Zakaria: Could Middle East tensions boil over?
Members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) take position in Idlib in northwestern Syria on February 22, 2012. (Getty Images)
February 24th, 2012
05:00 AM ET

Zakaria: Could Middle East tensions boil over?

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

The situation in Syria is spiraling downward. The country is inching towards full scale civil war. Violence is increasingly sustained and the Syrian regime seems unable to stop the opposition.

At the same time, we are watching an open Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran with Syria as the battle ground. The Saudi King publicly said (and, remember, the Saudis are very reluctant to say things publicly) to the Russian President that any dialogue with Syria is "futile" - that we  need to push the regime of Bashar al-Assad out. The Iranians, on the other side, are warning the outside world against intervening in Syria.

This is all a huge security boon for Israel. Iran - the country that Israel views as its principle threat in the region - is finding itself in a very weakened position because it chose to go all-in on Syria. Iran made the decision to simply to back the Syrian regime no matter what and now they're getting further and further isolated. The Russians have stopped publicly speaking out in favor of Syria. The Chinese have never been very vocal. And the Iraqis, who had initially taken a relatively supportive position, have retreated.

The Iranians are almost alone in supporting the Syrian regime now and this leaves them suffering humiliation and enormous cash outflows to support this regime. At the end of the day, Iran is backing a sinking ship. It seems highly unlikely that two years from now al-Assad will be in power.

In addition to that, the Iranians are feeling the pressure of sanctions and further isolation. I think that U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, was right to say that this would not be a prudent time to attack Iran. Doing so would completely change the debate. Right now, the discussion revolves around Iran’s support of Syria. If Iran is attacked, it would transform the debate into one about a western-supported attack on a Muslim country. It would completely change Iran's political and military calculus. At the very least, now would seem to be the wrong time to strike Iran.

Meanwhile, we are seeing Yemen's leader Ali Abdullah Saleh finally leaving office, potentially auguring a period of instability in Yemen. Outside of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, Yemen has had probably the strongest al Qaeda cells in the world. This is something to watch very carefully.

The Obama Administration has been inclined to play a balancing act in Yemen of supporting a democratic transition while also trying not to isolate President Saleh who has been very cooperative on counterterrorism. We’ll see if that balancing act can continue as a new regime comes to power.

In Afghanistan you have the reoccurrence of perhaps an inevitable phenomenon - lots of troops in a country where they are not as familiar with cultural sensitivities. Things go wrong that inflame local passions and nationalism.

And in Egypt, you have the trial of the nineteen Americans.

I'm struck at how in this one week you have seen – from Afghanistan to Yemen to Syria to Iran to Egypt – all these places at a boil. One reason for this, I suspect, is that oil is at over $105 a barrel. This adds to a very tense situation where any one of the places could spill over into something even more serious.

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Topics: From Fareed • Iran • Middle East • Syria • Yemen

soundoff (414 Responses)
  1. Abdulrahman Al-Zuhayyan

    The solution lies in the will of the international community to declare unequivocally that Assad's regime has lost its legitimacy and only wasting time by killing unarmed citizens, which is an act criminalized by the International Criminal Law, and Assad will stand in the Hague Court to be tried for his crimes against humanity as the commanding leader of the armed forces, who gives killing orders to his soldiers.

    Second, the international community must acknowledge a Syrian opposition group as a representative of the newly Syrian government, without waiting for consensus on the representative, which is something that could happen after a democratic election.

    This solution should limit the potential of a civil war in Syria. One should expect some terrorist acts in some parts of the ME, but would not reach the state of a Syrian civil war spilling/boiling over to other surrounding countries.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:02 am | Reply
  2. jb

    Our only concern should be Israel; hell with the A-rabs, let them eat pork!

    February 26, 2012 at 12:04 am | Reply
  3. Dilaudid King

    یالله و الله آکبر جیش تعم کل

    February 26, 2012 at 12:19 am | Reply
  4. Dilaudid King

    No Security for Israel!! I want to be real clear on that! They don't deserve any, & they're NOT gonna get any until they stop their crimes & invasions, attacks, and threats.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:21 am | Reply
    • bomb them all

      gee obvious to see what side of their fence you're on. they don't threaten anyone. they have had to fight off invasion after invasion, bombing after bombing, from idiots like you. be sure to be under the bullseye when the American and Israeli bombs hit when you screw with them some more. retard.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:22 am | Reply
  5. TT

    principal threat – not principle threat; where are your copy editors?

    February 26, 2012 at 12:34 am | Reply
  6. Bobolinski

    Where have you been Fareed? Me thinks the Middle East has been boiling over since spring. You know, when we haters over here told you exactly what would happen in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. I seem to remember that we Conservatives were ignored. Wishful thinking and ill-advised optimism got us where we are now. US troops in 4 African countries. Plus Afghanistan and Iraq. Looks like a World War to me. We just haven't started calling it that yet.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:54 am | Reply
  7. Scott Mitchell

    They don't like gays in Iran so I hate them. wsm_marathoner

    February 26, 2012 at 1:05 am | Reply
  8. Intrepid

    Iran will insure that this is a complete mess as to lessen the attention to themselves/not possible, but they are the greater percentage of the cancer. Russia and China however are not the catalyst as one is lead to believe. The stove is on medium High and will boil over as soon as the heat is increased by Iran via the Iraqi border.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:12 am | Reply
  9. Siyajkak

    not a good time to attack Iran? no time should be a good time to attack Iran. It would mean massive loss of life, destabilization, and a huge swell in anti-American sentiments. Our own intelligence secretary says Iran isn't pursuing nuclear weapons yet, but may start considering it if they keep getting backed into a corner. Iran has no military power that it can successfully exert outside the region, so what are they supposed to do if we do intervene in Syria? Invade Iraq? a coalition force would run them back behind their borders within weeks. Enough with the preemptive strikes! They cause far more death and destruction than the regime in question ever could.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:12 am | Reply
  10. bomb them all

    strike now while they're weak. blow them all to smithereens and be rid of Iran once and for all.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:18 am | Reply
  11. Kris Armour

    What Zakaria didn't bring into this article, that he has written about before, is the probable reactions of Lebanese Hezbollah to the unfolding events in Syria, and with Iran. Will a Sunni takeover of Syria, lead by Sunni takfiri extremists, be tolerated by neighbouring Shi'ite Lebanese Hezbollah, without touching off a huge reaction? Doubtful. Will Hezbollah try to take over Lebanese government? Will they send fighters into Syria to aide their allies, the Al Asad regime? Will they get into open warfare with Israel because of actions they may take? While the Syrian diaspora is not that large or influential, the Lebanese diaspora cover the globe, and remain very connected to Lebanon, and Hezbollah.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:22 am | Reply
  12. cleo48

    Will they boil over? Has anyone been watching anything for the past year? It is way beyond that description. And it will become something quite different going forward. There will be a breif period of fundamentalist rule followed by poverty and then more civil war. Those nations which have oil might fare better than most, if they can get it to market amid the gunfire. This is not going to quite be a Caliphate.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:15 am | Reply
  13. JOHN

    We have no reason to be there.Period. Bring the troops home.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:19 am | Reply
  14. Kerry

    Bring the troops home and watch them duke it out from afar. Let them wipe each other out.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:43 am | Reply
  15. anti dictators

    Assad is finished, the idiot leaders (so called Leaders) of Iran know it too, but they need to keep Assad and his thugs in power for an obvious reason, they will be next to be brought down.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Reply
  16. It's all about economic greed?

    "One reason for this, I suspect, is that oil is at over $105 a barrel." One more reason that you, Fareed, are more suitable for being a foreign policy adviser or the successor to Obama – after Obama's second term.

    You are right in pointing out the part of crude oil plays in a crude world containing an even cruder powerful elite. Will you admit this: The world's problems are caused by GREED, pure and simple, and oil is a means to controlling nations and feeding that GREED?

    Fareed, the greatest threat to humanity is the 30,000 children who died today due to preventable diseases. It is the millions in hunger. The millions in poverty, willing and able to work, but for whom work will not come. The thousands fighting wars to feed this greed with its daily supply of human blood, flesh and bones.

    Could you please start writing about the deeper problems of the world and your fellow humans and their threats to existence? After all, we all breathe the same air, we all love our children.

    Mass destruction is a already happening to people. But there are no sanctions, no censure. Maybe it is sanctioned – who knows?

    February 26, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Reply
  17. Derrick

    Hemorroid of the world!!!!!!!

    February 26, 2012 at 9:25 pm | Reply
  18. toronto girl

    it's too bad that Israel doesn't have any oil. That would take the sting out of the high prices. The one good US ally would have no problem keeping the price low because they would see the benefits.

    February 27, 2012 at 1:57 am | Reply
  19. foreseer

    I had a dream! And it was horrible. For 3 days i had an intense headache and could hear the screams of billions of people world wide and feel there fear. So this is what i dreamt. Iran is what we think but is not going to do what we think alone. In this dream Iran, Russia and another country that acts as one of our allies (or so pretends to be and stays very neurtral and quite) will create a nuclear bomb together. while this is being plotted another war will start and the USA will be mislead to a place to start this war. We will send as many of our troops there as possible. this will be our downfall. this is when the 3 countries have put together one big bomb to kill as many usa troops as possible in one chunk exploding this horrific bomb. Worse yet Iran will state that we were going to bomb iran and that this bomb went off by our own mistake and it was ours, when it was actually planned the whole time from these 3 countries. From here total nuclear war will break out amongs all countries killing 4.5 billion people. God help us all. we need to pull out of everywhere and be neutral like china before this happens. do my dreams come true,,yes. only this one will i tell the world and warn them.

    February 27, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Reply
  20. Abdul Ameer

    Such junk journalism! As if the rising price of oil is a cause of all the tension! Nonsense. The tension has everything to do with Islam: the aggressive Shiites in the Islamic Republic of Iran who have more military power than the other Moslem countries and who are about to get nuclear weapons; and the Sunnis, who are actually taking power all over the Arab countries from Morocco to Yemen, with Syria in the wings. Both the Shiites and the Sunnis are fanatic supporters of the basic doctrines of Islam which requjire Moslems to make permanent war on non-Moslems until Islam reigns supreme in the world. They may hate one another, but they both hate us. We need to let them, even encourage them, to fight one another. The whole world will be better for it - not just Israel.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:46 am | Reply
  21. HardyMonster

    BAHAHAHAHAHA Iraqis retreating!? If I had a nickel...

    February 28, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Reply
  22. ,,,,,iran=syria=hizboallah=shiia=terrorsists=evil

    attack this evil iranians and get red of those thugs, they are funding every terrorists in the world from afriac to hamas to hizboallah to libyan revolutions to al qayeda, to syrian bashar al asad, to noril al haleki of iraq, to al dawa part in iraq, to al qodos army and mahid militia in iraq to asyeb ahel al haq and to latin america....

    February 29, 2012 at 9:00 am | Reply
  23. Paul K.

    Until Iran has a nuke and is pointing at us and we have no evidence otherwise, the U.S. needs not to start another speculation game as we did with Iraq and the quest for weapons of mass destruction, and disabled the entire Middel East with our actions. Protect our Borders and Solvency and let Natural selection and Darwinism prevail. War is a necessary tool of last resort, and our military is one of this nations most important resources, and not be waisted on fighting for bottom feeder nations that will never stop their behavior patterns as proven for the last 2000 years. The end.

    February 29, 2012 at 11:44 pm | Reply
  24. Paul K.

    Let it be Russia and China's problem as response to their veto's in the U.N.. We need to take care of ourselves first. I could care less if the entire Middle East went up in smoke. They can't police themselves or ever act repsonsible, we the U.S. can't be their baby sitter any longer. So put up or shut up! U.S. needs to stop playing the worlds policeman, anyone we try to help turns on us and a waist of our military and tax money. Blah Blah Blah

    February 29, 2012 at 11:54 pm | Reply
  25. Scott

    If we look back in History the Middle East has been at war going back 1000 years or more and will continue to be at war for another 1000 years., It has become the normal way of life for them, We can hope that they will come to peace terms but it is not realistic until they kill each other off or go back to the stone age. and most of it is religious belief. It is time for the world to just stand back and say do what you want we are not going to stop you and we are not going to help you either and when you are ready we will welcome you back into the world but don't expect the world to rebuild you.

    March 2, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Reply
  26. Harry Kuheim

    Since when do Free Syrian Army Rebels take time out of fighting to pose for a CNN Propaganda Photo?

    March 2, 2012 at 9:46 pm | Reply
  27. Fossil

    Fareed writes "I'm struck at how in this one week you have seen - from Afghanistan to Yemen to Syria to Iran to Egypt - all these places at a boil. One reason for this, I suspect, is that oil is at over $105 a barrel."

    Fareed, what is this? None of the problems you have described is because of the price of oil at $105.
    In Afghanistan, it is the burning of the Qur'an, not the price of oil at $105.
    In Syria, it is the veto of the UN resolution which has given a green light for Assad to do the bloodshed. It has nothing to do with the price of the oil at $105.
    In Yemen, the political situation has nothing to do with the price of oil at $105.
    And in Egypt also, it has more to do with military rule than the price of oil at $105.
    In Iran, the reason is the nuclear stand off, and not the price of oil at $105.

    In all these cases Fareed misses to read the cause and effect properly and assumes the effect is the reason for the cause. After reading a few of the articles Fareed has written about the middle east, it is clear that he does not have the ability to do an in depth analysis of any of the situations in the middle east. He just grabs a headline from here, a headline from there, and puts together a hodgepodge article which lacks in substance and is full of fluff and complete nonsense.

    March 2, 2012 at 11:04 pm | Reply
  28. Duncan

    Why is it that all the problems in the world are related to Islamic countries. Syria, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and the list goes on. Fareed Zakaria, write an article about why the Islamists of the world are the cause of all the problems.

    March 2, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Reply
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