Syria the spark for a volatile Middle East

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Two years after popular uprisings began to convulse the Middle East, few people speak of an “Arab Spring” anymore.

Given Syria’s bloody civil war, the rise to power of Islamist forces through free elections, the ever-deepening political and economic crises in Egypt and Tunisia, increasing instability in Iraq, uncertainty about the future of Jordan and Lebanon, and the threat of war over Iran’s nuclear programme, the bright hope of a new Middle East has vanished.

All of us tend to make the same mistake repeatedly: we think at the beginning of a revolution that freedom and justice have prevailed over dictatorship and cruelty. But history contradicts this.

A revolution not only overthrows a repressive regime; it also destroys the old order, paving the way for a mostly brutal, if not bloody, fight for power to establish a new one.

Indeed, exceptions to this pattern are rare: South Africa is one, owing to the genius of a great statesman, Nelson Mandela.

In addition to poverty, backwardness, repression, rapid population growth, religious and ethnic hatred, and stateless peoples (such as the Kurds and the Palestinians), the region has unstable borders. Many were drawn by the colonial powers, and most, with the exception of Iran’s and Egypt’s, have little legitimacy.

As if this were not enough, some countries – including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and even tiny (but very rich) Qatar – have ambitions to be regional powers. All of this worsens an already tense situation.

All of these contradictions are currently exploding in Syria, whose population is suffering a humanitarian catastrophe, while the world stands by, up to now unwilling to intervene. Although intervention would be temporary and technically limited, everyone seems to be avoiding it, because the stakes are very high: not only a devastating civil war and massive human suffering, but also a new order for the whole of the Middle East.

Any military intervention would entail a confrontation not only with the Syrian military (supported by Russia and China), but also with Shia Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. Moreover, no-one can guarantee that intervention would not quickly lead to another war with Israel. The dangers of both action and inaction are very high.

The most likely outcome in Syria is that the human catastrophe will continue until president Bashar al-Assad’s regime collapses, after which the country very likely could be divided along ethnic and religious lines. And Syria’s disintegration could further balkanise the Middle East, potentially unleashing new violence.

• Joschka Fischer was German foreign minister and vice-chancellor from 1998-2005.