In no assessment of world powers does Syria make the list. With a population of just 17 million people it ranks 54th among nations; its gross domestic product is around $65 billion and it is estimated that 75 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Syria has aspirations to be a regional power (an ambition facilitated by a formidable military), but Damascus’ influence has been limited to territory within its borders and just beyond.
Yet in 2015, Syria played an outsized role in international affairs, demonstrating the so-called “butterfly effect” — that a butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing can cause a storm in New York. The impact of the unrest in Syria has rippled across the planet, roiling political systems half a world away.
The readiness of President Bashar Assad to fight an increasingly bloody civil war has generated predictable consequences. About 6.5 million people have been internally displaced. Some 4.4 million refugees have been forced to flee to other countries — 633,000 in Lebanon, equal to about a quarter of its population, and 1.07 million in Jordan, about 10 percent of its population — swamping facilities, overwhelming international aid organizations and threatening instability in neighboring countries. It has prompted ethnic groups to find common cause without regard to national borders — Kurds in Turkey aid Kurds in Syria — which prompts other groups to respond in kind.
No one, however, anticipated that the flood of refugees unleashed by this conflict would wash up on European shores in such numbers, and they would pose perhaps the greatest threat to European integration in that project’s history. Central and Eastern European governments first objected, warning that the influx from the Middle East constituted a threat to traditionally Christian societies.
That threat evolved into a more concrete danger: Islamic terrorists would disguise themselves as refugees to gain access to targets in the West, a fear that became real in the Paris attacks in November. That the perpetrators were European citizens and not refugees has been largely ignored in the rush to seal off borders and guard against future attacks. The Schengen system of visa-free travel throughout the European Union, one of the most important and visible signs of European integration, is now being debated and suspension for several years is a very real option. Britain’s membership in the EU might even be at risk as Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will hold a referendum on the topic before the end of 2017.
The terrorist danger has fueled populist fires that have been burning in Europe and elsewhere. It has transformed political debates in the West — national security concerns have eclipsed economic fears — powering the resurgence of right-wing parties such as the National Front in France and the campaign of Donald Trump in the United States. Fear is now the currency of national political discussions and established parties are proving increasingly incapable of dealing with the demagoguery it promotes.
In foreign policy, the Syrian civil war has given Russian President Vladimir Putin the opening he sought to rehabilitate relations with the rest of the world. He has forcefully intervened in the conflict — rhetorically, the Islamic State extremist group is his main target but forces opposed to Assad, his client, seem to be the focus of Russian bombing campaigns — and used this opportunity to encourage other leaders to “forget” his annexation of Crimea and incursion into Ukraine, a civil war of its own that continues to fester.
If Putin has been strengthened by the conflict, U.S. President Barack Obama has been weakened. His failure to enforce the red line he drew over the use of chemical weapons in Syria haunts him to this day; it is invariably trotted out as evidence that he is weak and unreliable. His administration’s failure to deal with the Islamic State group — famously and erroneously dismissed as “the junior varsity” by Obama a little over a year ago — is more “proof” that he is unable to understand, and counter, the growing terrorist threat.
Finally, there are the effects in the Middle East itself. The Syrian civil war has become the proxy war for regional governments. Iran and Saudi Arabia are battling each other, using surrogates to spread their political and religious influence. The battlefield is not just Syria, however. Iraq has been engulfed as well, and the Baghdad government’s inability to claim the allegiance of all its citizens has prompted many disaffected Sunnis to join Islamic State forces.
The Islamic State claim to have established a caliphate is just the first step in its struggle to overturn the established order in the Middle East. Its territory is expanding, yet the physical possession of land, while critical, is only part of the group’s mission. It is encouraging Muslims throughout the world to strike non-Muslim targets, intent on sparking a genuine clash of civilizations. The fear that it has prompted and the over-reaction are exactly what the militant group seeks — nothing less than an apocalyptic war of believers and apostates.
The use of the term “Middle East” came from British Foreign Office maps that situated the region in the middle of the world between Britain and the Far East. The year 2015 proved that mapmaking skills and perspectives have changed, but the Middle East remains the center of the world.
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