Recently my favorite radio host asked me if I could explain the situation in Syria simply. Well . . . um-m-m . . . The story isn’t short, but it can be made simpler than many “experts” pretend. The basic story is that colonial powers imposed national boundaries upon people and groups that had been at blood feuds with each other since time immemorial. New lines on the map did not make them feel any sense of shared identity with their traditional enemies caught inside the same lines. When the colonial powers departed, they left behind local governments that could only keep up the fiction of nationhood through force. And when the Arab Spring (encouraged by the US) ended those “strongman” governments, the fiction of nationhood evaporated and the blood feuds returned. With a vengeance. This pattern has been played out in several nations. Here is the run-up to what happened in Syria.
Syria is not a nation, in the sense of a people held together by a common set of beliefs and values. Like most Mideast states, Syria is a geographic entity that contains a broad collection of peoples who share some history and common interests, but also differ in religion, culture, loyalties, narrative of the past, and vision for the future. Calling Syria a nation is like calling America a nation before Europeans arrived. Yeah, there were lots of American Indians, but they were local tribes living separately, with little in common and frequently at war. There was no nation. Until the 19th century, the Mideast was marked mostly by the rulers and the ruled – not nations sharing values and beliefs.
When the British, French, and other colonial powers began to occupy the Far East, Near East, and Mideast, they crushed local opposition, and imposed boundaries to serve their own interests, regardless of traditional loyalties. Many academics today castigate the colonizers, but in fact the British ended slavery, minimized local fighting, and generally improved health and sanitation. Not as first priorities, or course. That was making money. But there was to some extent less conflict during British colonial rule than before . . . or after.
The Brits used local minorities to set up colonial governments. The minorities feared the local majorities and other minorities more than their colonial overlords, and used their skills to remain in power after the departure of the colonial powers post-World War II. The result was conflict everywhere in the post-colonial era, as groups small and large struggled for power and dominion over the shells of states that the Western Powers left behind. Of course, in some areas a single tribe (like the House of Saud) with a single religious focus (Wahhabism), won domination without carrying colonial baggage. But in general, former colonies (like Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, etc.) came to be dominated by strongmen with a Western vision of political power, but based on tribal or family ties. They ruled their nations with a combination of benefits for those who cooperated, and broken heads for those who didn’t. And opposition generally coalesced along family, tribal, and religious lines as well.
During the Cold War, those strongmen feared democracy, and were attracted to the centralization of power promised by socialism, so they frequently supported the USSR and opposed the US. Although we had plenty of strongman supporters ourselves (Batista, Marcos, the Shah of Iran), those in North Africa and around Israel tended to line up against us. Meanwhile, whether they favored West or East, strongmen who wanted modern power had to turn to non-Muslim states for economic, military, intelligence and technical assistance. This in turn alienated conservative religious factions even within their own households, just as revolutions in communications and transportation made networking by those disaffected parties easier than ever before. The end of the Cold War produced a transitional period where socialism had failed, but the strongmen were not yet sure of the new alignment. The dramatic US victory in the Gulf War pushed them toward us, and the Neo-Conservatives in power generally welcomed the stability they promised in a part of the world vital to modern economies.
Some strongmen pushed back, however – especially in Iran and Iraq. And for years they were in conflict with each other and with us at the same time. We developed a policy called “dual containment” where we favored neither, and tried to play off one against the other to maintain regional stability. It was a difficult business, and after 9/11 the Neocons saw a solution in the conquest of Iraq, and its conversion to a peaceful, unified democratic nation on the order of Germany after the Second World War. This vision showed a complete misunderstanding of Mideast history and circumstances in general, and Iraq in particular. (Be patient – we are getting to Syria.) But it might have worked if the US had stayed for generations as it did in Germany and Japan.
But Americans wanted out, and the new President Obama obliged them, confident that his support of the Arab Spring (overthrowing strongmen region wide) would bring democracy and a peaceful resolution of those ridiculous ancient grudges based on religion and blood feuds. (“Clinging to their God and their guns,” he called it within the US.) Predictably, the opposite happened. Supporting the overthrow of Qaddafi, et al, released hatreds long suppressed but now equipped with modern weapons. Iraq fractured along minority Sunni / minority Kurdish / majority Shia lines. And states with more ethnic and religious factions (like Syria) fractured into more and smaller pieces.
And now a flashback within the flashback.
Until the Clinton Administration, US national interests were identified as either survival, vital, important, or peripheral. Maintaining the flow of Mideast oil was a survival issue – we would fight for it. Reducing child labor globally was peripheral – we addressed it when convenient. Both Republicans and Democrats agreed with this approach, which is why “politics stopped at the water’s edge.”
But as President Clinton began his second term in 1997, the new Secretary of State Madeline Albright declared for the first time that American VALUES constituted an American SURVIVAL interest. That is, the US would use all elements of national power, to include military power, to advance our values worldwide.
The Bush Administration was careful to couch the invasion of Iraq in Clintonian terms (promoting human rights and democracy), and thus obtained the support of many Democrats who later regretted their decision. While President Obama eschewed the direct use of military power (except under the auspices of NATO command), he was willing to “lead from behind” in promoting his Administration’s values in the Arab Spring – thereby overthrowing the strongmen and their anti-democratic policies which had previously kept the order that served our more venial interests. The expectation of what would follow turned out to be as flawed as the assumptions of the Neocons when they invaded Iraq. So in chasing calculated interests, Bush & Co. pulled the cork from the bottle by overthrowing one strongman, loosing the caustic catalysts of tribalism and religious fanaticism in one country. Obama & Co. smashed the bottle while chasing their vision of values, and loosed a witch’s brew on the entire region.
In Libya, Qaddafi's overthrow led to both anarchy and religious strife, as well as the distribution of his massive store of weapons to radical groups everywhere. For example, Qaddafi reportedly owned more shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles (useful against the US Air Force and civilian airliners) than Great Britain. Many are now missing. (Press reports stated that one of the men killed in Benghazi told friends he was going to Libya as a contractor to recover those missiles.)
Despite anarchy in Libya, and the rise of anti-American religious fanatics to power in Egypt, Obama’s team saw another chance to spread their values in Syria, and publicly encouraged the overthrow of President Assad. Once again, the result did not go as planned.
Which brings us to Syria . . . in the next installment of Thinking Enemy.