Recent reports from inside Syria paint a grim picture on both sides. In Aleppo, as my Guardian colleague Ghaith Abdul-Ahad described in a vivid report last week, the armed opposition to President Bashar al-Assad remains as split as ever, looting is commonplace and rivalries are multiplying. In Damascus, the situation for Assad and his inner circle continues to deteriorate. The president himself, suggest some accounts, is « isolated and fearful », almost invisible and unwilling to venture outside. The operational capacity of the forces closest to him to mount operations is also declining even as Russia seems to be moving to distance itself from Assad, if not from Syria itself.
In all likelihood, some end to the regime appears inevitable, if not immediately, then in the not very distant future. The question now being posed is: what happens next? And while the desire to predict and second-guess is hard-wired into our natures, not least the nature of journalists and analysts, it’s probable that we will get it badly wrong.
The tools most commonly used to try to explain complex situations such as conflict, including the predilection for historical analogy to explain current events, are often deeply misleading, as the impressive Kings of War blog of the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London cautioned before Christmas. The reality is that the Middle East is not the Balkans of the 1990s, nor is Egypt revolutionary Iran. « The truth, » the Kings of War concluded, « is we should probably not be surprised by the things that surprise us. »
Indeed, a whole cadre of Soviet studies specialists failed to spot the USSR’s coming collapse. The same could be said of those specialising in the Middle East, who not only failed to predict the Arab Spring, but once it had begun hoped to use the models of Tunisia and Egypt to suggest how other revolutions might turn out.
We cannot say whether Syria after Assad, with its specific social and sectarian tensions, will resemble Libya post-Gaddafi or Iraq post-Saddam. All conflicts and all post-conflict situations are unhappy, or unstable, in their own particular way.
What we can say about the Arab Spring is not where we may end up, but where we are now – and that is in the midst of a grand reshaping of all the regional assumptions that have stood for almost a generation.
Its dominant feature so far has been the rise of a different kind of political Islam shaped, by and large, by the Muslim Brotherhood as an international phenomenon. For all that, it is still hard to generalise about the different manifestations of the Brotherhood. Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot in Gaza, is the way it is because it has been formed by its experience of armed struggle, just as the Brotherhood in Egypt has been shaped by its own history.
In Egypt, as Michael Wahid Hanna argued in Foreign Policy in November, what this has produced is an « ambush » style of decision-making under President Mohamed Morsi, an approach that lacks consensus and consultation. While « not anti-democratic per se, » argues Hanna, this approach « depends upon a distinctive conception of winner-takes-all politics and the denigration of political opposition. Winning elections, by this perspective, entitles the victors to govern unchecked by the concerns of the losers ».
A second phenomenon has been the increasing activism of the Gulf states, not least Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The various axes of Qatari influence, money and assistance – some formal, some informal – have become another key feature of the Arab Spring, not least in Libya and Syria. Its motivation in supporting revolutions elsewhere has been described in private, by at least one senior member of an Arab regime it has irritated, as a cynical attempt by its royal rulers « to be in the kitchen but not on the menu ». That is, to inoculate themselves against internal threats.
A third key feature, overlapping with the second, and perhaps the most serious, has been the continuing rise of Sunni-Shia sectarian antagonism in the region. As Egypt, Qatar and Turkey have emerged as the focus of an emerging and powerful Sunni axis of influence, it has set them in opposition to an increasingly isolated Iran, whose own attempts to build its influence in the region, not least through its alliances with Hezbollah and Assad’s Syria, now appear at risk.
But what of the Arab Spring itself?
Already pessimists are beginning to talk of an « Arab Winter », an expression perhaps as meaningless as the original Spring label. But, as the US political scientist Sheri Berman argued last week, that scepticism might be misplaced.
Instead, as she points out, a distinctive feature of all waves of democratisation in the last century was that they were followed « by an undertow, accompanied by widespread questioning of the viability and even desirability of democratic governance in the areas in question ». She added: « As soon as political progress stalls, a conservative reaction sets in as critics lament the turbulence of the new era and look back wistfully to the supposed stability and security of its authoritarian predecessor. »
The last issue, perhaps the most unknowable for now, is how the changes might have an impact on an Israel, which appears already in full reverse on the peace process and increasingly nervous about its neighbours. With growing insecurity in the Sinai Peninsula and Lebanon to the north suffering fallout from the war in Syria, even Jordan has seen political unrest. Coupled with an apparent lack of interest from President Obama in either the wider region or in breaking the deadlock in the Israel-Palestine peace process, this seems likely to lead to yet more retrenchment and ever more distant prospects for a two-state solution.
The events of the last two years in the Middle East have tested to destruction a series of interpretative models. Indeed, the arguments of many liberal interventionists, foreign policy « realists » and anti-imperialists have all looked equally facile when confronted by the new realities at work.
If it is a truism in military circles that « generals are always preparing to fight the last war », then it is equally true in foreign policy circles. And if there is one overarching lesson of the Arab Spring it is that we should be attentive to the present and its challenges, not chained to notions of the past or bound by ideas of a future we cannot know.