A new “theater” is opening in what we call the completely dysfunctional region of the Middle East. You can’t go see a movie there – you can try, but it’s not recommended – this is a theater of war. Yemen has finally joined its big brothers in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya as the latest country to plunge into civil war. I was in bed, and couldn’t sleep because it boggled my mind about how we got here. All I read were complicated, and bias “opinions” about how the US started this mess by invading Iraq in 2003. Or, because President Obama withdrew forces prematurely. I want to make my position as simple as possible; the US did not start this mess and President Obama was absolutely right in removing our troops. Furthermore, his current policy in the region is spot on. Period. And here are my two cents in “Confused guide to middle east conflict 101”.
The countries that comprise this quagmire of nationalism, religious zeal and ideology consist of some of the greatest empires in history; Persian, Ottoman, Greek, Arab, British and French. The borders of the region remained largely the same for several hundred years. Problems began in 1914, with World War I. Who started The Great War? The Europeans. Not the countries in the region, and certainly not the United States. See this map of the Middle East circa 1914?
And now the Middle East circa 1919:
Big difference, right?
The League of Nations “Mandated” Great Britain and France – Imperial victors – to control parts of the now broken up Ottoman Empire. These borders, like many borders drawn by empires were artificial at best. Why? Because, they do not represent ethnic/tribal and religious sensitivities. The battle we see between Shia and Sunni Muslims – although rooted in centuries of conflict – took its modern twist during this era. The Mandate system ended with War War II, and by the end of it, most of the borders we see today were drawn.
The results are pretty simple really:
- An independent Iraq, with a majority Shia population, but governed by Sunni’s was established from the British Mandate. Conflict? √
- Syria and Lebanon, consisting of a conflagration of multi-ethno-religious groups were both granted independence from the French Mandate. Conflict √
- Israel is established – and no I’m not going to engage in who, what, where, why – from the British Mandate. Conflict? √
- Yemen is established from the British Mandate, with a split Shia and Sunni population. Conflict? √
- Saudi Arabia is formed when the House of Saud takes control of Arabia. Persia changes names to Iran and for the most part, these two countries as well as Turkey remain the most stable countries in the region. I’m literally shaking my head in disbelief thinking how messed up the region is when Saudi Arabia and Iran are the most stable countries.
World War I set about the nationalistic, religious and ideological differences we now have. Four years shy of the 100th anniversary of the end of The Great War, we’re still fighting the ramifications of that conflict. Iran, the “protector” of Shia’s has taken strategic advantage of America’s conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is the only part where I see the US inflaming the situation, but I firmly believe the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was justified. I also firmly believe the invasion of Iraq in 2003, was not justified. The legacy of both wars is unwritten, and the conduct of both the war and withdrawal will be debated long after these current wars are done. Nonetheless, the fact remains that an Iranian army could theoretically be taken from eastern Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea, unhindered for the first time in several centuries. Do we want a nuclear weapons ready Iran? Nooooo! Saudi Arabia, the “protector” of Sunni’s, after decades of purchasing military hardware and training from the United States, has created a coalition to stop an Iranian backed proxy from taking over Yemen. Very similar to how they stopped demonstrations in neighboring Bahrain – with a sizable Shia population, and former British Mandate – from overthrowing the Sunni Monarch. Do we want a nuclear weapons ready Saudi Arabia? Nooooo!
This very basic timeline helps understand an elementary version of Middle East history, geopolitics and international relations. One of the difficulties the United States faces is ISIS being a Sunni terrorist group. It has been rejected by all parties – even Al Qaeda – but only a handful of Sunni run countries – Egypt, Jordan, UAE – are engaged with the US in fighting them. Iran, in order to maintain its hold over Iraq and presumable not let the conflict enter its territory has engaged ISIS more than any other country in the region through its proxies and special-forces. On the other hand, Iran is supporting Shia rebels in Yemen, and Bahrain, thus destabilizing them, as well as having de facto control over Southern Lebanon and helping prop up the Syrian government in Damascus. Confused? √
The question now is, what does the United States do? Do we back a regional ally, ie. Saudi Arabia? By providing the military hardware and intelligence, we are helping them. However, we’re also de facto allied with Iran in helping Iraq get rid of ISIS. So what do we do? Hard line Republicans – ie. NeoCons and Tea Party – want to stop Iran by using force – think of the Iraq War and multiple it by 2 or 3 in terms of monetary and human cost. Horrible idea? √
Democrats are trying to figure out what the best option on the table is. Do we just proceed with the status quo until something gives? That perhaps means negotiate while we can, and attack if we need to. In my opinion, President Obama is doing the right thing by keeping all options on the table and not making any overt moves. Contain this conflict within the region and letting it burn itself out might very well be the best strategy. Maybe in 2019 with the 100th anniversary of the end of War War I, we’ll have a newly redrawn Middle East map. For now, the best chart I’ve seen comes from http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/03/the-confused-persons-guide-to-middle-east-conflicts/388883/ and does a great job describing the current cluster-mess of the region. It’s really simple, just follow the dotted line. No, I mean the solid line. No, the checkered line … Le sigh