Beirut, Jan. 5: The images of recent days have an eerie familiarity, as if the horrors of the past decade were being played back: masked gunmen recapturing the Iraqi cities of Falluja and Ramadi, where so many American soldiers died fighting them. Car bombs exploding amid the elegance of downtown Beirut. The charnel house of Syria’s worsening civil war.
But for all its echoes, the bloodshed that has engulfed Iraq, Lebanon and Syria in the past two weeks exposes something new and destabilising: the emergence of a post-American West Asia in which no broker has the power, or the will, to contain the region’s sectarian hatreds.
Amid this vacuum, fanatics have flourished in both Iraq and Syria under the banner of al Qaida, as the two countries’ conflicts amplify each other and foster ever-deeper radicalism.
Behind much of it is the bitter rivalry of two great oil powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose rulers cynically deploy a sectarian agenda that makes almost any sort of accommodation a heresy.
“I think we are witnessing a turning point, and it could be one of the worst in all our history,” said Elias Khoury, a Lebanese novelist and critic who lived through his own country’s 15-year civil war.
“The West is not there, and we are in the hands of two regional powers, the Saudis and Iranians, each of which is fanatical in its own way. I don’t see how they can reach any entente, any rational solution.”
The drumbeat of violence in recent weeks threatens to bring back the worst of the Iraqi civil war that the US touched off with an invasion and then spent billions of dollars and thousands of soldiers’ lives to overcome.
With the possible withdrawal of American forces in Afghanistan looming later this year, many fear that an insurgency will unravel that country, too, leaving another US nation-building effort in ashes.
The Obama administration defends its record of engagement in the region, pointing to its efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis and the Palestinian dispute, but acknowledges that there are limits.
“It’s not in America’s interests to have troops in the middle of every conflict in the Middle East, or to be permanently involved in open-ended wars in the Middle East,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, a White House deputy national security adviser, said.
For the first time since the American troop withdrawal of 2011, fighters from a Qaida affiliate have recaptured Iraqi territory. In the past few days they have seized parts of the two biggest cities in Anbar Province, where the government, which the fighters revile as a tool of Iran, struggles to maintain a semblance of authority.
Lebanon has seen two deadly car bombs, including one that killed a senior political figure and American ally.
In Syria, the tempo of violence has increased, with hundreds of civilians killed by bombs dropped indiscriminately on houses and markets.