Welcome to Permanent War, as Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev dubbed today’s Middle East. It isn’t as bad as it sounds, provided, of course, that you’re not in it. The bonfire built on tribal enmity and national disillusionment will have to burn itself out over time. The risk lies in the possible spread of the fire outside the region.
First, a quick review of what is not going to happen in Syria, rhetoric to the contrary:
- Neither Turkey nor Saudi Arabia will send ground troops into northern Syria and fight US-backed Kurdish militia. Turkish Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz declared on Sunday that his country had “no intention” of sending its army into Syria, while Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir said that deployment of Saudi forces is up to the United States.
- Turkey won’t send combat aircraft into Syria to be shot down by Russian air defenses. Turkey would only sacrifice its aircraft in the hope of drawing the United States into a showdown with Russia, and the United States has evidently told Ankara that it’s on its own. Saudi Arabia may base some aircraft in Turkey, but won’t use them. The United States does not want to find out how good Russia’s S-400 air defense system actually is; Pentagon analysts believe that it is very good indeed.
- The Russian-Iranian reduction of Aleppo will add little to the flood of Syrian refugees. Perhaps 40,000 people have fled Aleppo and nearby towns. Syria’s refugee count had already reached 5 million in late 2013.
- Russia and the United States will not stumble into a strategic confrontation over a long-since-unsalvageable patch of Levantine desert.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran have existential interests in the Syrian conflict, to be sure, but the great powers on which they depend do not. This isn’t 1914, when Austro-Hungary believed that it had to humiliate Serbia in order to contain Russian encroachment in the Balkans, and Germany believed it had to stand by its Austrian ally or face eventual isolation by England, France and Russia. Syria’s Muslim neighbors are in one stage or another of decline, and that is the source of their rancor. And that is why their sponsors in Washington and Moscow don’t want to be dragged into their quarrels.
Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia will not survive in their present form for another generation. Iran and Turkey face a demographic train wreck that will hit with full force in about twenty years. Depending on the oil price, Iran will run out of money, young people or water first—but it will run out of all three in the foreseeable future. Turkey’s Kurdish minority has twice as many children as ethnic Turks, so that it will become a majority of military-age Turks within a generation. Saudi Arabia will run out of money in five years at the present oil price, and its tumescent welfare state (as I have argued previously) will collapse.
The chart below shows that the Kurdish regions of Turkey (especially the Southeast) have a total fertility rate of 2.8 to 3.4 births per female, while the Western provinces dominated by ethnic Turks have a TFR of only 1.6 to 1.8.
As long as the dance of death remains within the Middle East as such, the strategic risks to the rest of the world will be small. It is disgusting, but not dangerous. The risk is that the conflict will spill over into the rest of the world. There are two ways in which that might happen: through the actions of terrorists on the ground, and through long-range missiles bearing weapons of mass destruction.
The Obama administration (and to some extent the Bush administration before it) raised the risk of spillover in both forms. A United Nations Security Council resolution adopted in parallel to the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran forbids it from building missiles “designed to carry nuclear weapons.” In October Iran tested a nuclear-capable long-range missile, and the Obama administration exacted no penalty. Evidently President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are more concerned about the appearance of a legacy than world security. Iran’s guided missile arsenal constitutes an existential threat to both Israel and Saudi Arabia, and raises questions for Pakistan, until now the only Muslim nuclear power and an ally of Saudi Arabia.
Washington also made Jihadi metastatis more probable by backing “moderate Islamists” who were no such thing. That is not only Obama’s fault. A broad consensus including both the Democratic and Republican parties, ranging from Reuel Marc Gerecht at the Weekly Standard to Amr Hamzawi at the Carnegie Endowment, held that “moderate Islamists” were the key to reforming the Muslim world. The moderates too often turned out to be radicals, or turned into radicals. That was true of the 2007-2008 “Surge” in Iraq, as Angelo Codevilla explained in a Dec. 23, 2015 essay for Asia Times, and Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Daniel Bolger documented in his 2014 book Why We Lost. Gen. David Petraeus, then the American commander in Iraq, handed hundreds of millions of dollars to the “Sunni Awakening” and the “Sons of Iraq,” many of whose fighters later formed the core of ISIS.
It is also true of American overt and covert support for Sunni rebels in Syria. We probably will never hear the full story of the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi because it would bring to light weapons shipments from Libyan stockpiles to Syrian rebels, and ruin innumerable careers and reputations. Petraeus now reportedly advocates American support for Syria’s al-Nusra Front—the local branch of al-Qaeda—as a counterweight to ISIS in Syria. which sounds mad, or rather would sound mad if it were proposed anywhere else but in Washington. If there were indeed moderates in Syria when the “Arab Spring” rebellion began in 2011, they are all long since dead or departed.
America’s past support for Islamists has spawned conspiracy theories in Russian and Chinese media to the effect that the US created ISIS in order to destabilize its rivals. That is not the case. Americans have a brain cramp about democracy. The Republican and Democratic mainstreams both believe that the mere form of democracy as such will fix most of society’s ills. No accumulation of facts to the contrary appears sufficient to shake the democracy cult. The most stable Arab state is Egypt, where the military overthrew (to great popular acclaim) the elected Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi. Yet the Republican mainstream still believes that Islamist democracy could have been achieved in Egypt if only the US “had brought its considerable weight to bear in Egypt when Morsi was first elected, against the Egyptian military and security services who so openly remained a threat to democracy’s future, and against Morsi and the [Muslim Brotherhood], whose authoritarian temptations were also apparent,” as the Weekly Standard’s Gerecht argues.
This sort of faith in Washington’s ability to stage-manage the national tragedy of other countries is as touching as it is toxic. Islamism represents an existential threat to Russia and a serious threat to China. As I reported previously, China complains that members of the Saudi royal family are funding Muslim radicals inside China. One of seven Russians is Muslim, and thousands of Russian jihadists are fighting with the Sunni rebels in Syria. Up to two thousand Chinese Muslims, mainly ethnic Uyghurs from Western China, are fighting in Syria as well. Russia has several reasons to intervene in Syria, including its naval facility in Tartus, but internal security is by far the most compelling one. Virtually all Russian and Chinese Muslims are Sunni, which makes Shi’ite Iran a natural collaborator.
Russia has used Cold War-era aircraft and dumb bombs to reduce concentrations of Sunni fighters, including some allied variously to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the United States. Moscow may enjoy disrupting American efforts to patch together a Sunni coalition on the ground, but humiliating the United States is not the main object of Russian policy. Killing Sunni Islamists is. The Russians appear to have accomplished this with little concern for collateral damage. A high rate of civilian casualties is in the nature of this kind of warfare; the United States probably caused 165,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, by contrast. Precision-guided munitions don’t help much if irregular fighters take refuge in civilian population centers.
The collapse of the Sunni rebels under Russian bombardment is a humiliating loss for Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who have threatened to send troops into Syria to counter the Russians and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who now appear to have the upper hand. Neither the Turks nor the Saudis will do any such thing. Saudi Arabia is not a country, but a family with a flag, and it has soldiers willing to die in foreign lands for the royal family. The Turkish military has told President Erdogan that an incursion into Syria would be folly, and reportedly has dug in its heels against the idea. Turkey would like to involve its NATO allies, but its allies have no interest in being led into a confrontation with Russia by the sick man of NATO.
The least bad course of action for Syria is to partition the country into ethnic enclaves where civilians will be comparatively safe. That is the view of Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and Israeli intelligence chief Ram Ben-Barak, as reported by Reuters:
“Unfortunately we are going to face chronic instability for a very, very long period of time,” he said. “And part of any grand strategy is to avoid the past, saying we are going to unify Syria. We know how to make an omelette from an egg. I don’t know how to make an egg from an omelette.” Referring to some of the warring sects, Yaalon added: “We should realise that we are going to see enclaves – ‘Alawistan’, ‘Syrian Kurdistan’, ‘Syrian Druzistan.’ They might cooperate or fight each other.”
Ram Ben-Barak, director-general of Israel’s Intelligence Ministry, described partition as “the only possible solution”. “I think that ultimately Syria should be turned into regions, under the control of whoever is there,” he told Israel’s Army Radio, arguing that Assad’s minority Alawite sect had no way to heal its schism with the Sunni Muslim majority. “I can’t see how a situation can be reached where those same 12% Alawites go back to ruling the Sunnis, of whom they killed half a million people there. Listen, that’s crazy.”
There are obvious measures the United States could take to prevent the disaster in the Middle East from spilling over into other countries. The first is to deny Iran long-range missiles as well as nuclear weapons. That is easy to accomplish; destroying Iran’s WMD capability is a one-night operation, as former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak observed. The second is to dry out the Islamists in the region, “moderate,” “militant,” or in between. That means persuading Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to stop supporting them in return for a great-power effort to ensure the safety of Syrian civilians within ethnic enclaves.
Under this scenario, Syria will suppurate in low-intensity ethnic violence for years, which is better than high-intensity ethnic violence. Iran will stew in stressed economic conditions without the ability to threaten real and perceived antagonists with weapons of mass destructions. As for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: its fragility has concerned Western planners for years. Let Allah figure that one out.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.