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The Syrian Civil War: A Global Game of Thrones

Politics, 9 times out of 10, is a march to slaughter; some animals just know it better than others and accordingly, make it to the dinner table alive at the expense of the ignorant who provide the meat at a very high price.

And watching the multifaceted Syrian Civil War–a war now involving ISIS as well as two alliances with Russia, Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah on the one side and the United States, Israel, Turkey, the Gulf Arabs, and the so-called “moderate” rebels who also happen to be aligned with the official al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra, on the other side–reminds me of this fact. It also reminds me of a quote from the notorious (or revered depending on one’s point of view) statesmen, Henry Kissinger:

“The average person thinks morality can be applied as directly to the conduct of States to each other as it can to human relations. That is not always the case because sometimes statesmen have to choose among evils.”

Such a quote, if Kissinger is correct in his assessment, tempts me to say the average person has a much more moral and libertarian outlook on questions of war and peace than that of most statesmen. Kissinger seems to let slip here that States are not involved in human relations: that somehow Statecraft is above the normal plane of human existence whereby the lives of individuals become mere fodder; mere pawns beholden to the roll of the dice in an all too real game of Risk where they are made to serve the violent plans of rulers who “have to choose among evils.”

The Syrian Civil War is a stark example of how prevailing Kissinger’s theory of Statecraft looms large on the world stage as opposed to the still nascent libertarian theory of justice. As the war unfolds, how can anyone deny the degree to which people will sacrifice their own and others’ lives and liberties in the name of tribe or nation?

Blood is spilled for the sake of one’s own blood whether in the name of simply staying alive, bringing about God’s will, or prosecuting a geopolitical struggle for resources and other strategic advantages.

Such is the current breakdown between the many parties involved: at this point Assad simply fights for his life, ISIS and other radicals fight to bring about their “divine” caliphate, and the biggest players–Russia with their Shia allies and the United States with their Israeli and Sunni allies–fight for regional and global dominance.

The Incoherent Policy of America and Its Allies in Syria

Even after the failed ginning up of the American people to strike Assad in 2013 , the United States government remained undeterred in their efforts to oust him from power. The removal of Assad was and remains part of a  broader “Redirection” policy as outlined by Seymour Hersh in 2007:

“To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has cooperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.”

These redirection efforts to contain the Shiite powers in the region were, of course, a redirection from the earlier empowerment of the Shiite powers when the U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein in Iraq and installed a Shiite government in Baghdad. And the Obama administration seems to be carrying on this policy of redirection. At stake here is the regional dominance of Israel and the Gulf Arab states as well as the global dominance of the United States.

Thus, even though the rise of ISIS in Syria may have complicated the narrative a bit, the United States and its allies carried on like the wayward sons they are in their aim to push back the Shia Crescent with further arms and funding to the Syrian rebels. This, despite the fact that such intelligence and lethal support to the Syrian rebels helped bolster the rise of ISIS and other Bin laden type radicals as a major force in Syria in the first place. As Dan Sanchez reports in his essay “Where Does ISIS Get Those Wonderful Toys?”:

“Most support for the jihadists has come by way of the aid the US offers, along with its allies, to the insurgency in Syria battling to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad. Washington has given this support even though the Pentagon admitted internally as early as 2012 that extremists including al-Qaeda were, as the DIA report said, “‘the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.’”

With that being said, the policy of arming the Syrian rebels against Assad has now proven to be an incoherent failure, leaving Assad in power while propping up our so-called enemies in the “War on Terror.”

Some have taken this to mean the United States should have intervened much early and more forcefully in overthrowing Assad. Others, such as myself, question the very policy of “redirection” and military intervention in the first place, especially when we now seem to be indirectly helping those who attacked us on 9/11 by our interventions.

The question is: how has acting as the sole aggressive imperial power in the Middle East made Americans safer? And if it has not made Americans safer, what is the viable alternative?

Ideology aside (and there are plenty of ideologues on both sides of the intervention debate), it is a question well worth asking and debating.

But it seems such a question on the role of US hegemony may now be one for historians to debate: for the Russian Bear is waking up from its two decade hibernation.

The Opportunism of Russia and Its Allies in Syria

With Russia’s entry into the Syrian Civil War, the United States government seems to have been “checked” though not “checkmated” in its efforts to remake the Middle East. Russia’s backing of the Assad regime with lethal military assets and troops has transformed this regional power struggle–with the United States as the sole super power–into a global game of thrones between two foreign powers reminiscent of the Cold War.

In the short-term, Vladimir Putin has decided he cannot let his only major ally in the Middle East, Assad, fall. But in the long-term, Putin sees his entry into the bloody fray as a means to bolster his support with the Russian people as well as the nations that make up the Shia Crescent.

Make no mistake, the future of Russia is perilously tied to the future of Putin himself. Though he is undoubtedly an autocrat able to manipulate his people through state-run and regulated media, Putin is only able to maintain stability in the Motherland by playing into the cult of personality surrounding his regime–that is, by playing into public opinion.

The Russian economy is lackluster, the Russian people are aging rapidly, and Russian infrastructure is deteriorating from lack of material and human capital. Putin needs to distract his people from all this, else he really does fear falling into the same fate as Gaddafi in Libya and Hussein in Iraq. Call him paranoid, but Putin and much of his regime fear a CIA backed “color revolution” at home as NATO expands right up to the Russia’s border. There is also the very real risk that the Russian oligarchs which support Putin could tire of economic consequences stemming from Putin’s military adventurism. 

He has thus billed himself as a defender of Christianity in opposition to the debauched West, as a strongman willing to defend Russian influence near-abroad, and now as a global actor willing to take on “terrorism” as well the as the global hegemony of the United States, which he has publicly railed against.

But Putin must be careful in his gambit to prop up Assad. Again, the Russian economy is faltering, and Putin cannot sustain the costs of a prolonged military intervention in Syria and elsewhere. And if body bags filled with dead Russians start arriving back in the Motherland, public opinion will surely turn against Putin no matter how much propaganda he spouts to his people.

Thus, Putin must play a much more nuanced, asymmetrical game against the United States than that of his Cold War predecessors. While showing flashes of military might (such as the recent cruise missile strikes in Syria), Putin is also using appeals to international law as well as strategic alliances with Iran and Iraq as leverage against the United States.

But Putin’s foremost means of leverage–and this cannot be emphasized enough–is the incoherence of U.S. foreign policy. That is, Putin is using the United States’ own “unipolar” mentality and confused “War on Terror” policies to bring the United States down a peg.

With all this in mind, Syria now appears as a vital pressure point for the region if not the globe. The United States is in a much better position today to be independent of Middle East energy resources. The Israeli military, with U.S. backing, remains the dominant military power in the region. But the U.S. has certainly been “checked” by Putin’s Russia at this regional pressure point. Even the most hawkish among American policymakers are having to admit a “no-fly-zone” and other military options are off the table with Russian planes now in the Syrian skies.  It appears Putin is using his limited military reach along with his Shiite allies less as a close-knit military bloc and more as a bargaining chip with the United States and its allies.

So, the question is: what does Putin want?

But before we can answer that question, a more important question remains: what does the United States want?

Putin’s strategy only works as long as the latter question is answered with incoherence and euphemisms such “American leadership” and “strength.”

Such slogans do not make for a long-term strategy, and the United States for too long has been conducting foreign policy via media freak out and fits of moral indignation.

The Unclear Road Ahead

Maybe it’s time the American people and their government were reminded that the U.S. military’s sole purpose is to keep Americans safe and not to “make the world safe for democracy.” Maybe it’s time they were reminded that America’s true strength and leadership comes not from “nation-building” and “redrawing the map of the Middle East” but through economic growth and serving as an example of liberty–both of which are suffering mightily these days.

Personally, I see the current question of United States foreign policy as larger than simply geostrategic positioning. I see an American empire stretched paper-thin, trying to shove a square peg into a round hole by exerting what was always a mythical hegemony. Once you use the unipolar moment, you lose the unipolar moment. The exertion of one’s power does not mean the power will stay.

As David Stockman puts it:

“If you look at the entire radar screen of things developing both domestically and internationally, we are plunging deep into a perfect storm of policy failure. The American Imperium is collapsing. There is blowback everywhere. The wreckage of prior policy mistakes of our intervention with foreign policy is coming home to roost, and the Ukraine is one area at ground zero for that.

But second, monetary central planning is now coming to a dead-end. It is inflating the third financial bubble of the century and the Fed is now clueless as to how it will manage to unwind the massive balance sheet expansion it has been undertaken.

And third, the fiscal doomsday machine continues to crank on. Washington is ignoring the fact that we are six years into a business cycle expansion and we are still running massive deficits and there is no cushion for the next upset that comes to the economy.

Now, why is all of this important? Because I think the foreign policy failures — the collapse of the American Imperium as I call it — is at the center of this, and it will push all of these things in the wrong direction.

We are now becoming much more aggressive in our foreign policy than ever before. We can’t afford it by any means. And the potential for this to create black swans to roil or dislocate these very fragile markets that have been created by this massive central bank balance sheet expansion — it all makes what is happening in the Ukraine, or in the Middle East in Gaza, or in the collapse of Iraq, even more dangerous in terms of what it could trigger. So we are in a real pickle here and I think it is compounding by the day.”

The weakest are not the most prone to folly; it is those who think themselves stronger than they really are.  And a government that touts its greatness solely based upon its stupendous force of arms and its ability to issue unadulterated debt cannot last long on the face of the earth without bringing about a great calamity and mass suffering.

America must get its house in order first, else it will fail to maintain any semblance of a liberal global order. In the meantime, we will see how the Russian campaign in Syria will play out. Putin may look strong for now, but just as the United States became bogged down in the Middle East, Russia faces the same peril.

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