The Syrian situation reminds me of a remark by Adam Smith in (I think) The Wealth of Nations — about how masterminds who think of themselves as master chess players, using other people like pieces on a chessboard, will find the people they think they are manipulating are actually playing their own game.
The aims of the U.S. government in the Middle East are, in no particular order, to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, to counter the growing power of Iran and to destroy the Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL or Da’esh).
The bitter experience of the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions means that the American people will not tolerate a large-scale intervention with ground troops, so American leaders, including the principal Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, look for pawns to carry out U.S. purposes.
Here is a rundown on these pawns and the games they are playing.
- Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirate governments, all predominantly Sunni Arab nations, fear the rise of Shiite Iran and Shiite power in Iraq much more than they do Sunni Arab ISIS or al Qaeda. To the extent they fear ISIS and al Qaeda, it is more as an internal threat, and they are happy to see their local rebels go off to fight and maybe die for ISIS. The Saudi government doesn’t crack down on individuals who contribute to ISIS because they reflect the beliefs of Wahabism (aks Salafism), the harsh version of Sunni Islam that rules Saudi Arabia.
- The Kurds in northern Syria and Iraq are fighting ISIS effectively, but they are fighting to defend themselves and their goal of an independent Kurdistan, to be carved out of the existing territory of Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran, not as part of any overall “war on terror”. They aren’t going to give up that goal just because it is inconvenient to the USA.
- The Turkish government desires the overthrow of the Assad government in Syria and the suppression of Kurdish nationalism more than suppression of ISIS. Oil from ISIS-controlled territory enters Turkey, and money and arms go from Turkey to ISIS. Turkish politicians talk of the glories of the Ottoman Empire and of the unity of ethnic Turks across Asia.
- The Iraqi government desires to prevent breakaway movements, whether ISIS, other Sunni Arab fighters or Kurds.
- The Sunni Arab militias and tribal leaders in Iraq blame the United States for overthrowing Saddam Hussein and setting up an Iraqi government dominated by Shiite Arabs, so they’re not willing to be U.S. proxies in a campaign against ISIS.
- The Shiite Arab militias in Iraq hate ISIS, but their leaders distrust the United States and won’t work with Americans.
- The “moderate Arab” rebels in Syria primarily desire to get rid of Bashar al-Assad and talk about fighting ISIS primarily to obtain U.S. weapons – many of which wind up in the hands of ISIS, al-Nusra and like groups.
- The Iranian government desires to support Shiite Muslims against all enemies, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey or ISIS, and to defend Syria and also Hezbollah, which represents the Shiite Muslims in Lebanon.
- The Syrian government is an enemy of ISIS because ISIS is an existential threat to its existence. But the Assad regime regards the other Syrian rebels and the Kurdish separatists as equally threatening
This leaves Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Putin justifiably fears the influence of ISIS and other jihadist terrorists on the large Muslim population in the Caucasus and other regions of the Russian Federation. He also wants to defend Russia’s Syrian ally and keep Russia’s naval station in Syria. But for him, the war against ISIS is a war of self-defense, not merely a means of extending Russian influence.
If fighting ISIS is the top U.S. priority, then the U.S. government should find a way to cooperate with Russia against ISIS. If the U.S. government is unwilling to cooperate with Russia against ISIS, then fighting ISIS is not the top U.S. priority.
We’re not beating ISIS like this: America has no easy solution to its Middle East crisis – and maybe none at all by Peter Van Buren for Salon. A good rundown on the players in the Middle East and why none of them will be servants of U.S. policy.
Time to Focus on the Wars Within the Wars Against the Islamic State by Michael Knights for War on the Rocks. [added 12/22/2015]
Islamic State Helps Assad Gain Legitimacy in West by Christoph Reuter for Spiegel Online. I don’t agree with the overall argument, but the article contains significant information, and includes an interactive graphic about the major players in Syria.
Turkey’s Dangerous Game by Mike Whitney for The Unz Review.
Sistani Orders Turkey Out of Iraq – Syria Oppo-Conference Fails on Moon of Alabama.
Iraqis wrangle over who should free Mosul: Kurds, Russia, US or Shiite Militias by Juan Cole for Informed Comment.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia ‘have ignited time bomb by funding global spread of radical Islam’ by General Jonathan Shaw, Britain’s former assistant chief of the Defence Staff. Hat tip to Cannonfire.
Syria in 2016 will be like the Balkans in 1914 as explosive violence breaks out on an international scale by Patrick Cockburn for The Independent.