Russia in Syria, Part I

The Russians are in Syria, and it looks like they want to hold some land. (Reuters) U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says this will only worsen the situation. The U.S. expresses alarm (CNN). Let us review the moral underpinnings of our concern. The government of Bashar al-Assad, a family based enterprise of the Alawite sect, has committed wholesale atrocities against the Sunni majority. His father, Hafez al Assad, with differing particulars, did the same thing.

The dynamics of the Assad government cannot be dissected from the extended family, or their ancestral home, Qardaha, a village in Latakia. Neither can it be separated from the curious syncretistic Alawite sect, perhaps the only in the world, excepting cults, where the religious codes are secret. The syncretistic part is the curious melding of Islamic and Christian traditions. Hafez al Assad commanded the Syrian Alawites to behave in a more Islamic fashion, and they complied. In place of a coherent set of religious beliefs,  the Alawites are glued by village culture, and the compression of the surrounding sea of Sunnis. In this case, it becomes easy to abstract the concept of a cohesive minority from the usual religious embroidery.

The early response of the Assad government to the Sunni uprising, when it was centered in Aleppo, bears remarkable similarity to that of the 1982 Hama Islamic uprising. The government of Assad’s father, Bashir-al-Assad, conducted a massacre of an estimated 20,000-40,000 residents. The suppression was successful because the social dynamic of Syria’s then stationary village society was not then receptive to conflagration. The massacre was preceded by the siege of a compact city, which could not be replicated in the context of the current, broader conflict.

The history of this conflict has featured  a lot of hand-wringing, punctuated by the new concern that Russian involvement will lengthen the war, thereby increasing civilian casualties. The Alawite army is weakening. Without some fundamental change,  ISIS victory is inevitable. Throughout, international expressions of concern have contained implicit assumptions about who has the right to live, and who is destined to die. Given that the Alawite government has committed atrocities, and that the Alawites have lives of privilege, should they suffer the fate of an ISIS victory? It should not surprise that over the extended Middle East, the degree of concern varies widely.

Since the inception of the Syria uprising, U.S. policy has evolved from complete passivity to  ineffectual support of the scarce elements who affect enmity to Assad and friendship to the U.S. In other words, the U.S. policy has been to find reasonable people and support them. Community development, in Syria and Iraq! The community is a very positive base for social change in enclaves. Unfortunately, the region is not an enclave; it is a vortex of conflict, with a constant inflow, manipulated by religions, ideology, lust for power, and, indirectly, because Syria has virtually no oil, the oil curse.

Into this witches cauldron go also the ghosts of the Great Game, the Crimean War, and the Ottoman Empire, to which all the contested territory belonged before the First World War. The ghosts threaten because

  • “Community development”, identification and support of elements that with support could prevail over religious extremism, has failed.
  • Russia is a land power, with borders that can never be made secure.
  • Sadly, Arab Spring. In a parody of Gresham’s Law, bad elements pushed out good.

Current foreign policy has been much criticized for apparent passivity on Syria, and the complete exit from Iraq. Most of the criticism has the intent of political capital.  The best of it comes from Lindsey Graham, who asks for renewed U.S. ground presence in Iraq.

Many specifics of U.S. policy to date are questionable. Yet even if early policy had been more proactive, more agile, with greater force, and greater cunning,  the desired goal could have remained elusive. Sometimes a desired goal exists in moral, but not practical terms. This is deadly to successful foreign policy. It’s not enough to feel good about what you are trying to accomplish.

In the western U.S., forest fires are not extinguished. They are contained, and allowed to burn out. But in Syria/Iraq, containment is not possible. What then?

To be continued shortly. Until then, prep yourself.

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