I hear a lot of rhetoric from the political right looking at the Middle East saying “Iran is the problem.”
That’s horrifyingly shallow thinking.
You can’t simply say “Iran is the problem” and posit that as an argument. It’s facile and unproductive. If “Iran is the problem,” what’s the solution? Erasing Iran from the map? That’s a non-starter and should especially be a non-starter for people who are supposedly looking at the region through a lens of human rights.
(Nota Bene, political left: you guys still support the mustachio-twirling, truly evil thugs known as Hamas, so don’t start strutting too hard. Your shit stinks, too.)
Iraq and Syria survive on paper, but in everyday practical life they are both dead and gone. The Sykes-Picot treaty needs to be allowed to die formally so that the Sunni tribes currently under ISIS’ thumb have some alternative which can support their needs and interests. Currently they have none.
Let’s look at some of the facts on the ground:
- S1. An Alawite rump state is probably guaranteed no matter what happens, due to Russian and Iranian support and the desire to avoid the unpleasant spectacle which will occur if said rump state is forced into minority status in a larger Syria without having lots of guns (i.e., lots of Sunni extremists murdering lots of moderate Alawites).
- S2. Given the opportunity, Al Nusra will behave very badly. If ISIS’ Evil Quotient is roughly one Mega-Nazi, then Al Nusra is definitely in the 600-700 kilonazi range. They probably won’t shoot little children in the head for needing to eat during Ramadan, like ISIS does… probably.
- S3. The Druze don’t want to be run by sunni tribes, but they’ll back the strong horse, because that’s how they survive. They may or may not be a somewhat-competent buffer state for Israel (a Saudi ally) to feel secure.
- S4. The Syrian moderates who were legitimate pro-democracy protestors are dead and gone as viable actors. We had our chance to give these people meaningful support. We blew it, nobody credible considers them resurrectable, let alone a player.
- I1. The Kurds don’t want to be run by anybody but themselves, but they’re going slowly so as not to get Turkey and Iran both upset. With their long border, they potentially make an admirable buffer-state for Iran. Diplomatic exchanges are happening, albeit slowly and painfully.
- I2. The Sunni tribes are under ISIS’ thumb, aided and abetted by Erdogan’s hilariously brazen support for ISIS. Turkey can’t create a Sunni secession movement because of their fear of the Kurds…currently. They could in theory go along with supporting something which allowed S-P to go away so long as it guaranteed Turkish territorial integrity. Currently, said Sunni tribes have nobody to go to and nobody to support them.
- I3. The Saudis aren’t our friends any more than the IRGC is (c.f. S2 above), and engage in just as much anti-Shia murder as the Iranians do in reverse. (Arguably the Saudis are actually America’s biggest geopolitical foe, more dangerous than Russia, Iran, and China combined, but that’s an argument for another post). They will, however, back the formation of a Novo Syria so long as they had some ability to shape affairs, and would likely agree to arm them as well.
- I4. The Iraqi Shia have well-established and entirely legitimate reasons both to fear Saudi influence and oppose any return of the Sunnis to political power, and it is entirely legitimate for them to perceive themselves in the victim role to consider Iran by far the lesser of the various evils with which they have to deal. Some of the militias are extremist sectarian groups, but they came into existence for very good reason.
- I5. South-Central Iraq is still fundamentally a tribal society in which power will go to clan and sectarian interests rather than be distributed based on anything recognizable as a classical liberal state in Western terms. This is also true in Kurdistan, but to a lesser extent.
- I6. It is very expensive for the IRGC to continue fighting ISIS, and lots of Iranians are fed up with money being spent to support foreign-policy ventures when the economy at home is in pretty dire straits (some but by no means all of which can be attributed to international sanctions). Iranians are, however, deeply upset about Sunni terrorists constantly blowing up Shia mosques and bombing Shia civilians — and they are right to be. American conservatives who lash out at Iran for supporting terrorism while turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s support for sectarian mass-murder are on the wrong side of history and behaving like world-class hypocrites.
Given this, the only humane solution which makes any sense is to let Sykes-Picot go away, and to create a state which gives the various Sunni tribes in present-day Syria and Iraq some option other than getting run over and slowly tortured to death by ISIS. Convincing Iran that it is in their best interests to allow this, and convincing the Saudis to stop aiding and abetting the mass-murder of Shia, is thorny and difficult. There are questions that would have to be considered carefully by all the local political actors in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iran.
But peace without some state to create security and local representation is impossible. It’s the Thirty Years’ War all over again, ending only when all sides are so exhausted that even the Russians no longer have any Dagestani salafists to sling into the fight.
With a new state, security and peace, no matter how difficult, is possible.
Now if only we had some actual diplomats skilled in “the art of the possible.”