The Middle East is like three-dimensional chess. But, I'm trying for the first time in my life to understand it. Many, if not most, of my friends and family don't understand Islam. All my life, my country has been involved in conflicts in the Middle East, and it's impossible to understand the Middle East without understanding something about Islam. I am a Christian, but I also believe that knowledge can help to dispel some of the fear and bigotry I have encountered towards Islam in my lifetime. Today I'm trying to learn what's going on in Syria.
Perhaps the country in the worst shape now is Syria (followed closely by Yemen). We floundered around Syria for a decade, flying recon over ISIS as they moved their infrastructure in place, and doing n.o.t.h.i.n.g. but take photographs. The new POTUS changed the rules of engagement in Syria, sent in Special Forces, and crushed the caliphate. We didn't do it alone, however. Assad, heavily backed by Russia, did a great deal of the heavy lifting to defeat both ISIS and al-Qaeda. Now there are at least two Syrian futures struggling for dominance: If you squint and greatly over-simplify, one future is backed by Russia and Iran; the other one by the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Looking behind the curtain, most of the conflicts in the Middle East go back 1,400 into Islam between Sunni and Shia. Simply put, Iran is the power center for Shia, and Saudi Arabia is the power center for Sunni. All of the proxy wars in the region in our lifetimes have one of these two powerhouses in the background or foreground. Going up a dimension, Russia backs Iran and Assad's vision for Syria. The US backs Saudi Arabia and a democratic vision for Syria.
Sunnis dominated the first nine centuries of Islamic rule until about 1501 with the establishment of the Safavid dynasty in Persia. These battles established the borders of modern Iran and Turkey, and resulted in the current demographic distribution of Islam's sects. Shias have a majority in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain. Sunnis have a majority of more than forty other countries from Morocco to Indonesia.
From this American's point of view, Syria needs help to diminish Iran's influence within its borders, and to make the country safe enough for all of the 5.4 million Syrian refugees to return home. That's right…they don't want to come to the United States. They want to return to their ancestral homes. This is achievable, but it will take a generation to rebuild Syria. Do we have the will to commit a generation, or will we fail to finish what we started as we have done in the past?
What remains unclear is how to plan for a post-Assad Syria, because Russia is backing him and has a very different future in mind for the country than the United States has. This comes down to oil and the future of this strategic country to Middle East security. Why post-Assad? Well for one thing, he used chemical weapons on his own people, which is enough, actually. Power at any cost is his mantra.
What is also unclear is the USA's long range objectives with respect to Syria. It seems to me the USA wants a regime change which will be more sympathetic to the West. Just a few days after Tillerson's recent policy speech, Turkey's armed forces burst through the Syrian border, attacking Kurdish militias who have been the US's most reliable allies in the fight against ISIS. The Kurds have good reason to distrust the US, since we abandoned them in Iraq after they did the heavy fighting to secure the Northeast region. We did this because we want a "united Iraq", which is code for "we backed the Sunni government in Baghdad, not the Kurds". The Iraqi army stood back and watched the Kurds defeat Isis, after which the Iraqi army swept in and took power from the Kurds, with the support of the United States. Not cool.
Now we have the chance to redeem ourselves and possibly regain the trust of the Kurds, who are under attack from Turkey. Turkey is a NATO ally, so I doubt we will…but we should. It's time to isolate Turkey from NATO and expose them for the two-faced government they really are. Center left governments like France and Germany have lost a lot of traction, precisely because they have allowed Erdogan and Co. to gain so much power in Turkey, even as European citizens have said "no more" to the endless influx of refugees.
What I still cannot understand is how we hope to manage all of these competing agendas? What is the upside? The downside is a conflict with Russia vis a vis Abbas. Another downside is further instability in the region as Kurds are being weakened by the Turkish militia (happening now). That's before we even address the agendas of our allies Saudi Arabia and Israel, both of whom support any measure that weakens Iran. Take all of this together, and you can begin to see why the Iran deal was the absolute worst thing we could have done in the region. Now, with our money, they are backing our enemies left, right and center.
One thi9ng seems certain: half-measures in the Middle East leave each situation worse than before. Withdraw completely and risk further destability and a shift in the global balance of power towards Russia and Iran. Engage completely and put American lives at risk. Are American lives and way of life at risk either way? Probably. Are they at risk to the extent that intervention is warranted? Greater minds with greater access to information must make that determination. So far in my lifetime, we have established what not to do more than establish a constructive way forward.