Let me say first that I will vote for and support Bernie Sanders until Hillary wins the Democratic nomination, as she now seems likely to do. In general, Bernie is smarter and more thoughtful, at least as regards “real life,” not just politics.
Also by way of introduction, let’s acknowledge that Bernie was not just right, but courageous, in outing an unpleasant truth.
We Yanks have a history of imposing “regime change” on other countries without, apparently, a single clear thought about the days and years therefter. Bernie was particularly courageous in including the names of Iran’s Mohammed Mossadegh and Chile’s Salvador Allende—two democratically elected leftists
—along with the dismal list of vile right-wing dictators that we have deposed or are trying to despose (Saddam, Qaddafi and Assad).
Deposing Mossadegh gave us the Shah and eventually today’s Islamic Republic, and deposing Allende gave Chile seventeen years of Pinochet’s dirty military dictatorship. So Bernie is absolutely right that, before we impose or incite “regime change” on or for yet another people, we’d better have a plan that works
for what comes next.
But this is all by way of introduction. This essay covers a specific proposal that Bernie made (in last night’s debate) for cleaning up the mess in Iraq and Syria. He proposed that, for the time being, we forget about Assad and focus entirely on fighting IS.
On its face, it’s not a bad plan. By putting us on the same side as the Russians and Iran, it would make the job of fighting IS seem
much easier, at least at first glance. It would reduce the risks of a superpower conflict, or of a second World War I in the Middle East.
Bernie’s plan would also have the virtue of consistency. Since invading and occupying Iraq, we Yanks have unwittingly made ourselves a superpower enemy of Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis, just as Russia and Iran have done in backing Assad. We did so by deposing Saddam and supporting a series of self-evidently anti-Sunni governments in Iraq. Our strenuous efforts to make them less anti-Sunni have come to naught.
So Bernie’s plan seems expedient. But will it work? And more to the point, is it right?
I think not. What is going on in Syria right now, and what has been going on in Iraq for some time, is ethnic cleansing. Sunnis in these two western chimeras
have been marginalized, mistreated, and (in Syria) massacred. So they are voting (and, in Iraq, have voted) with their feet.
The displacement of Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis has become the greatest ethnic diaspora since the surviving Jews’ at the end of World War II. Unfortunately, most of the world has only this year noticed an ongoing process that began in earnest during the sectarian strife of 2006-2007.
As I noted in a previous essay
, Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis are really one and the same ethnic group. The British Foreign Office divided them for conquering at the end of World War I. In Iraq, our punishing them now, collectively, with Shiite domination is precisely the same mistake that the victorious allies made in collectively punishing Germans after World War I.
The result then was World War II. The result now may be a replay of World War I in the Middle East, or even World War III.
In Syria, supporting Assad’s industrial-scale massacre of Sunnis would promote butchery and ethnic cleansing. Partly as byproduct of that ethnic cleansing, we have a surge of religious extremism, jihadism, and terrorism among the international Sunni community. (By and large, Alawites and Shiites, let alone Kurds, are neither jihadis nor pushing for a global caliphate. Shiites already have their
caliphate: it’s called the Islamic Republic of Iran.) The recent surge of extremism, jihadism and terrorism among Sunnis is a direct result of jointly misguided policies in the West and, more recently, in Russia and Iran.
It was not so in the Balkans
. There our own cluster bombing stopped the Serbian takeover of Kosovo in its tracks. Our air power and the UN’s blue helmets fought ethnic cleansing, while at the same time recognizing it in part, through partition, as “facts on the ground.” The Russians, perhaps reluctantly, cooperated. That approach worked: today the Balkans are splintered, but at peace.
There seems no other way out in Syria and Iraq, where ethnic cleansing has been going on for some time. As much as it may recognize the ethnic cleansing that already has occurred, partition is only clear the way to peace. Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis must have a nation of their own, as must Alawites and the Kurds. And each nation must have enough oil and other resources to make it economically viable, if not give it an attractive future. When that happens, Sunnis will make short work of the jihadis, just as they did in brief the Sunni Awakening. And the Middle East, like the Balkans, will slide into an uneasy peace.
Helping Russia help Iran to help Assad rule what is left of Syria simply will not work. Syria will remain a crushed field of broken dreams, with destitute Sunnis picking their way through rubble as slaves to Alawite masters. As long as these conditions subsist, the Western chimera of Syria will remain a monument to ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide, and an open invitation to jihadis’ ambitions.
To see this point clearly, we must acknowledge one other dismal fact. There has never been a “moderate” Syrian opposition to Assad. The very concept has always been a pipe dream of armchair Yankee soldiers and diplomats. Why? Although Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis may not be fully modernized, they are not stupid. For years now they have understood that the world’s two great military superpowers—the US and Russia—have allowed or assisted the subversion of their national and ethnic ambitions in deed, if not in rhetoric.
And so Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis with education, intelligence and means have been pouring out of the region in droves. Jihadis have been pouring in. That process will continue as long as the two superpowers, whether or not in active concert, continue to pursue misguided policies that, in effect, promote ethnic cleansing of Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. Making their de facto
cooperation explicit and formal would only make things worse.
So no, Bernie, Hillary is right on this one. We must fight IS and reverse our misguided policies—and the Russians’—at the same time. At very least, we must limit Assad and his 12% minority Alawites to the territory they can control and maintain without butchery. We must also provide a space for peaceful, rational Sunnis, on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border, to survive, to determine their own future, and eventually to thrive. Only then can the cancer of Sunni jihadism resolve and peace come to the Middle East.
The great powers have grown that cancer as surely as if in a petri dish. Now they can kill it only by depriving it of the nutrients that the US, Russia, Iran and even Europe have (mostly unwittingly) provided.
Massive, multinational bombing and special operations may be necessary as temporary expedients to set IS back. But they are not the solution. They will only kill and displace more Sunnis, attract more recruits to IS, and leave nothing but bare ground for IS to occupy. The international community must, for once, begin nation building and stop nation destroying, with equal opportunity for Alawites, Kurds and Sunnis—and yes, Shiites, too—where they now live.
Endnote on Bernie:
I write this post with diffidence, because I think Bernie would be a far better president, in general, than Hillary. Bernie seems to understand, as Hillary does not, that our Yankee enterprise in democracy is bent and on the road to oligarchy. Misguided foreign policies like the ones that made the messes in Iraq and Syria follow as night the day.
Not too long ago, American popular sentiment turned overwhelmingly against war. But then came the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernadino. Demagogues like Trump and Fox—the most powerful and dangerous propaganda machine in human history—have had a field day. They’ve pushed relentlessly and mindlessly for more force, more bombing and more thoughtlessness (just not more ordinary ground troops).
But the real culprits are the powers behind the demagogues and propagandists, namely, the media and industrial titans who are becoming America’s twenty-first century oligarchs. They are not stupid men (they are
all men: Carly is only a wannabe), at least within the realm of their business expertise. But they have little patience or experience in foreign affairs. All they want is lower taxes, less regulation of their business empires, and a military strong enough and aggressive enough so that they don’t have to think about foreigners, except as customers or suppliers.
If they devoted their not inconsiderable talents to actually finding solutions, they might stumble upon them. But they won’t and don’t. Instead, they instinctively support simplistic and unworkable “solutions,” as they never would in their own businesses.
So today, peace in the Middle East depends upon the thoughtfulness and political skill of a motley cast of characters. They include: a president embattled in his own country since his inauguration (Obama), a narcissistic autocrat (Putin), a Western-leaning autocrat trying to emulate Putin (Erdogan), an aging and inflexible cleric (Ayatollah Khamenei), an embattled socialist president trying to resurrect his nation’s imperial greatness (Hollande), a Tory prime minister trapped by the century-old mistakes of his Foreign Office (Cameron), and a cast of lesser characters including a young, impulsive and inexperienced Saudi defense minister.
Wouldn’t it be far better if the United States were less of an oligarchy and led by people capable of recognizing previous Yankee mistakes and courageous enough to reverse them? Might we Yanks then set an example of thoughtful problem-solving, rather than piling on our own endorsement of Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity?
Only Bernie, in my view, offers the ghost of a chance of such necessary “regime change” here at home. But if he fails, I will support Hillary, who will at least offer a kinder and gentler oligarchy. In the longer term, she might also offer the alluring prospect of much greater female influence on a foreign and military policy traditionally ruled more by male testosterone than by any understanding of cause and effect.