince the US to attack Iran and its nuclear plants or take on the maximum risk of using its own military forces to do so.

Both sides have substantially reduced their options, thereby limiting the possibility of a diplomatic compromise. And that means that both sides have stopped thinking through the consequences of their actions.

Everywhere there is talk of a “military option,” which means air strikes. But, while advocates speak of a limited “surgical operation,” what they are really talking about is the start of two wars: an aerial war, led by the US and Israel, and an asymmetric war, led by Iran and its allies.

And what if this “military option” fails? What if Iran becomes a nuclear power, the region’s democratic movements are swept away by a wave of anti-Western Islamic solidarity, and the Iranian regime emerges even stronger?

Iran, too, evidently has not thought its position through to its logical conclusion. What does it stand to gain from nuclear status if it comes at the cost of regional isolation and harsh United Nations sanctions for the foreseeable future? And what if it triggers a regional nuclear arms race?

A war in the Persian Gulf – still the world’s gas station – would affect oil exports for some time, and energy prices would skyrocket, dealing a severe blow to a global economy that is teetering on the brink of recession.

China, already in economic trouble, would be hit hardest, along with the whole of East Asia. With the US also economically weakened and facing a presidential election, America’s leadership ability would be seriously constricted. And could a weakened Europe cope with an oil shock at all?  A regional and global security shock caused by asymmetric warfare could add still further to the world economy’s troubles, causing exports to slump even more.

Respice finem! (“Consider the end”), the Romans used to say. World leaders need to take this timeless wisdom to heart. And that applies doubly to Europeans. It would be absurd if we had to suffer a real catastrophe again in order to understand what European integration has always been about.