Whose side are we on? Hezbollah’s? Or al-Qaeda’s? That is the choice in Syria, & I do not wonder that our politicians have hesitated to make decisive moves.
The choice for Israel is a little simpler. Hezbollah — sponsored by the Iranian mullahs through their Syrian ally, Bashar al-Assad, is the more immediate enemy. However, the Israelis cannot wish, by helping to depose the Syrian regime, to advance the cause of Sunni Islamism; nor can they leave that threat to later. For Sunni Islamism, embodied by Hamas — in occupation of Gaza & claiming the allegiance of a likely majority in the West Bank — is not an enemy for tomorrow. But Hamas, too, takes sustenance including arms from Iran, & cannot immediately benefit from an Iranian setback. In the balance of risks as the Israelis assess them, Assad goes.
A worrying thought, for the thinking Israeli, is that his interests in this conflict may not coincide with the larger interests of the West.
The current situation is more complicated than first appears. The Muslim world is factional, & while Islamist fanaticism is advancing on all fronts, more & more of the fronts are between Islamists. It is usually a mistake to associate Islam with Arabs. At the moment it would be a big mistake. Persians hate Arabs. Turks hate Persians. Arabs hate Turks. Vice versa, & ditto. And there are numerous smaller ethnicities, before we consider doctrinal divisions within each racial camp, & each naturally tends to hate most viscerally the enemy that is nearest. The doctrinal divides between Sunni & Shia & others is aggravated by the ethnic rivalry, everywhere; & compounded by fluctuating alliances across the field.
Israel is thus not alone, as a rôle player in the general carnage. Nor is the “Zionist entity” without sympathizers in the Muslim world. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, according to a very old adage, & Kurds, for instance, tend to love Jews. It is not, however, an abstract brotherly love. It is rather because they share exactly the same list of enemies at the moment, together with the historical experience of being deprived for centuries of an independent homeland. Like Israelis, the Kurds identify with the West. Or with anyone they think might help them. And Kurds are just one of the ethnicities wading in the Syrian quagmire.
The Assad regime is & was always, from its Baathist, nationalist & socialist origins, vile, murderous, unspeakable. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t the lesser evil, when compared with any imaginable alternative. Assad’s allies are incidentally winning the battle against their domestic opponents — which is why Europe, especially Britain & France, want to supply those opponents with weapons. The idea, hidden behind humanitarian posturing, is to keep the battle raging until some genius thinks of a solution better than living with Assad.
For there are four Western options. Supporting the monster Assad is unthinkable. Supporting his monstrous Sunni Islamist opponents, who would surely come to power if he fell, is unthinkable. And staying out of the fray is unthinkable, given media publicity for human suffering in this particular war zone. The fourth option, which is thinkable, but only to persons of cruelly limited intelligence, is to blunder in without knowing what we’re doing. This is the option that has been selected, with the Europeans showing the leadership from which the Americans have, perhaps wisely in this case, recused themselves.
The Russians, who have a large & important naval base on Syria’s Alawite (Assad’s tribal) Mediterranean coast, huge financial interests in Syria & Iran, & a general commitment to harm American & other Western interests whenever they can do so without harming themselves, have also resolved to resume shipping arms — to the Assad regime, thus banking on its survival. Let us hold our breath until we see what the Israelis will do about that; & if they do what they might do, let us scout for another planet to live on.
In a perfect world, or rather, one in which self-interest could be advanced with indifference to consequences, the Israelis would simply bomb all parties. But this world is imperfect even in that sense. The number of triggers they must not risk pulling is frightfully large. Iran’s mullahs boast that they are deploying missiles within Israel’s range, as well as to all major U.S. bases in the region. Assad has offered similar threats, which may or may not be convincing, to retaliate should the Israeli air force take out another of his likely WMD installations. And most Muslim parties would dearly love to restore the Israeli distraction. Given the Hezbollah connexion, Lebanon is also going back up in flames, so that all paranoid allegations about who may be behind it are plausible.
Several million Christians are caught up in these events; & many of those have already become refugees. In the old days, of European Imperialism, this would be a public issue. The European power with the biggest local stake — formerly France in the northern Levant — would certainly intervene to protect them. Indeed, the problem would not have begun, for France would have intervened to quell any Syrian uprising, with the blessings of her European neighbours. It has however been observed, that these are not the old days.
In one way, however, they still are. The boundaries drawn across the Middle East, as across Africa & elsewhere, bore little or no relation to racial, linguistic, cultural, & religious realities. The modern nation state was imposed on the colonial maps gratuitously. The borders haven’t moved, chiefly because ersatz nationalists succeeded the European rulers, to create power warps in each of the spaces. Note that the Palestinian problem corresponds to the one unsettled border — & that this has contributed as much to the international focus on that conflict, as the fact of Israel’s creation. That is, I think, the secret explanation for the endless diplomatic posturing about an otherwise fatuous “two state solution.” It amounts to, “Please, guys, let’s draw a boundary.”
Salvation, of a temporary & illusory kind, may thus be within Israel’s reach. It would consist of the sudden erasure or movement of other boundaries around the region, taking the focus off Israel’s. In the present state of general volatility, this is not impossible, may even be likely. For with Islamism has come reversion to an earlier, & more Islamic notion of statehood: the resurrection of the idea of a Dar al-Islam, or pan-Islamic empire, among all Islamist factions. But it cannot be realized, for it remains confused with Arab chauvinism, whose appeal to Turks & Persians is nil. This is why, I think, Islamism will prove an unambiguously destructive force, within the Islamic realm much more than outside it.
And the Syrian conflict exposes all the fault-lines, not only within multicultural Syria herself, but as they extend beyond, throughout the region. This in turn is why, as a few of our better-educated diplomats understand, the Syrian conflict is so important. But it is also why it cannot be managed. It is like an explosion in a munitions plant: they are reduced to watching for the “secondaries.” (The mass media, on the other hand, no longer employ the informed or educated, hence their focus entirely on the pictorial aspects of the conflict within Syria itself, & then those of the other regional conflicts in discrete “packages.”)
To the person who — like the old Tory souls who relished a fight between Stalin & Hitler — looks forward to the violent “mutual assured destruction” of all Islamist camps, against a background in which the Arab oil weapon is rendered harmless by fracking technologies — my instruction would be to shut up. No conflict, in which millions are killed, ends well for the “bystanders.” The whimsical notion that we might hermetically seal the region is belied by both the incredible power & reach of widely-available modern weaponry, & by the fact of massive Muslim emigration to Europe & America. We may think we have “no horse in that race,” but will inevitably discover we have several, none of which are going to win without our help.
The convention of punditry is to propose a way out. What can we do to retrieve a situation that is getting entirely out of hand? Or as the technological mind tends to formulate this question: “Whom should we bomb, & why?”
There is no answer. Or rather, the answer will emerge, in all of its unpleasantness, from events that happen the day after tomorrow. There are deep historical reasons why the Middle East is blowing up, & there is blame to scatter over many generations. We can no longer even begin to make an inventory of sins & sinners. The best we can do is pray for the Christians, Muslims, Jews, & all others caught in the latest “historical mistake,” & ask God to lead them, & us, out of the Inferno.