Profound shifting in the sands in the Middle East

Bill Neely

Former International Editor

A youth who survived a chemical weapons attack in Syria. Credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abdullah

Never believe things can't get worse in the Middle East. The story of 2013 is that in the world's most dangerous region, they usually do.

In January, the UN estimated that 59,648 Syrians had been killed. Twelve months later that figure has doubled, and then some.

A thousand people a month are now being killed in Iraq.

Libya is a basket case of competing militias.

Jordan and Lebanon are straining to cope with the estimated 2.2 million people who have fled Syria.

Lebanon has seen the return of the car bomb and the daily gun battle.

Mohammed Morsi supporters clash with security forces in Cairo, Egypt. Credit: REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

The Arab Spring is dead in Egypt, the military in power again, the elected president on trial.

Saudi Arabia is forcing out tens of thousands of migrants and exporting its aggressive Wahhabi ideology across the region.

And al-Qaeda is more deadly now than it has even been, in a region it hopes to convert into a caliphate.

Not a good year then.

And yet...

There were two astonishing developments no-one saw coming, both of which were a triumph for the much maligned diplomats of the West and Russia, who've not been having a good time solving the Middle East's myriad crises.

A youth who survived a chemical weapons attack in Syria. Credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abdullah

The first followed the worst chemical weapons attack the world has seen in decades, when hundreds of civilians were killed in Damascus in an attack blamed on Syria's army.

Ten days later, President Obama announced he would take military action against Syria. Just as suddenly, President Assad announced he would give up his chemical weapons stocks and after an astonishing day of diplomacy between two foreign ministers, John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, military action receded and a stockpile Syria has never publicly admitted having was consigned to history's rubbish bin.

Syrian State TV shows pictures of gas canisters being destroyed. Credit: SANA/APTN

The second is just as startling a volte-face. Against all the odds, Iran and the West have done a deal on the country's nuclear programme. After decades of hostility, Tehran and Washington appear to be drawing closer together, or at least that's what the howls of protest from Jerusalem and Riyadh suggest. Saudi Arabia is pulling away from the US as a result.

Read: Iran deal 'halts progress on nuclear programme'

Politicians celebrate after striking a deal on Iran's nuclear programme. Credit: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

The sands are now shifting in the Middle East in as profound a way as we've seen in a decade, maybe more. But the risks are huge in a region commonly seen as a tinderbox.

And then there are the places where nothing has changed; the open sore that is Gaza and the broader lands where Israelis and Palestinians glare at each other and time bombs tick and America wrings its hands.

As 2014 dawns, perhaps only one thing is certain. Tens of thousands of Syrians alive today will be dead by the year's end. The world's deadliest war shows no signs of ending soon.