Middle East Conflict

The View From the Sidelines

December 30, 2016

Multiple Pages
The View From the Sidelines

Can anyone make sense of the Middle East? Certainly those of us who perforce rely on television and newspaper reporting and analysis are in a poor position to do so, for all the professionalism and expertise of journalists and pundits. But it seems that the State Department, the Foreign Office in London, and the Quai d’Orsay are equally at a loss. Over much of the region they can’t even be sure which side they want to win, let alone which of the many sides they should support with money, weapons, training, etc. Not so very long ago, the line was that the moderate Syrian opposition—the Free Syrian Army—deserved and should receive our backing. They were reportedly democratically inclined. Perhaps they are, or were, though they have also been financed by the Saudis and the Gulf States, not exactly beacons of democracy. The Saudis want a Sunni-dominated Syria, and that’s the end of it. However, the so-called moderates ain’t going to win; any support given prolongs the agony.

At first we were determined that President Bashar al-Assad must go. Turkey agreed with that, because Assad was backed by Iran and Russia. Now Turkey’s President Erdogan has switched horses and is collaborating with Russia; he is Vladimir Putin’s new best friend in the region. Together they are trying to make sure that Assad not only survives but comes out on top. This will be a nasty toad for the West to swallow, but swallow it is what we’ll have to do.

“Meddling in lands may appeal to imperialist ambitions, but it usually gets you into trouble.”

We can all agree that ISIS—the Islamic State—and the various offshoots of Al-Qaeda are the enemy, and Mr. Trump tells us that ISIS is to be destroyed. Perhaps it will be—the organization, anyway. But ISIS is also an idea or ideology, and bombing its positions, degrading its military capacity, won’t kill the idea. Quite the contrary; it might even strengthen it. Martyrdom is sexy.

In any case, vile as it is, ISIS may be said to be in one sense irrelevant to the problems of the region. They would be there just the same if ISIS and Al-Qaeda had never come into being. They all stem from the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire during or as a result of the First World War. That empire had long been in decline, and in its decline it was for the most part lightly governed and in matters of religion tolerant. Christians and Jews lived, mostly unmolested, in towns and cities throughout the empire. There was a large Greek population in Turkey itself, and cities like Beirut, Aleppo, and Alexandria were cosmopolitan.

The empire collapsed. Turkey became a nationalist state but also, under Kemal Ataturk, a secular one. It is still nationalist, but less secular with every year that the Erdogan regime survives. Meanwhile, Britain and France, as two of the victorious powers, took it upon themselves to reorder the region, creating new states, notably Iraq, and drawing their boundaries, or creating new states out of Ottoman provinces that, for one reason or another, were not deemed ready for independence. Chief of these was Palestine, a mandate conferred on Britain by the League of Nations—the mandate eagerly accepted and soon regretted.

None of these creations was a nation-state. There was the idea of the Arab nation, and it’s an idea that has never found practical expression. In most of the new states people felt loyalty to their tribe and their religion, not to the state. With peace, civil order, and good government, the idea of a patriotic loyalty to Iraq or Syria might have developed. But these things have always been in short supply. Almost everywhere order has been maintained by force, not by consensus.

Paradoxically, the one people who might have thought of themselves as a nation have no state. The Kurds have been the big losers, with Kurdish enclaves in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The one thing the four are agreed on is that there must never be an independent Kurdish state, because they would all be losers. It is on account of the Kurds that Erdogan has made an about-turn and chummed up with Putin. His aim is to prevent the Kurds from holding a strip of northern Syria along the border with Turkey lest they are then able to collaborate more effectively with the Kurds in Turkey who seek independence or at least autonomy. Kurdish forces have been the most effective opponents of ISIS, but the chances are that, when the long agony of Syria and Iraq at last drags to an end, the Kurds will be losers again. They always have been because no external power identifies its interests with theirs.

What should the West do now? Any answer is complicated by memories of what the West—the USA, the U.K., and France—has done in the past. Our folly has been remarkable. If, after the Iranian Revolution and the rise of Islamist extremism, we concluded that this ideology was our main enemy, why then attack Iraq, one of the few states that, as brutal a dictatorship as it was, permitted religious diversity? The idea that we could in a few years impose democratic forms of government in states where people would vote according to tribe, sect, or creed was an exercise in fantasy. Then we compounded the errors made in Iraq by giving material support to the Syrian rebels, who were never likely to be strong enough to overthrow Assad unless his Iranian and Russian allies deserted him.

Consequently we now find ourselves on the sidelines, which is perhaps where we deserve to be, and should have been from the start. Meddling in lands may appeal to imperialist ambitions, but it usually gets you into trouble. As far as Syria goes, our only interest is humanitarian, and the humanitarian interest is that the war should end as quickly as possible with—no matter how it grates—the victory of President Assad. Meanwhile, a certain humility is required from America and Britain: Our meddling in the Middle East has done far more harm than good, and it hasn’t even been successful in any way.

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