There are few good reasons to go to war, but the US faces the danger of being dragged into World War III for the worst of reasons. It will be fighting in a region in which it has no overriding interest, picking a side in a sectarian battle far older than the US, and allied with Machiavellian, despotic regimes who have no regard for its interests. Even proponents of the war cannot specify what a “victory” would look like. They nourish a vague hope that the two primary antagonists will somehow be vanquished and a government cut to the specifications of the US will be imposed by force and magically accepted by its subjects. Such a miracle would require a huge military commitment, trillions of dollars, and years, if not decades, of sustained effort. That miracle would require another miracle: after the last fifteen years of counterproductive and costly warfare in the Middle East, US politicians and the public nevertheless supporting the engagement for its lengthy duration.
Syria is a witches’ brew of conflicting internal and external forces. The US has been at odds with its leadership since Hafez al-Assad, father of the current leader, Bashar al-Assad, seized power in 1970. He aligned Syria with the Soviet Union and launched a war against Israel in 1973. He was a standard issue Middle Eastern autocrat in the Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi mold and his son has followed in his footsteps. The Assads’ Alawite Shiite Muslim sect, though a minority amidst a Sunni majority, controls the government and the leadership has fingers in all the worthwhile commercial and industrial pies. It has been religiously tolerant and politically intolerant.
The Obama administration saw an opportunity to change the Syrian regime under cover of the Arab Spring movement in 2011. Initially peaceful demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad soon turned violent as the government cracked down on demonstrators. Within a year, the military attacked resistance strongholds and Syria was engulfed in civil war. The main opposition came from an alliance of Sunni groups, mostly al Qaeda and its offshoots, including ISIS. The Obama administration pursued a confused policy that it advertised as aiding moderate Syrian rebels, who were supposedly opposed to both the Assad government and Islamic extremist groups. In truth, most of the ostensible moderates had ties to the latter. The few that didn’t either joined the extremists when confronted or fled, leaving their US-supplied weaponry and provisions behind.
None of this is news to either Obama or Congress. Nor is it a state secret that the Sunni extremists have received funding, supplies, and other aid from Sunni states—and US allies—Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Turkey (See “With Friends Like These…” and “Who Needs Enemies?“). The US government wants to install a compliant regime in Syria, just as it wanted to install such regimes in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. Those efforts failed, stifled by the Sunni-Shiite schism, guerrilla warfare and terrorism, blowback, Middle Eastern intrigue, and the US government’s ignorance, hypocrisy, and duplicity. Although it has done virtually nothing to stop ISIS, it still pretends that its main goal in Syria is the eradication of Islamic extremism rather than Bashar Assad’s government.
With his move into Syria and a remarkable speech at the United Nations, Vladimir Putin revealed the US government’s mendacity for all to see, except for the US public, where the mainstream media ignored his speech in favor of the usual government propaganda. (Some questions were asked about the efficacy of US efforts to defeat ISIS after the San Bernardino shootings last December, but they quickly faded.) At the invitation of Assad, Russia joined with the Shiites—the Syrian government, Iraq, Iran, and Hezbollah—and Syrian and Iraqi Kurds. The Assad alliance treats all those opposed to Assad as terrorist enemies. The tide has turned and the alliance has regained territory. It is on the verge of recapturing Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States are alarmed that the Islamic extremists they have funded and supported, and the US and its Western allies, have failed to depose Assad. If the Assad alliance cuts the rebels’ supply line from Turkey and takes Aleppo, it will not only solidify Assad’s hold on western Syria, but also solidify the influence of archenemy Shiite Iran in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. It is a make or break moment for the rebellion. The Sunni nations, especially NATO member Turkey, would dearly love to have their fight become Europe and the United States’ fight, too. If they can ensnare the Western nations, then Syria inevitably becomes the launchpad for World War III.
This next world war’s Archduke Ferdinand moment may come if Saudi Arabia, currently hosting a military exercise in its northern region called “Northern Thunder” involving at least 12 other nations, 350,000 soldiers, 20,000 tanks, 2,450 warplanes and 460 helicopters, leads that force into western Iraq en route to Syria. Or the trigger may come if Turkey, either in conjunction with Saudi Arabia or on its own, invades Syria from the north. With 600,000 troops, Turkey’s has the second largest armed forces in NATO. In addition to its loathing of the Shiites and Iran, Turkey fears Kurd nationalism. The Kurds, who have been the most effective fighting force against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, have long desired their own state. Kurdish separatists are also a vociferous presence in Turkey. The US government has embraced the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, but like the Turkish government, labels the Turkish Kurds as terrorists. Turkey would probably concentrate on subduing the Kurds before it went after Assad.
The US public is blissfully unaware either that the world is a hair’s breadth away from World War III or that their government has had an outsize role in creating that risk. The US may be dragged in by Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a corrupt, megalomaniac autocrat, or the corrupt, repressive House of Saud. The US will be in direct conflict with Russia and Iran, and lurking in the background, perhaps China. Neither the US’s so-called friends nor its foes care one whit about the best interests of the US and will in fact work against them. The blowback created will dwarf current levels of terrorism and refugee flows. The US’s degeneration into a police state will gain new momentum. Other than its deluded wish that both Assad and the Islamic extremists somehow disappear, the US government will have no clear idea of what would constitute victory, and consequently, no ability to attain it. And this war could go nuclear.
It will be the quagmire to end all quagmires, supported by the same coalition of mental and moral midgets who have backed every disastrous US military foray since Afghanistan. It’s questionable how long the US will retain the support of Europe. Its refugee flood will turn into a deluge as the war spreads from Syria outward to the rest of the Middle East, central Asia, northern Africa, and quite possibly to Europe itself. Nor is it a sure thing that financial markets will fund this war at today’s rock-bottom interest rates. The conflict will add more trillions to the US government’s current $19 trillion debt, and with a depression looming, the government’s ability to pay will be called into question. There would be no political support for a another protracted, expensive, and bloody military commitment in the Middle East if the American people were explicitly told that just such a commitment is under consideration, especially if they were also told that it could lead to World War III. A populace fooled into war is unlikely to back it for any length of time.
In Syria, the US will either fold or go all in. On past form, it will choose the latter and rue it ever after. Few Americans, inside or outside the government, realize either that those are the choices or that the stakes are so high. Sadly, such realizations may come only when their sons and daughters are drafted, or as the image of a mushroom cloud fills the screens of their mobile devices.
FROM A READER REVIEW: “This is a MUST READ for all who wonder what happened to the unflinching American spirit that sparked a revolution…”