JERUSALEM – The Middle East is a region where predictions go to die. And the region’s recent turbulence has made forecasting the course of events there even more treacherous. But, as became increasingly clear in 2013, the main source of the Middle East’s crises is not a “clash of civilizations,” but a clash within Islam, centered on the Sunni-Shia divide.
The civilian death toll from this struggle is staggering. The combined figure for Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Syria is now approaching many hundreds of thousands – perhaps ten times the total death toll of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1948 – while millions more are leading squalid lives as refugees.
With the Arab Spring now frozen over, the regional outlook for 2014 appears gloomy. Some opportunities are still on the table, and more will surely emerge during the coming year. But seizing them will demand global leadership, strategic clarity, nuance, and decisiveness – almost all of which were absent in 2013.
Indeed, there is a spreading perception among world leaders and publics, adversaries and allies alike, that the longtime incumbent global leader, the United States, has been significantly weakened. Consider President Barack Obama’s failure to defend his “red line” after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons this past summer; Egypt’s return to military rule; Iran’s post-election protests in 2009; or the instability in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.