World On The Edge
The world appears to be walking on the edge of a knife. With all sobriety, it can be said that to no moment in recent history does this axiom more forebodingly apply than it does right now. Perhaps not since the early twentieth century (when Gavrilo Princip’s fortuitous inability to read maps led to the outbreak of the First World War) has there been so fraught a moment in time. Back then, consequent a wrong turn by an aimless chauffer (upon whom responsibility for the First World War’s outbreak might more accurately be laid), the alliterative Archduke and his beloved Sophie were killed by Princip—the young Serbian malcontent. Maybe the world was in greater tumult when Hitler reached for Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and then France, or when Stalin grabbed for Finland or Mussolini for Abyssinia or Hirohito for Manchuria. Maybe things were more fraught in Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, or Iraq.
Or maybe, as I’m increasingly convinced, this moment in which we live is the most parlous of all.
I don’t imagine we’re on the precipice of World War III, but as it did in 1914 and as it did again two decades later in 1939, the general feeling in the world seems to be just as combustible and quite nearly as strained. This time, it’s Syria and not Austria, Germany, or Vietnam around whom the uncertainty and the bellicosity revolves. For the past seven years, Syria has been the very definition of calamity, of tragedy, of intractability, and of unrest. It’s been a living, breathing, and too often dying tinderbox of pain.
Since the Arab Spring in 2011, which witnessed the toppling of multiple Arabic, North African, and Middle Eastern regimes, Syria has been in the throes of a relentless and brutal civil war. It’s a war that’s torn asunder in rather short order an ancient and vibrant land. Bashar al-Assad, following in the footsteps of his father, Hafez al-Assad, had at the time of the Arab Spring become what we might consider by today’s standards an insufferable tyrant. Syrians were witnessing all around them in other countries, to varying degrees of success, coups that might actually promise progress and freedom. Not surprisingly, they wanted to drink from that untapped well of liberty and taste the sweet nectars of reform.
But, their thirst was not to be so easily slaked, nor their hunger for betterment satiated. Assad proved a rebarbative but durable leader. He was a man not yet prepared nor voluntarily willing—certainly not on the terms of the rabble and commoners calling for his end—to abdicate an inherited throne. He rebuffed all attacks and recruited formidable allies along the way. With an unquestioning affinity to his Ba’athist party agenda, the government of Iran came into the picture and lent its support to his regime. Ever in search of allies, what with that minatory Saudi Arabia lurking and strengthening in the Gulf below, Iran had a great stake in ensuring Assad’s regime. To him, Iran gave subventions, lent weapons, and slipped vital regional intel.
Likewise, Russia saw in Assad an invaluable ally. The former came to the latter’s aid in the hopes of exploiting and profiting from the incipient power gap that had formed in the Middle East. Putin saw in Assad a dependable partner who would help to advance Russia’s interests in the region. Verily, these interests have existed since the 1970s and the Cold War, when the two countries were on rather sympathetic terms—quite unlike the terms that defined Russia’s relationship with its other Middle Eastern interest, Afghanistan. But the region has changed significantly since that time.
The Arab Spring was the latest event by which the region was made to feel unstable. Naturally, as all revolutions are its success was limited (otherwise, Assad might not have survived), but it did see the toppling of one particular autocrat with whom Russia was especially close. I speak, of course, of that debonair despot of Libya, the madman of the Maghreb—Muammar Gaddafi. Gaddafi’s Libya provided a reliable channel for the trade of military equipment and arms, from which Russia profited dearly. When Gaddafi was ousted and subsequently killed, Russia lost its lucrative trade. It was then that Russia began to view its fortunes as being more deeply intertwined with Assad’s success. As it did in the 1970s, the relationship between Russia and Syria improved to the mutual benefit of each: Russia found in Syria a receptive and avaricious consumer of its goods while Syria modernized itself to the fullest possible extent. The fact that Assad was already a well-established brute of a dictator was of little consequence to Putin, himself a man with dictatorial pretensions.
Assad’s previous sins, in the eyes of an odious ex-KGB man, were venial at worst.
Tepidly opposing this triumvirate of autocrats (Assad in Syria, Putin in Russia, and Khamenei in Iran) was America, Israel, Britain, France, and a smattering of other NATO countries in the West. But, as always is the case where there is an international dispute and decisive actions to be made, America has become the de facto first among equals. That said, America’s stake in this international “game” (or perhaps better put, this unyielding Syrian civil war) has continued to be both hesitant and ambiguous. At first, our motivations were altogether narrow: extirpate from the soil the ISIS militants, limit the civilian casualties, and provide when possible succor and humanitarian relief to the suffering people. To deracinate ISIS would be relatively easy (compared with even a poorly structured government, ISIS’s numbers were few, its isolation limited, and its income uncertain) but we weren’t prepared for the larger spat of fighting that was quickly and mercilessly subsuming the nation. While ISIS militants scurried from town to town, acting more like desultory brigands than a serious brigade, the Syrian government’s army (at the behest of Assad) fought in open conflict with the rebels who were continuing unperturbed their struggle for liberation after the failure of the Arab Spring. Losing his grasp, and wanting nothing more than to re-impose his will, Assad began using chemical weapons against his own people in the more recalcitrant towns in which the rebels lived.
Famously—and as we’d later conclude, ignominiously—it was around this time that President Obama drew in the sand his “red line”. Such as it was, the “red line” was Obama’s position which stated that America would respond with a military strike if Assad was to be found using chemical weapons against his own people. Hitherto, America had only the suspicion but not the confirmation that Assad was doing exactly that. Evidence soon revealed that Assad had indeed unleashed his chemical gasses on his people in late 2012. The images and the documentation off his crimes were unequivocal. The wanton nature of the crime harkened back to Saddam Hussein’s use of nerve agents and mustard gas during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. It’s not as if the world hadn’t seen this before, but, nevertheless, America was slow to react.
For that, there is good reason. Then, in 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, as now, the idea of an American intervention in another intractable Middle Eastern war is hugely unpopular back home. Sensing the profound distaste still lingering in the mouths of most Americans after decades of a fruitless and expensive commitment to Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama felt his hands tied. He deterred in the late summer of 2013, and opted—in a fashion atypical of his wont—to go to Congress and ask for its authorization for a retaliatory military strike. It was either to send a retributory strike against the Assad regime (as Obama, a year earlier, promised he would do) or to hold his fire and do nothing at all. Before Congress made its decision on whether or not to act, Russia—ever the sneaky interloper in foreign affairs—emerged with the possibility of a third way. The Kremlin offered to oversee and ensure the removal of 1300 tons of chemical weapons from Assad’s hands. Until that time, it wasn’t known just how much of the stuff Assad was actually harboring in his stockpile. The sheer quantity was not at all expected, and the thought of a bloodless Russian-led rapprochement was attractive. President Obama, in what hindsight allows us to deem a myopic decision, chose to have Russia intervene and clean the Syrian government of its chemical mess.
Almost immediately, Obama’s decision (or what was perceived to be his indecision) was criticized, mocked, and lambasted by all conservatives and even many hawkish liberals.
From that time until this, the fighting in Syria has continued unabated. Russia’s position is strengthened, so too is Iran’s. Assad appears to be winning, but it’s not at all definitive. Nor, for that matter, is his victory completely pre-ordained. What’s certain, however, is that on every side, the casualties have been utterly appalling. Almost a half million Syrians have died in the interminable struggle and roughly twice that number have fled the arid state altogether. No longer are Homs, Damascus, Raqqah, nor Hassakeh hospitable to the people by which they were once populated. In one you’ll find President Bassar al-Assad’s army, brutally suppressing all who dare contest; in the next you’ll find Syria’s rebel forces, nobly shrugging from their tired bones Assad’s oppressive yoke; in the third, there’s the dwindling yet indefatigable ISIS militants, whose goals are as ambitious and audacious as they are unrealistic; and in the last, you’ll see those divers fighters of the proud and resourceful Kurdish people, from whom scores of territory have been arrogated throughout the slow march of time.
In the midst of the bloodshed, the migrant crisis continues at a fever pitch. From Calais to London and Barcelona to Berlin, the growing animus toward Syrian refugees has never been so acute. In response, far-right nationalist and populist sentiments have suffused what once were putatively liberal democratic states. Every country in the European Union knows that with the passage of just one election cycle, its entire political life could change; by the will of the people, themselves leery of this torrent of refugees, an unabashed right-wing xenophobe could be elected to head the tenuous state. He might then lead the nation down an unsalvageable path. Perhaps with the exception of those crises shrouding Yemen (where cholera-ravaged citizens struggle to live in the midst of an ongoing Houthi-Sunni war) and Myanmar (where the Rohingya minority has been persecuted from all sides), there has been no greater humanitarian crisis in the last twenty years than that which befalls Syria. The West knows this, but it’s become tired of caring.
And the refugee crisis shows no immediate signs of stopping. In a manner both barbarous and remorseless, Assad has continued to use chemical weapons on his own people and has exacerbated their plight. Nearly a year ago to this day, he did so again and President Trump—mindful of the past and wanting to obviate those criticisms suffered by Obama—responded swiftly with a military strike. The American attack was decisive, but not really all that effective; the Syrian base that was targeted is alleged to have been up and running only a few hours after the strike. If the strike didn’t meaningfully hamper Assad, one can hope that the American response at the very least chastened him.
But the chastening ran its course, and again, last week, Assad spilled into the skies of the Eastern Ghouta province his fetid chlorine gas. And again, as they did a year before, images of the barbarity began its slow leakage to the West. The very humane conscience of any person watching was shaken. One saw children asphyxiating, adults struggling to breathe, and the elderly writing and choking on the ground. In the mantle of the chemicals layering above, oxygen became a chief commodity and a fatal scarcity. People, in the blistering mid-day sun, were seen wearing unusually rosy cheeks, burned in this case not by the torrid Middle Eastern sun, but by a noxious, government-sanctioned gas.
Stirred to the quick, America and the West jointly condemned the act. Israel responded immediately with a salvo of its own, while the France, Britain, and America deliberated about the next step. It should be noted that a week prior to this chemical attack, President Trump had been urging his military generals and his foreign affairs officials to begin the process of removing American troops from Syrian land. His order wasn’t yet effectuated at the time of the chemical attack, but one can’t help but think that Assad—catching wind of Trump’s druthers—felt emboldened to unleash his attack. I rather doubt this was the case, as Assad has proven to be a man wholly unconcerned with America’s military presence when carrying out his detestable acts, but it’s certainly a consideration of which one should take note.
Russia warned that if its military interests were compromised in any way, it would strike back in retribution against the West. Iran made similarly fistic assurances and claims. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey also looked on with a curious eye. All of them could be pulled into the burgeoning conflict in short order. Any perceived Western provocation, outside of a very narrow and tailored strike against provincial Syrian targets, could be answered with attacks from the East and then, in kind, from the West. What begins as a damned fool thing in Syria can become an introduction to world war. This is the knife’s edge upon which we walk. Falling off the one side, into the abyss, we stumble into World War III; on the other, into the endless and unforgivable sorrow of a humanitarian disaster and the death of a people.