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“When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s difficult to remember your initial objective was to drain the swamp.”
The Middle East is a mess, but despite recent involvement in Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere; the United States is not solely responsible for the current state of affairs. The challenges inherited by the Trump Administration are complex; any solutions are elusive at best. A review is necessary.
Apart from the oil-rich Gulf nations, three countries in the Middle East stand out politically and culturally. Syria is a traditional society with a long cultural history. Damascus – one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world – has long been one of the Arab world’s centers for cultural and artistic innovation, especially in the field of classical Arab music.
Iraq was the center of the Arab caliphate during the “Golden Age of Islam,” of the ninth and tenth centuries. Baghdad was the largest city in the world at the beginning of the tenth century. At the beginning of the 20th century, both Syria and Iraq were part of the Ottoman Empire.
Egypt is the most populous and most cosmopolitan Arab nation. Egypt’s interaction with the West goes back as far as ancient Greece, when Alexander the Great made one of his generals – Ptolemy – pharaoh, in 305 BCE. Cleopatra (51-30 BCE) was Ptolemy ‘s direct descendent. Like Syria and Iraq, Egypt was also a part of the Ottoman Empire. During World War I, Egypt became a British protectorate.
From 1958 to 1961 an entity existed, the United Arab Republic, a union between Egypt and Syria. Tripartite Unity Talks occurred between Egypt, Iraq and Syria in 1963, but these failed after Ba’athist-Nasserist clashes in Syria. Egypt continued to use the name UAR from 1961 to 1972. In 1972, Iraq proposed a restored union with Egypt and Syria, but this also failed to coalesce. These three nations, however, became Soviet client states and focused their energies against Israel: the American proxy.
To understand the vectors of the current conflict, we can look to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1919 as a historic point. At that time, Britain moved into Palestine, Trans-Jordan, and Iraq while France took the lands of Lebanon and Syria (the Levant).
Inheriting the complex and ethnically fractured Syrian society, the French employed the old Roman concept “Divide and Conquer.” A minority sect, the Alawites (the “Secretive Sect” in Charge of Syria) were given charge of the political bureaucracy. The Alawites were also put in charge of the military, especially its most powerful branch: the Air Force. The Assad family is of the Alawite sect, which is distrusted and even viewed as heretic by Shi’ite Islam.
The current war in Syria is not new. The French were involved in clashes throughout the interwar years 1919-1939. Assad’s father crushed uprisings in the 1970s and 80s. The 1982 Hamas Massacre, where Syrian security forces are estimated to have killed between 2,000 to 20,000 civilians (some estimates as high as 40,000), has been described as “the single deadliest acts by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East”. It is interesting to note that the rebels in Hamas were the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.
When viewed from this perspective, what is at stake for Assad is survival of not only his family and clan, but all of Alawites. If rebels – which have been thoroughly co-opted by fundamentalist Islamic forces such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State – prevail, an ensuing bloodbath would occur, wiping out the Alawites.
Hindsight being 20-20, it is now evident that the 2003 invasion to depose Saddam Hussein was one of the greatest strategic blunders of modern history. Like post-Ottoman Syria, Iraq is a similarly fractured society. Saddam Hussein himself pointed this out to his interrogator: “You are going to fail. You are going to find that it is not so easy to govern Iraq.”
Saddam Hussein should have been left to run Iraq, said the CIA officer who interrogated him.
Entering Iraq in 2003 with the greatest of ideals, the United States learned that rather than liberating a nation like France or Italy in the 1940s, it instead opened a Pandora’s Box of chaos and confusion. Again, the words of Saddam to his interrogator: “You are going to fail in Iraq because you do not know the language, the history, and you do not understand the Arab mind.”
A cynical world view suggests that despite Assad’s bloodthirsty repression, his opponents are not exactly the good guys. Opposition forces in the Syrian civil war are co-opted by the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. From this perspective, a course of action may be to back out of supporting anyone in Syria, and to acknowledge that Syria is within the Russian sphere of influence. Let Putin involve himself in that mess allowing the US to focus on Iraq, on the principle that we broke it, so we have to fix it.
Meanwhile, to the west of Egypt exists another mess that the West has had a hand in; the surreal civil wars of Libya. How ironic that within ten years of experiencing the chaos caused by Saddam Hussein’s removal, the United States was willing to topple another Arab dictator. No altruistic effort to liberate or ‘nation-build’ followed the downfall of Ghaddafi, however. This time we simply broke it, and departed.
If karma is real, we are certainly experiencing it on an international scale in the Middle East.
Sean Linnane is the pseudonym of a retired Special Forces career NCO (1st SFG, 3d SFG, 10th SFG). He continues to serve as a security professional on six continents.