The New Middle East’s New Problems

BERLIN – When hostilities flared in Gaza last month, it seemed like the same old story was repeating itself. The world again witnessed a bloody and senseless surge of violence between Israel and Hamas, in which the main victims were innocent civilians maimed and killed on both sides.

This time, however, things were not what they seemed, because the Middle East has undergone a significant change in the past two years. The political epicenter of this troubled region has shifted from the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians toward the Persian Gulf and the struggle for regional mastery between Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and now Egypt on the other. In the emerging struggle between the region’s Shia and Sunni powers, the old Middle East conflict has become a sideshow.

Today, the key confrontation in this power struggle is Syria’s civil war, where all of the region’s major players are represented either directly or indirectly, because that is where the battle for regional hegemony will largely be decided. This much is clear: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite/Shia power base will not be able to maintain control against the Sunni majority in the country and the region as a whole. The only question is when the regime will fall.

When it does, it will be a major defeat for Iran, not only entailing the loss of its main Arab ally, but also jeopardizing the position of its client, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. At the same time, a variant of the Muslim Brotherhood will come to power in Syria, as has been or will be the case almost everywhere in the Middle East as a result of the “Arab Awakening.”