The eruption of the Arab revolts in late 2010 and early 2011 put power relations among Middle Eastern countries in a state of flux, and both winners and losers have emerged.
However, given that the strengths and weaknesses of most of the actors are highly contingent, the regional balance of power still remains fluid.
As that balance currently stands, Egypt continues to be one of the region’s most influential actors, with the success or failure of its political and economic transition affecting how other Arab countries develop. However, Egypt is weighed down by domestic concerns, including a plummeting economy and a security situation in which the military is used for policing tasks.
The expansion of Egypt’s soft power will depend on the ability of its first democratically elected government, led by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, to take difficult decisions and forge domestic consensus. Success in establishing effective governance would establish a model that many of Egypt’s neighbors would seek to emulate, at least partly.
In this respect, Turkey is a good example.
Turkey’s power rests primarily on its vibrant economy. Its impressive military strength is of limited use as an instrument of power, and its political clout has been overestimated, particularly in Syria. A rapprochement with Israel and, more important, a lasting peace with its Kurdish population, would boost Turkey’s regional influence.
Israel also remains an overall winner, despite the changing strategic environment and its virtual lack of soft power in the region.
The impending fall of Israel’s most reliable enemy, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, concerns Israel almost as much as the loss of its ally, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
However, with Israel’s economy and deterrent capability stronger than ever, no regional player poses a genuine security threat to Israel in the short term.
Meanwhile, Qatar’s diligent efforts to expand its influence over the past two decades have paid off, with the country developing considerable power of attraction.
Since 2011, Qatar has scaled up its involvement in its neighbors’ affairs, backing the Libyan revolution, the Egyptian government and the Syrian opposition.
However, the Qataris may be overplaying their hand. Qatar has money, but no other hard power, and it has been criticized for its interference in Syria and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
If Qatar fails to use its resources wisely, it may lose the legitimacy that it needs to underpin its patronage.
Meanwhile, Syria’s civil war highlights the loss of that country’s once-considerable influence in the region. Instead, Syria has become the object of a geopolitical struggle among other regional actors.
However, the efforts of the Gulf states to arm the Syrian opposition are insufficient to set the conflict on a definitive course, especially given the heavy weapons that the al-Assad regime has at its disposal. And the Syrian opposition has not been able to appropriate the reputation and clout that al-Assad has lost.
In fact, regardless of the balance of power between the regime and its opponents, Syria probably will not re-establish a strong, centralized government for decades, if ever.
At best, Syria will emerge from the current conflict with a decentralized or federal state; at worst, the country will go the way of Somalia. Either way, Syria is currently firmly in the loser’s camp.