Thoughts on Syria

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With regards to the current situation in Syria, I’m very troubled by the rhetoric that is being thrown around on American media, as well as elsewhere. If we look at current events with a bit of historical context we learn that much of the conflict stems from long-standing tensions in the Levant. Foremost, Syria has always kind of existed as a buffer state in the region. This goes back to the time of Islam’s inception and imperial expansion in the 8th century AD with the area being a buffer zone between the Byzantine/Eastern Roman Empire and various Muslim empires. Flash forward to the post-WW I Middle East and we see Syria once again being used in a similar manner by the French, the Americans, the British, the GCC, and the Iranians – all, in my opinion, want to keep Syria in tact so as to avoid either side gaining too much influence in the Levant. I also believe that what we are seeing played out on the ground in places across the country is proxy fighting for a larger power struggle in the region between the Sunni GCC nations (who want to crush Iranian influence to the point that it doesn’t threaten their security in the Persian/Arab Gulf), the Israelis (who also want a weakened Iran and friendlier Arab neighbors), the Americans + NATO allies (who I think ideally want a friendly leader in political office, but would be ok with the antebellum situation if Assad would stop the violence and offer some reforms), the Turks + neighboring Arab states (who don’t want a full collapse of Syria because of refugees flooding their borders and potentially causing further domestic political instability but probably would like to see their influence strengthened in a post-Assad Syria) on the one side and the Syrian government + its various religious minority allies (Christians, Alawites, Shias) and the the Iranians (who want to see Assad remain in power and avoid another Sunni-headed state popping up on its doorsteps). Further complicating matters and adding a bit of a wild card element to this conflict (as we’ve seen elsewhere in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Iraq) are the foreign, modern-day ghazis/religious warriors from Saudi, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, etc. This trend of individuals rushing into/being encouraged by other governments (::cough, cough Saudi Arabia, Egypt) to fight is not new; it happened extensively during the 1980s in Afghanistan and southern Russia. Unlike formal state actors, such groups are often harder to negotiate with and don’t always have clear goals in mind; they just kind of show-up for the loot and chaos.

This latter point, the one about the presence of foreign fighters in Syria and the potential hazards they pose to regional stability, might be an opening for political engagement across all parties and a way to end to the Syrian civil war. I don’t believe anyone involved in this conflict wants to see a failed state evolve, especially one that would resemble the Taliban-headed Afghanistan of the 1990s – it just wouldn’t benefit anyone and could cause further, less-easily managed crises. To be clear, I’m no advocate for the US’s “War on Terror” approach to foreign policy – I would argue, and a lot of other people have, too, that it’s counterproductive and leaves us more vulnerable because of creating instability globally (from a position of power, this makes perfect sense and keeps people from uniting against you). I do, however, think all parties in Syria could begin a dialogue on this basis of finding a political solution to ousting foreign elements and establishing a more democratic state (perhaps something akin to Lebanon’s sectarian percentage-based government or development of semi-autonomous zones like Kurdistan in Iraq or Somaliland in Somalia).

Lastly, I think that President Obama going to the US Congress is a good decision since it gives everyone some breathing room and time to pump the brakes on any action, especially military. All the stuff I’ve seen on TV so far in the US seems to be the continuation of preexisting trends in American politics, i.e. Obama proposes something, a bunch of grumpy white, old men in Congress get angry and become obstructionists. I know that’s a bit simplistic and isn’t the whole truth in this case given the amount of Democrats who got involved in asking for a Congressional vote, but everything happening domestically seems to be so politically-driven. I find it sad that no one is really tackling bigger issues in this conflict, like what is the end game for Syria and how can we help facilitate a political solution. So much of our foreign policy, both in the US and globally, is driven by a need for immediate satisfaction in my opinion, not longer-lasting solutions and transformation of conflicts.

Phew, I’ve written enough and invite everyone else to share.

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