Assad’s apparent survival will have an enormous, and perhaps surprising, impact on the Middle East. The massacre of so many Sunnis has certainly exacerbated the sectarian chasm in the region. Iran has won a victory in Syria and another victory at the nuclear negotiating table. Indeed, the Sunni calculus has Iran much empowered by the events of the year, including the ascension of the seemingly moderate, and temperate, regime of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
This, in turn, has created the potential for an unlikely new alliance in the region. The Israelis and the Saudis have long had near identical national-security interests; they have privately shared intelligence about the Iranian threat for years. The Saudis are worried about an Iranian nuclear weapon but also that Iran and Iraq will foment trouble in their Eastern province, home to most of the Saudi petroleum reserves—and also home to most of the kingdom’s Shi‘ites. The Israelis are worried not only about an Iranian nuclear weapon but also about the threat of Iran-supported terrorist organizations like Hizballah and Hamas.
The perception of Iran’s new strength is matched by a fear of U.S. weakness. Obama’s willingness to deal with both Assad and Iran has been blasted, publicly, by the Saudis and Israelis. Obama’s moves—plus the dwindling American need for Saudi oil—are seen as harbingers of a new era of war-sick timidity by the U.S.
Ten years ago, the Saudi crown prince promised to recognize Israel if it made peace with the Palestinians. There was some skepticism about this: the offer was made to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and not directly to the Israelis. But the possibility is not so unthinkable anymore. “Not only are there common security interests between Israel and the Saudis,” says Shai Feldman, an Israeli security expert and director of the Crown Center at Brandeis University, “but there is also a strong economic case to be made” for an alliance. Israel needs oil and markets; Saudi Arabia needs technology and the security provided by the most formidable—and nuclear-armed—military in the region. “Bibi Netanyahu’s economic dream has always been to be the Singapore of the Middle East,” Feldman says. “That dream may be within his grasp. Provided, of course, that he is willing to make the difficult decisions required to reach peace with the Palestinians.”
In fact, Netanyahu is now faced with an existential calculation similar to Assad’s: a peace deal with the Palestinians contains obvious security and domestic political risks—the West Bank settler movement is a powerful force in Israel; the Palestinians have always been recalcitrant in face-to-face negotiations. But diplomatic acceptance by the Arab League, and an implicit security alliance with the Saudis, would be a major step toward Israel’s dream of full acceptance in the region.
The possibility of good news in the Middle East is almost always dashed by the preponderance of bad actors. The roadblocks to a grand bargain—not the least of which is the surreptitious Saudi funding of al-Qaeda and Wahhabi extremists—are prodigious. But the U.S. can help with clever diplomacy. John Kerry’s State Department has made a strong push for progress in the West Bank talks. The U.S. negotiating team recently added a significant player in David Makovsky, a regional expert who has drawn the most detailed and plausible maps for land swaps between the Israelis and Palestinians. There is speculation that the U.S. will put a comprehensive Middle East peace plan on the table in the summer of 2014, the first since Bill Clinton’s last-minute proposal at Taba in January 2001.
That would be a mistake. The U.S. has lost a great deal of stature because of Bush’s Iraq invasion and Obama’s vacillations. Its public actions in the region have seemed either clunking, neocolonial interventions; naive fantasies about democracy in countries without a substantial middle class; or hollow, unplanned rhetoric and dithering. A better role for the U.S. would be to use its convening power to mediate a deal privately, to nudge the Saudis and the Gulf states toward real economic and security arrangements with the Israelis and to reassure Netanyahu that he is acting in the best long-term interests of his country.
Assad’s survival in 2013 may have opened the door to new diplomatic possibilities in 2014, but the Syrian dictator should not sit easy on his contaminated throne. There is no guarantee that the current Syria will be the country that emerges from this period of upheaval. Already, the Syrian Kurds have joined with their Iraqi cousins in a de facto alliance—and the Iraqi Kurds are now selling oil directly to the Turks in defiance of the Shi‘ite government in Baghdad. The Sunnis of western Iraq and eastern Syria have found common cause as well. The straight-line borders, drawn in the sand by Europeans during World War I, may soon be revised by the people who actually live there. The likely consequence is another generation of turbulence, which will make the need for stable allies all the more important in the region.
But, for the moment, Bashar Assad—the mild-mannered ophthalmologist turned Old Testament tyrant—has taught his neighbors an ancient lesson: that absolute, unrelenting brutality combined with geostrategic cleverness is the most likely way to retain power in the Middle East.