The Fourth Great War
No Good Options, No Good Allies
The clear implication is that regardless of what members of the Syrian opposition say to the U.S. to win our support, their long-term aims may be incompatible with ours.
The announcement by Secretary of Defense Hagel that the United States will "rethink all options" including arming Syrian rebel groups, was carefully hedged. "It doesn't mean… you will" (choose any particular path). The statement however moves the U.S. closer to picking sides in a war with no good options and no good allies, and which American public opinion has thus far eschewed. It is important to understand in the broadest sense how we got here.
In two of the three global conflicts of the 20th Century, the United States took sides; in the third, it WAS a side. In World War I, we were less against Germany than with our long-time cultural and political allies, Britain and France. The cordial reception given to Americans in Germany between the wars, and the American affinity for parts of German society made some Americans reluctant to criticize the rise of Hitler. (See Hitlerland, by Andrew Nagorski.) In the Cold War, the United States faced off against Russia. The Cuban Missile Crisis was not about Cuba; the Central American wars of the 1980s were not about Central America. It was a war to the death between communism and democracy.
The end of the Cold War had two generally overlooked consequences. First, non-communist Russia retained its historic imperial nature, characterized by deep concern for and violent repression of threats to its "near abroad." Second, countries and groups in the Middle East were no longer bound to choose between Soviets and Americans as patrons. This was particularly important because neither democracy nor communism is compatible with Islamist thinking. (Obligatory disclaimer: This in no way implies that Muslim people cannot live in democracies or be democrats; or live in communist countries or be communists, for that matter.)
The fourth Great War is less "Islam against the West" (although that surely is there) than it is Sunni expansionists vs. Shiite expansionists. Neither is an appealing partner for the United States in the region, and neither has a natural claim on our politics or our interests. For reasons having to do with Iran itself, the U.S. will not choose to support Iranian-backed Shiites. However, Sunni expansionists are simply no better; Saudi and Qatari-supported Islamists run from the unacceptable Muslim Brotherhood to the even more unacceptable Wahabis, al Qaeda or Jabhat al Nusra – it is like a choice between cancer and a heart attack. (Second obligatory disclaimer: That is NOT to say the U.S. has no interests in the Middle East/North Africa/Southwest Asia, or that there is no humanitarian impulse due. It is to say both Sunni and Shiite expansionists have views and values inimical to Western liberal democracies, and neither is better than secular despots.)
In broad terms, the current fighting in the region is Sunni-Shiite: Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, Pakistan, and rumblings in Kuwait all have a Sunni-Shiite component. Turkey thinks of the Ottoman Empire, particularly after the freeing of the "Stans" from Russian control. Iran revisits the Persian Empire. The Muslim Brotherhood, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Jabhat al Nusra, and others all find patrons in the region rather than in the U.S. or Russia. Oil money, particularly Saudi, Iranian and Qatari, greases various paths.
As both Sunnis and Shiites try to expand both deeper into their own societies and move farther afield, they run headlong into other regional, tribal, ethnic, religious, and familial interests. Christians, particularly in Iraq, Egypt, and Nigeria, have been hard hit as intolerance increases; it is estimated that half of Iraq's Christians have left the country. As a corollary, the minority communities of Syria backed the secular Assad regime for fear of an Islamist takeover. The U.S. has been attacked and vilified, and Europe is being subverted through "no go" zones for police, the installation of elements of Sharia law, and rising Muslim anti-Semitism. Venezuela and Argentina are Iran's hoped-for proxies, and Hezbollah operates freely in several South American countries.
Long involved in the repression of Sunni Caucasian nationalists, although the Chechen war only took on religious overtones in its second incarnation (2002-2007), Russia has chosen the Shiite side of the larger war. Even the idea of a nuclear Iran does not disturb Russia as much as the idea of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons in the hands of Sunni terrorists. Russia preferred secular despots in the Middle East as well -- Saddam, Assad father and son, Nasser -- who would repress the Muslim Brotherhood and other internationalist Sunnis. The despots obliged. Nasser outlawed the Brotherhood, Assad killed tens of thousands in Hama, and Saddam ran a savagely secular state to ensure that his minority Sunnis could remain in power. Russia's commitment to Bashar Assad should not be underestimated.
And with shades of the Cold War, as Russia supports the Syrian regime, the U.S. has moved closer and closer to military involvement. Our first choice was to outsource the funding, arms and training of rebels to Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia who chose, naturally enough, expansionist Sunni groups hoping to push Iranian-supported Shiites out of power. American arms are intended to end up with the Free Syrian Army, but according to David Ignatius "Islamist fighters…have formed the backbone of the Free Syrian Army for nearly two years. The Syrian opposition is almost entirely Sunni Muslim, and the Islamists (especially al-Nusra's recruits) have been among the best fighters."
The clear implication is that regardless of what they say to the U.S. to win our support, their long-term aims may be incompatible with ours. The possibility remains for direct U.S. military involvement, although hard on the heels of Hagel's statement about arming rebels, U.S. Special Operations Commander Admiral William McRaven strongly warned against considering the use of U.S. troops.
If American policy in Syria seems feckless, it is because it is feckless.
The President initially tried to "win" Assad to the West by sending envoys and lifting parts of the embargo. But Assad was not "won," and when he turned his army on his people, the President, apparently trying to satisfy American sensibilities with rhetoric, demanded that he step down. But Assad did not step down and rebel bands struck back, which did not displease the President, who was perhaps hoping that the rebels could do what his words alone could not do -- get rid of Assad quickly and without American involvement. The discovery that some rebels have serious jihadist tendencies offended American sensibilities, so the U.S. declined to "arm the rebels." That refusal apparently satisfied American public opinion, which leans heavily against any involvement in Syria; but the grossness of the slaughter, particularly the use of chemicals, did offend American sensibilities. The President's sliding "red line" on the use of chemical weapons offended some parties and satisfied others. Claiming to find "moderate, secular rebels" will satisfy some, but the admitted interconnectedness of the rebels -- and the fact that the Islamists are far and away the best fighters -- will continue to worry others.
The administration's policy on Syria has been a series of visceral reactions to graphic events and horrific casualties, offset by a gigantic distaste for confrontation. Without a definition of America's strategic interests, such as a defeat for both Iran and the Sunni jihadists, the chance remains that America might be dragged into another front in the Fourth Great War. A war in which neither side is our friend.
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Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center
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Comment on this item
by Burak Bekdil
The Turkish government "frankly worked" with the al-Nusrah Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, along with other terrorist groups.
The Financial Task Force, an international body setting the standards for combating terrorist financing, ruled that Turkey should remain in its "gray list."
While NATO wishes to reinforce its outreach to democracies such as Australia and Japan, Turkey is trying to forge wider partnerships with the Arab world, Russia, China, Central Asia, China, Africa and -- and with a bunch of terrorist organizations, including Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Nusrah Front.
Being NATO's only Muslim member was fine. Being NATO's only Islamist member ideologically attached to the Muslim Brotherhood is quite another thing.
by Samuel Westrop
British politicians seem to be trapped in an endless debate over how to curb both violent and non-violent extremism within the Muslim community.
A truly useful measure might be to end the provision of state funding and legitimacy to terror-linked extremist charities.
by Soeren Kern
"My son and I love life with the beheaders." — British jihadist Sally Jones.
Mujahidah Bint Usama published pictures of herself on Twitter holding a severed head while wearing a white doctor's jacket; alongside it, the message: "Dream job, a terrorist doc."
British female jihadists are now in charge of guarding as many as 3,000 non-Muslim Iraqi women and girls held captive as sex slaves.
"The British women are some of the most zealous in imposing the IS laws in the region. I believe that's why at least four of them have been chosen to join the women police force." — British terrorism analyst Melanie Smith.
by Khaled Abu Toameh
"Armed robbery in broad daylight." — Palestinians, after Hamas "seized" $750,000 from Gaza bank.
Fatah accused Hamas of "squandering" $700 million of financial aid earmarked for the Palestinian victims of war. Fatah wants to ensure that the millions of dollars intended for the Gaza Strip will pass through its hands and not end up in Hamas's bank accounts. Relying on Fatah in this regard is like asking a cat to guard the milk.
The head of the Palestinian Authority's Anti-Corruption Commission revealed that his group has retrieved $70 million of public funds fund embezzled by Palestinian officials. Arab and Western donors need to make sure that their money does not end up (once again) in the wrong hands. Without a proper mechanism of accountability and transparency, hundreds of millions of dollars are likely to find their way into the bank accounts of both Hamas and Fatah leaders.
by Mudar Zahran
"If Hamas does not like you for any reason all they have to do now is say you are a Mossad agent and kill you." — A., a Fatah member in Gaza.
"Hamas wanted us butchered so it could win the media war against Israel showing our dead children on TV and then get money from Qatar." — T., former Hamas Ministry officer.
"They would fire rockets and then run away quickly, leaving us to face Israeli bombs for what they did." — D., Gazan journalist.
"Hamas imposed a curfew: anyone walking out in the street was shot. That way people had to stay in their homes, even if they were about to get bombed. Hamas held the whole Gazan population as a human shield." — K., graduate student
"The Israeli army allows supplies to come in and Hamas steals them. It seems even the Israelis care for us more than Hamas." — E., first-aid volunteer.
"We are under Hamas occupation, and if you ask most of us, we would rather be under Israeli occupation… We miss the days when we were able to work inside Israel and make good money. We miss the security and calm Israel provided when it was here." — S., graduate of an American university, former Hamas sympathizer.