Most of the eyes that follow the Middle East are focused on the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN this week; that is not the biggest question facing the region or the United States. Egypt, Turkey, Libya, Tunisia, Palestine, Bahrain, Yemen: for now, these are sideshows. The main event, the thing that history is most likely to take note of one way or the other, is taking place in Syria. Washington appears to be paying attention, although it is as uncertain as everyone else about what to do. According to the NYT:
Increasingly convinced that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria will not be able to remain in power, the Obama administration has begun to make plans for American policy in the region after he exits…“There’s a real consensus that he’s beyond the pale and over the edge,” the senior Obama administration official said. “Intelligence services say he’s not coming back.”[…]In coordination with Turkey, the United States has been exploring how to deal with the possibility of a civil war among Syria’s Alawite, Druse, Christian and Sunni sects, a conflict that could quickly ignite other tensions in an already volatile region.
The controversy over the Palestinian bid for statehood should not distract policymakers from the main event. Assad’s fall — or his attempts to cling to power — could easily trigger prolonged armed conflict that could well spread beyond Syria’s frontiers. The situation is exacerbated by the interests of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey, who all have much to gain or lose if Damascus is abandoned. Iran could lose an important ally; the Saudis want a Sunni majority government that might be more radical than its neighbors would like; and Turkey will be worried about the Kurds. And given the close links between Syria and Lebanon and the weakness Lebanon’s government and the sectarian factionalism of its politics, it is likely that anything that happens in Syria will have profound implications for Lebanon.The US and Turkey potentially are the two countries whose interests in Syria’s future most closely align, but practical cooperation has real pitfalls. Iraq’s call for Assad to step down simplifies the picture somewhat, but developing an effective response to potential political and humanitarian crises in Syria belongs at the top of Washington’s regional agenda.