The Precipice that is Syria

The big question after the Paris Attacks has been whether we should escalate the conflict in Syria. The task of voters, assuming they have a say in this matter, is to decide which facts are relevant to making a decision. There’s no question that ISIS represents a serious threat, and not just to the Middle East. Likewise, there’s no question that something must be done. But what? Some emphasize the need for a political solution. Others focus on military strategy. I think the first thing we need to understand is that the conflict in Syria has become a civil war between Shia and Sunni Islam. Next, the U.S. has taken sides in the civil war. Finally, the U.S. doesn’t really have a solution for the threat posed by ISIS beyond getting rid of Assad. These facts may not tell us what the solution is, but I think they definitely tell us what the solution is not: the solution is not military escalation on the part of the United States.

Patrick Cockburn wrote in October about ‘the failure over the last year of the US air campaign. ((Patrick Cockburn on the state of the Syrian war: Too Weak, Too Strong, London Review of Books, Oct. 23, 2015.))He said that this failure is political as much as military. The US “needs partners on the ground who are fighting IS, but its choice is limited because those who are actually engaged in combat with the Sunni jihadis are Shia. This includes Iran, the Syrian army, Hizbollah, and the Shia militias in Iraq. The US can’t offer them full military co-operation because that would alienate the Sunni states, the bedrock of America’s power in the region. As a result the US can only use its air force in support of the Kurds.”

We now know that the U.S. air campaign against ISIS hasn’t been working as well as we thought, and that the administration has manipulated the intelligence to make it seem that it’s been more successful than it has. Now we know why. As Cockburn explains, the US had a similar problem after 9/11. It was known when George Bush declared the war on terror “that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, Osama bin Laden was a Saudi and the money for the operation came from Saudi donors, but the US didn’t want to pursue al-Qaida at the expense of its relations with the Sunni states, so it muted criticism of Saudi Arabia and invaded Iraq; similarly, it never confronted Pakistan over its support for the Taliban, ensuring that the movement was able to regroup after losing power in 2001.”

This is now a huge problem in Syria because over the last few months the civil war aspect of the conflict has become more apparent. Basically, the problem with a military approach led by the U.S. is that ISIS is a Sunni force, which means that, thanks to our alliance with the Saudi’s, we’re on the wrong side of the fight with ISIS.

Which brings us to the problem with the political approach. According to Cockburn, Shia leaders have never believed in the West’s assurance that there is a moderate, non-sectarian Sunni opposition willing to share power in Damascus and Baghdad. Shia states across the Middle East, especially Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, understand this as a fight to the death with the Sunni state of Saudi Arabia and it’s local allies in Syria and Iraq. Although Shia are outnumbered by Sunnis in the Muslim world at large, Shia interests in this region are significant. There are more than a hundred million Shia in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon who believe their very existence depends on Assad staying in power in Syria. Yet this is our big political solution—that Assad must leave and the Shia states must negotiate with the supposedly moderate Sunni opposition.

There was more hope for the military approach when Russia entered the scene. Just as the U.S. bombing campaign was most successful when the Kurds were coordinating things on the ground, the Russian bombing campaign benefits from coordination with the Syrian army. Maybe this is why after the Paris attacks France’s President Hollande proposed a European alliance independent of NATO and why he seems so willing to work with Putin. On the other hand, if ISIS is only part of a civil war between Shia and Sunni, the conflict is bound to continue without ISIS. Which brings us to something like Andrew J. Bacevich’s predictions of a generational war. ((Who’s Ready for the Next World War? The Nation Magazine, Dec. 4, 2015. Available: In his scenario, our army would have to grow by a factor of five. Therefore, the draft would have to be reinstated… If that happens you can forget about the conversation. Who needs a conversation when all the really important questions—in particular questions about spending, but also questions about human spirit and potential—have been decided?

As the world’s governments move toward escalation, I think our first step should be to understand the dire nature of this situation–that there are no quick fixes. While it’s obvious that the center of the problem is Saudi Arabia, the Saudi’s are not going anywhere. And because of their alliance with the United States, the U.S. is part of the problem. So long as this alliance lasts, increased U.S. participation will never lead to the end of ISIS.

But it’s important to point out that we’re not the only ones who are deluded. I suspect those fighting for ISIS are helping the very people they think they’re fighting, and this isn’t limited to the Saudis. I’m beginning to suspect ISIS fighters are helping organizations like the IMF and World Bank. Not that the IMF and World Bank caused the crisis—I wouldn’t know about that—but take the refugee crisis–the World Bank was promoting immigration long before the Syrian crisis began and it’s been the leading advocate for allowing Syrian refugees into Europe. Now ISIS is making that dream come true. Think about it! If ISIS really wants a caliphate, why would it terrorize its own population?

It seems we’re all being led in one direction or another. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just refuse to be led?  I admit that’s not very likely, but I think this has reached the point where we can choose to talk or we can choose to fight, but we can’t do both.

Leave a Reply