May 17, 2016
The U.S. And Our Place In The Middle East
As the Syrian war drags on, entering its 5th year, the American policy in Middle East becomes increasingly befuddled and contradictory. The failure of the Obama administration to stop the war in Syria or provide enough support for a successful completion of the war by the opposition has led to widespread criticism and a massive loss of lives. Now that Russia has decisively entered the war on the side of the Syrian government, providing crucial air support, and Iran and Hezbollah have provided ground troops, armor, heavy weaponry, along with training and technical support, the war has shifted in the government of Bashar Al-Assad's favor. Aleppo, the pre-war industrial hub of Syria, split from the beginning of the war, with the opposition controlling the eastern part and the Assad regime controlling the western portion, has now been cut off from a crucial supply route connecting it to Turkey by Assad's forces. The momentum of the war is being pushed into Assad's favor, a very different situation from the beginning of last year. The US seems helpless to stop this shift away from its allies. Why is this the case? The fundamental problem with the Obama administration’s Middle East policy that is causing the ineffectiveness to change the situation on the ground is that the US is playing both sides of various conflicts within the Middle East, including parties within the Syrian civil war. These conflicts consist of The Sunni-Shiite divide, the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. The first issue is perhaps the largest. Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, Azerbaijan are all majority Shiite, while other Muslim countries have large pluralities of Shiites, such as Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, they do not hold a majority. The centuries old political and religious schism within the Muslim world is a primary issue in the geopolitics of the Middle East. Before the Syrian revolution, the Assad regime was a Shiite, Baathist dictatorship within a majority Sunni country; in the same vain that Saddam Hussein’s regime was a Sunni Baathist dictatorship within a majority Shiite country, before the Unites States toppled Hussein in 2003. It was ripe for an Arab spring revolution because the Sunni majority felt discriminated against in employment and governmental politics. Unemployment was high, a permanent state of emergency existed which eliminated the civil rights of Syrian’s, and the Assad family had been in power for over three decades. When the US came out backing the opposition in 2011 and later with Obama stating that Assad had to leave office, the administration entrenched itself firmly with the Sunni majority opposition. This opposition has now become the Sunni proxy for other larger Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan. Meanwhile Bashar Al-Assad’s regime and army, composed of mostly of the Alawite sect of Shiite Islam, has become the proxy for the Shiite powers in the region; Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraq. Syria has turned into a sectarian conflict that has spread to Iraq and Lebanon. With Yemen currently in a civil war between Shiite Houthi rebels based in the north and President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government based in the mainly Sunni south, the Middle East has exploded into full-on sectarian conflict. Where does the US policy fall into this situation? It falls onto both Sunni and Shiite sides, making it confusing to US allies, un-productive in resolving the ongoing conflicts and resulting in lives lost and property destroyed. One example of the failure in US policy is the recent reports of formerly US-backed Shiite Militia’s, who worked alongside the US-backed Shiite government of Iraq in combating ISIS in Iraq, transferring over to Syria, backing Assad’s regime and fighting US-backed opposition rebels. According to the Daily Beast, two defense officials confirmed that three militias, who had fought ISIS in Iraq, had taken casualties near Aleppo. The report also stated that the militias were using US tanks and small arms procured from the Iraqi side of the border, although that claim could not be independently verified. So now there are two US-backed and supplied forces fighting each other on the battlefields of Syria, which side is the Obama administration actually on?On the Iraq side of the border, the US, for a long time supported financially, politically and militarily the government of Nouri Al-Maliki, who took over after the Iraqi Transitional Government, which was installed during the American occupation. Al-Maliki instituted a distinctly Shiite sectarian regime, which battled former Sunni Baathist’s and a Sunni insurgency throughout his rule. Al-Maliki’s handling of both the conflict with insurgents and the peaceful protest camps that erupted in 2013 because of Al-Maliki’s dismissal of a Sunni finance minister, created a distinctly sectarian government which many Sunni’s viewed as worse than a potential ISIS state or one led by former Baathist’s or united Sunni tribes. In addition, Al-Maliki’s Shiite government’s alignment with Shiite-clerical ruled Iran, not too far removed from the Iraq-Iran war, which ended in 1988, further alienated Sunni’s within Iraq. This closeness to Iran allowed Iran to transport troops and materials across Iraq to Syria, enabled Al-Maliki to order the arrest of the Sunni Iraqi Prime Minister Tariq Al-Hashimi, and gave Al-Maliki enough power to refuse to harbor US troops after the US pullout. In one country, Iraq, the US supports a regime that persecutes and attacks its Sunni citizens and is allied or potentially controlled by the major Shiite power in the region: Iran. At the same time, the US is supporting financially and arming Sunni rebel opposition groups in neighboring Syria. Behind these local players in Syria and Iraq, are, of course, Saudi Arabia and Iran, the major Sunni and Shiite power brokers respectively. Turkey, can also be considering a major religious Sunni power now that the Islamist AK party has taken power. The US policy, dealing with all three of these countries is, again, equally contradictory, as its local Syria and Iraqi policies. Saudi Arabia is the US’s historical ally in the region for upwards of fifty years because of its stability, oil resources, and opposition to the Shiite Iranian revolution which deposed our former primary Muslim ally in the region. It is the main leader in providing arms and supplies to Sunni governments and groups around the Middle East. However, just recently, the US has signed a nuclear deal with Iran, formerly one of George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” countries. Under the agreement, the US and European countries are to lift sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy as long as Iran follows through with its promises to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and to abide by the rules set forth in the agreement. These overtures to Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia’s Shiite rival, along with the US’s backing of the Shiite government of Iraq, have spooked Saudi Arabia, and made them question, “Whose side is the US really on?” Of course, that is a really good question, especially since Iran has recently used the break in sanctions to go on a military hardware shopping spree. Does Obama support Shiite Iran-Iraq or does he support Sunni Saudi Arabia, at the moment, he is hopping the fence like a bunny, building distrust and complicating on-the-ground proxy wars between the two countries. In addition to the Saudi Arabia-Iran mess, the Obama administration has another major crisis of contradictory policy with Turkey and the Kurdish population of the Levant. This conflict has less religious overtones because both parties are primarily Sunni, but has major implications within Syria and Iraq where outright sectarian fighting is happening. This double-sided policy consists of cooperation with Turkey, a NATO ally, which allows the US to use Turkey’s military bases and for NATO to station and deploy troops and conduct military operations from bases within Turkey. In return, the US has promised to stifle the statehood aspirations of the Kurds in southeastern Turkey, northern Syria, and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, along with allowing Turkish military intervention into Iraq and Syria for “buffer zones”. Meanwhile, at the same time, the Obama administrations staunchest and most “moderate” fighting force to attack and eliminate ISIS in Iraq and Syria has and continuous to be the Kurdish militia’s in Syria and the Peshmerga in Iraq. Obama has identified the number one enemy in the region to be ISIS and Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the Al-Nusra front and has given vast amounts of highly technological weapons to the YPG and similar militias in Syria and the Peshmerga in Iraq. The US military has also provided the Kurdish forces with massive amounts of airstrikes and airplane sorties, which are coordinated through their respective military organizations within Syria and Iraq. This is because the Obama administration views the Kurdish forces as the best and most effective force to combat the US’s number one enemies; ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The problem lies in that the Kurds of northern Syria specifically aim to take advantage of the civil war and carve out a state for themselves that would border southern Turkey, something Turkey has explicitly said they could not allow to happen. This is because Turkey’s southeastern portion, near to the territory already controlled by the Kurdish militia’s in Syria, where they are attempting to build a state, is heavily populated with Kurds, who have been in conflict with the central Turkish government through the PKK, for decades. The Turkish thought is that any statehood attempt by the Kurds in northern Syria would incite the Kurds in Turkey, who make up upwards of 30% of the Turkish population and majorities in many southeastern areas to join their ethnic and cultural brethren in Syria, thus breaking away territory from Turkey. The PKK, considered a terrorist organization by the US, Turkey, and Europe, has been in close cooperation with its sister organizations on the Syrian side of the border, so Turkey’s fears are not unfounded. Currently, Turkey has clamped down on the PKK and Kurdish politicians inside of Turkey, taking especially repressive measures in the southeast and ripping apart a budding peace process. In what is beginning to look like a civil war within Turkey, between the central government and the Kurdish political and military organizations, the threat to US stability becomes obvious. Turkey is a NATO member, and if attacked; the US is militarily obliged to come to its aid. If this were to happen, the Obama administration would be caught in a web that it strung and obligated to fighting its own best ally in the conflict against ISIS, the Kurds. So the question, again, comes down to: Which side is the US on? It cannot play both sides. As the US dithers, its allies become frustrated and less trusting of lip-service being paid in their direction. The regional and local players within the Middle East are beginning to notice that they are being moved around liked pawns on the US’s chess board, where their interests don’t necessarily align with the king’s. The US is losing control of the situation to countries such as Russia, who have a consistent policy of supporting Shiite countries and rulers. The Obama administration will have to adjust their foreign policy before peace in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Yemen will be possible.