One of the biggest geopolitical stories of the past decade was the consolidation of two Middle Easts in reaction to the disastrous American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Here you have an Iranian official describing it in plain terms:
[The West] wanted to fragment the countries of the region into tiny states, so as to make it easy for [the West] to take control of the region’s resources. But its plan prompted the countries of the resistance axis to grow closer and unite, and to regard any danger threatening one of them as a danger threatening all of them. Moreover, this led to coordination of their efforts and to economic, political and military rapprochement between them, thus creating a strong bloc that yielded an even greater strategic power in this part of the world.
The regional landscape is indeed divided. On one side, you have what might be called the South Middle East (SME): a mostly pro-Israel, pro-West, Sunni-majority bloc that includes Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states. On the other side, you have the North Middle East (NME): a mostly anti-Israel, anti-West, majority Shi’i/non-Sunni bloc that includes Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
Division of the Middle East along these lines did not have to be contentious. It might have even been beneficial since the region has been searching for an organic equilibrium since the end of World War I. But the anti-Sunni and anti-Israel obsessions of the NME coupled with the anti-Shi’i/anti-Persian stance (and abysmal human rights record) of the SME has only made things worse. From the Western perspective, Iran’s theology of revolutionary expansion has until now proved a more dangerous threat than the repressive nature of SME regimes and the various Sunni non-state actors pushing caliphal ideologies.
It is important to note that the discreet unit of this analysis is the regime, not the individual or the non-state actor. The irony is that there tends to be much more pro-Western and pro-Israel sentiment on the streets of NME countries than SME countries. Regimes on both sides are not reflective of cultural attitudes inside their borders. A greater irony is that the NME is more historically and culturally aligned with the West than the Sunni countries with whom the West has forged an alliance. This tension is likely to complicate Sunni-Israeli-Western cooperation in the medium- to long-term.
Two complicating factors here are Turkey, a Sunni-majority state north of the NME that has territorial and political aspirations inside that bloc, and the Palestinians, a Sunni nation whose anti-Israel sentiments track closer to the NME than the SME world to which they belong.
Trends to watch in next decade include further consolidation of the two blocs; resistance from minority groups inside them who feel closer affinity with the other; NME attacks on Israel and SME states; SME efforts to thwart NME consolidation and expansion; growing Western concerns about the human rights records of our SME allies; Turkey’s attempts to carve out a third way under its own hegemony; Palestinian decisions on ultimate loyalties and priorities; internal dissension and economic fragility everywhere; and gamesmanship at the meta-level by America, Russia, and China.
The US has limited ability to influence a regional cold war and needs to choose its priorities carefully. This will be the most important story for us in the next decade as we try to get out of the Middle East without abandoning our allies and making the situation worse.