See the last entry in Thinking Enemy for a discussion of how the current anarchy in the Mideast began. This entry addresses the Syrian mess - - as simply as I can explain it.
Syria is located Northwest of Iraq, bordering Turkey, with its back to the Mediterranean. It contains several valuable ports and the routes for the lucrative movement of oil from countries in the region. Composed of many factions and religions, it was ruled with a rough hand by the Assad family starting in 1970. It supported the US with intelligence and other means during the war against Saddam. The Obama Administration saw a way to advance their vision of US values by encouraging Assad’s overthrow in the Arab Spring.
Now imagine please . . . the geographic situation described above as a crossroads in a densely populated area where seven roads run together, creating seven-pie shaped territories at 6, 8, 10, 12, 2, 3 and 5 o’clock respectively. The seven territorial “pies” intersect and overlap, each ruled by a gang at war with one or more of the others. Also every segment contains populations from the other segments, some only large enough to be victims, but some significant enough to threaten stability from within.
Gang 6 is fighting gangs 8 and 10, as well as gangs 3 and 5, but they are allied with gang 12, and indifferent to gang 2.
The 10’s are fighting the 6’s, but would like a major piece of 8’s territory where many of their relatives live.
Gang 5 is fighting everybody but would like to ally with gang 3, except their last emissary was beheaded as an answer.
The 2’s risk collapse from attacks by the 3’s, and are allied with the 12’s in response, but domestic religious and ethnic minorities within 2 fear the alliance with 12 more than the radical teachings of 3, and invite this most bloodthirsty of gangs in.
You get the picture. Every “pie shaped wedge” has a flexible list of friends and enemies, with many of their own people dwelling in other sectors, and many restive people from those other segments threatening domestic revolt.
In the midst of this multi-sided gang war with its indistinct boundaries and mixed populations, an outside agent (the US) weighs in with plans to train and deploy thousands of proxy fighters. It recruits people who want to fight 6, but plans to use them only against 3, in an alliance with 2, who by the way hates them. One of the most respected US generals suggests (no kidding) maybe we can use 5 to attack 3 inside 2, even though 5 remains at war with us, our ally 2 and their ally 12. (12 having also waged an undeclared war against us for a decade.)
And another outside agent (Russia) is sending troops to work with 12 to support 6 against gangs 8, 10, 2, 3, and 5 (all of whom are fighting each other), even though it might accidently engage US troops and begin a wider war in the process.
I have used gangs and pie shaped territorial wedges numbered like the face of a clock because it is less confusing than writing out the names of the participants. But obviously 6 represents Syria, 8 is Turkey, 10 the Kurds, 12 Iran, 2 Iraq, 3 ISIS and 5 Al Qaeda. Each is fighting some or all of the others, and each has ethnic and religious enemies from the others mixed into their territorial slice. If this sounds crazy, it is.
In fact it is even crazier than it sounds, because the violence is beyond description. Fathers are beaten to death before their families. Children are crucified and buried alive. Women are stripped and sold in slave markets. Recently the 5’s caught four men from 12 fighting for 2. They hung them upside down and burned them alive, claiming this is what 12 and 2 (our ally) had recently done to captives of their own. Who knows – maybe so. And of course, 6 is still dropping massive nail bombs onto civilian neighborhoods in order to cleanse their territory and create mass refugee movements. (It’s working.) The US is flying air attacks from 8 against 3 in support of 10, while 8 launches independent attacks against our ally 10 from the same airfields.
So why not just get the hell out and let them eat each other? Great question.
Well first, remember that we started this rock slide by failing to ensure stability when we replaced Saddam, and then compounded the problem by overthrowing more strongmen, thereby creating anarchy that supported our values even less. (Honestly, can’t anybody here play this game?)
Second, we have committed to support some people (like 10, the Kurds) who fought with us and will be massacred if we abandon them.
Third, the instability is already spreading, as radicals and fanatics and disaffected minorities in other countries see the possibility of overthrowing their rulers. Now we are back to looking at threats to American survival interests (oil) across the Mideast.
And finally, the most radical and most threatening participants in all the gangs have attracted tens of thousands to their cause. If they are victorious, their attraction will grow, and their graduates will return to their homes (to include in the US) with new skills, ready to put them to use. We need to break the cycle of success there in order to reduce the danger of metastasis.
Is there a simple lesson from all this? Yes. If you combine enough bad ideas from academicians, politicians, diplomats and the military, you can break Humpty Dumpty in a way that can’t be put back together again. Perhaps we should be asking whose fingerprints are all over the shattered glass. We won’t have to look far.