Does the turbulence in the Middle East contain a unifying theme, and if so what is it? A year and a half ago, many would have identified the quest for democracy as the commonality. Today, not so much.
For me, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood ties together events in several Middle Eastern countries, most notably Egypt and Syria. But it has no direct relevance to Iran, a vital player in the region.
Walter Russell Mead finds a unifying theme in the struggle between Sunnis and Shia for political power and religious legitimacy:
Sunni rebel groups backed by Sunnis in the Gulf are fighting a Shia regime in Damascus backed by a Shia theocracy in Iran. The same is happening in Iraq, where a Shia authoritarian regime backed by Iran is fighting Sunni groups backed by the Gulf Arabs. Other actors, like the U.S., Turkey, and the Kurds, make this a truly volatile international conflict.
Mead believes that the next stage of the conflict will center in Iraq, where the U.S. expended so much blood and treasure before abdicating. Why Iraq? Because the impending Sunni victory in Syria will raise the stakes in Iraq. Iran, wanting to enhance its strategic depth, will attempt to consolidate its control over Iraq. Iraqi Sunnis, some of whom are already trying to ignite a civil war, will react violently to any increase in Iranian control. And they will likely receive considerable support from Damascus, just as Iraqi fighters are now aiding Sunnis in Syria.
Mead doesn’t predict the outcome of the struggle in Iraq. However, he mentions the possibility of an autonomous Sunni region. That region likely would be heavily influenced by al Qaeda in Iraq, just as that outfit’s Syrian counterpart, the Nusra Front, is a key player in the rebellion there.
Accordingly, Iraq faces the same prospect that loomed before the successful surge in 2007 — a Sunni region controlled by al Qaeda in Iraq and a Shia core dominated by Iran. And this time, because the U.S. has abdicated, there is nothing it can do to prevent this worst-case scenario.