Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya have had their turn; now Syria occupies centre stage. More than 1,000 people have been killed in recent fighting, while hundreds of thousands still risk their lives challenging the regime. Syria's future rests on whether a handful of Alawite generals are prepared to keep killing their fellow citizens to preserve the Assad regime and, more fundamentally, Alawite primacy. The outside world, fearing the alternative and bogged down in Libya, is little more than a bystander. Syria's violence is just one further sign that the promise of the Arab spring has given way to a long, hot summer in which the geopolitics of the Middle East are being reset for the worse.
Syria is not unique. Other threatened leaders around the regions have clearly now decided against emulating the former presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, who went gently into the night. Violence, along with the threat of imprisonment and international tribunals, has persuaded them that the future is winner takes all and loser loses all. Not surprisingly, they have chosen to resist.
Meanwhile, the most organised groups in Arab societies tend to be the army and other security organs on one hand and Islamist entities on the other. Secular liberal groups (if they exist) tend to be weak and divided, and unlikely to prevail in any political competition in the near term. Facebook and Twitter matter but not enough.
Looked at more broadly, the stalling of the Arab spring has both revealed and widened the breach between the US and Saudi Arabia. Saudi leaders were alienated by what they saw as the US abandoning the regime in Egypt after three decades of close cooperation. The Americans, for their part, were unhappy with the Saudi decision to intervene militarily in Bahrain. But such independent, uncoordinated policies are now likely to become more frequent, especially if international efforts to stop Iran's nuclear program come up short.
Iran itself has both gained and lost from recent events. Higher oil prices, the fall of the staunchly anti-Iranian regime in Egypt, and projected reductions in US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan have all strengthened its hand. These gains are offset at least in part by the weakened status of Iran's close partner Syria – and by signs that Iran's leadership is divided against itself.
The effects go wider still. Relations between Israelis and Palestinians are increasingly strained. Israelis are more reluctant than ever to make concessions in light of the disarray on their borders, while the new voice for Arab publics emerging from the upheavals makes it more difficult for Arab governments to compromise. And while terrorist groups had nothing to do with the upheavals, they are in a position to benefit as governments with strong anti-terrorist records are weakened or ousted. Signs of exactly this are popping up in Yemen, and it only a matter of time before they do so in Libya.
Take all this together, and you see a series of developments that are beginning to produce a region that is less tolerant, less prosperous, and less stable that what existed. To be sure, the authoritarian old guard that still dominates much of the Middle East could yet be forced or eased out and replaced with something relatively democratic and open. Unfortunately, the odds now seem against this happening.
What, then, can outsiders do to affect the course of events? The honest answer is not all that much. Interests are greater than influence. There is little in foreign policy more difficult than trying to steer the course of reform in another country.
That doesn't mean that there is nothing to be done. Wherever possible wise outsiders should promote gradual political change. Constitutions need to be rewritten, checks and balances created. But economics counts as much as politics, if not more. This means providing assistance, so long as reforms are implemented. The scale of the generosity should be matched by the scale of the conditionality.
Elsewhere, it is still worth exploring further the role diplomacy can play in reducing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. But the Quartet needs to work with, not dictate to, local parties. Launching a new negotiation is surely preferable to taking the issue to the UN General Assembly, where positions are likely to harden. In addition, the process of building a modern, effective Palestinian state from the ground up in the West Bank needs to be accelerated.
Yet the most important lessons from the Arab spring are also the simplest. Military intervention should, as a rule, be avoided. It is easier to oust a regime than it is to help put something clearly better in its place. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya all stand as warnings. Islamists who eschew violence should be talked to, not written off. And no one should be lulled by recent drops in oil prices: the world is only one major crisis in Saudi Arabia away from $200 per barrel oil. Governments might want to use the respite to take additional steps to reduce their dependence on the region's energy resources. There is no better hedge against the strong possibility that it will not be springtime any time soon in the Middle East.
The writer is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former director of policy planning at the US state department, 2001-03.
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