Dr. Larry P. Goodson
The Syrian Civil War is shaping up to do something disastrous to the Middle East—something that has not occurred in modern history. A regional conflagration is coming; indeed, it may already be here. The meltdown currently underway in Iraq is only the first manifestation of the regional war—or perhaps region-wide violence—that is coming.
The Pan-Arabism and Arab Nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s seemed to outsiders to have faded in the wake of the oil boom of the 1970s and 1980s, and the divide within the Arab World over Iraq in the 1990s. Yet, the Arab Spring uprisings in almost all of the Arab countries over the past 3 years demonstrated that pan-Arab political phenomena still exist. Syria’s particular Arab Spring became a violent civil war that now threatens to spill over into the entire region.
A war in one country can become so virulent that it disrupts everything there. When three particular variables combine, certain wars can become enormously disruptive of regional and even world order. First, more than one Great Power has to be involved. Today, those Great Powers might include the United States, Russia, China, and perhaps the European Union. Second, at least partly due to the first factor, the war may protract. Since the end of World War II, civil wars have lengthened to more than 4 years, on average. Third, these protracted civil wars may reach very high levels of destructiveness, easily measured in terms of casualties (killed and wounded), displaced people (refugees and internally displaced persons), detained and missing people, and damage to infrastructure. The Afghanistan War of the 1980s saw over 50 percent of the pre-war population killed, wounded, or displaced, as Afghanistan led the world in refugees produced from 1982 to 1997, as well as a comprehensive destruction of that country’s physical infrastructure. Of course, the spillover of Afghans into neighboring countries unsettled that region and has left it that way ever since. Today, Syria has had over 40 percent of its pre-war population displaced in a similar fashion, including huge refugee populations now in Lebanon (constituting 23 percent of Lebanon’s population), Jordan (8 percent of its population), Turkey, and Iraq.
The Syrian Civil War also is widening because it has become an avenue for a bigger proxy war, especially between Sunni and Shia. This war has been building for decades, although its roots go back to the early days of Islam and sectarian conflict has flared up many times in the subsequent centuries. In this particular iteration, the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 empowered Shia Islamists in that country, and one thread of their philosophy was to export the revolution abroad into other Shia areas. This activity, which led to the establishment of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, collided with the rise of Sunni Islamism earlier in the 20th century, especially the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928 and the Jamaat Islami in British India in 1941. The Afghan War of the 1980s provided a training ground and battlefield for Sunni Islamists of that era to wage a great jihad against the atheist Soviet Union. Al-Qaeda was born in the waning days of that war and began to espouse an increasingly militant ideology against the Sunni rulers of most Arab countries (the Near Enemy) who were aligned with Western countries like the United States (the Far Enemy). Sunni extremists also saw Shia as apostates, which, in the stricter interpretations of Islamic law, justified their execution.
Al-Qaeda’s spectacularly successful attack on the United States in 2001 prompted the American retaliation in Afghanistan, plus the Global War on Terrorism, which despite its name focused completely on Islamist terrorists. In January 2002, President George W. Bush announced that Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were all part of an “Axis of Evil,” as each state was pursuing weapons of mass destruction. This designation was to help build the case that the United States would use military action against the Iraqi government, which came in 2003. The war in Iraq lasted until 2011, and it deepened the division between radical Sunni and Shia militants in the Middle East. The Iraqi democracy fostered by the United States empowered the Shia majority with a government that was controlled by Iranian-supported politician Nouri Al-Maliki. The new Iraqi Constitution in 2005 federalized the autonomous region for the Kurds in northern Iraq, giving hope to Kurds in neighboring Turkey, Syria, and Iran that their long-delayed dreams of a sovereign Kurdish state could still be realized. As for the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq that had once ruled the country under Saddam Hussein, Al Maliki’s government went out of its way to repress them, sparking resentment and the rise in sectarian violence that has now produced the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) uprising.
The 2012 outbreak of Arab Spring violence in Syria quickly spiraled upward into a civil war that brought all of the regional rivalries into play. Iran supports the Alawite-dominated government in Damascus, meaning two Shia governments support each other. The Gulf Arab countries (particularly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar) all support various groups of the Sunni dominated opposition in the Syrian Civil War, including some of the most extreme groups, like ISIS. The Kurds also have organized groups in the opposition, which make the Turks extremely nervous, even though it is through Turkey that most of the supply lines to the Sunni-dominated Syrian opposition run. Russia and China also support the Syrian regime for somewhat different reasons, while the United States and most European governments favor the more moderate elements of the opposition.
As noted above, there are internal dynamics driving the violence now ongoing in Iraq in addition to the broader regional trends already described. Iraq, like Syria and Lebanon, is an artificially created state, all of which were created by way of a secret British-French negotiation during World War I on how those two countries would carve up the Levantine holdings of the Ottoman Empire at war’s end. All of the countries created as a byproduct of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 were flawed from the beginning. Under the imperial system of governance prior to the end of World War II, different ethnic and sectarian groups did not have to set aside their identities to become part of a nation. Creation of Syria and Iraq meant combining sectarian and ethnic groups within artificial borders under outside rulers and authoritarian systems of government. Eventually, both countries came to be ruled by revolutionary governments controlled by a minority sectarian group that became increasingly heavy-handed toward the majority sectarian group. Lebanon was a bit different. It also had an ethnic mélange, but adopted a confessional form of democracy that apportioned positions in the government to different sectarian groups. This system proved fragile in the face of changes to the relative sizes of those groups, leading to the devastating Lebanese Civil War of 1975-91. Operation IRAQI FREEDOM toppled the Sunni minority government in Iraq, while the Arab Spring saw the challenge to Syria’s minority government. All of these countries are fragile, with no real national identity binding the people together.
In the post-World War II period, the United States has used all policy tools to intervene in various ways in the region. The United States has also chosen not to intervene at times or to change course, and those choices also produce effects. Most recently, the United States chose not to intervene militarily in the Syrian Civil War after changing course from the military intervention in Iraq by withdrawing combat forces there. Everyone has concluded from these choices that the United States has no stomach for further intervention in this region anytime soon. Yet, the United States cannot afford to stay out of the region either, as vital national interests (stable supply and price of oil, security of Israel, and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction) are threatened by a regional conflagration in the Middle East.
Three tools can be used by the United States to achieve policy objectives in the region. First, it is essential to practice deft diplomacy to encourage Iran and the Gulf Arab states to back away from their support for proxies pursuing sectarian regimes, although neither side in this conflict can afford to back away unless it believes the other side can be trusted. Therefore, the United States must encourage Iran to get both Al-Maliki and Assad to pull back from the most appalling anti-Sunni actions, while simultaneously encouraging Gulf Arab leaders to withdraw support from the most egregious of the Sunni Islamists in the fight, such as ISIS. Second, to facilitate that diplomacy, the United States should offer to lift some sanctions on Iran and increase arms sales to the Arabian Gulf countries. Third, the United States should use intelligence assets to strike at the worst of the Islamist terrorists. Using the military tool in any major way simply is not a viable option for the United States, except as a last resort. Prepositioning assets to signal intent and capability is probably the only significant role for the U.S. military at the moment, because the United States would be better served by Iran’s military bolstering both the Iraqi and Syrian governments. The U.S. military could also conduct airstrikes against ISIS militants on behalf of the Baghdad government, although that is probably a task better performed by the Iranian military.
Over the past 3 years, the U.S. Government has touted a strategic rebalancing to the Pacific region, but it seems the challenges to vital U.S. interests in the Middle East still exist. The United States cannot afford to see those challenges prevail, but preventing that from occurring will require a fundamental reorientation of U.S. policy toward the Middle East.
The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. This op-ed is cleared for public release; distribution is unlimited.
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