The Wrong Target
We attacked Iraq for the wrong reasons, destroyed the evil Saddam Hussein and his regime, and succeeded only in making a bad situation in the region a great deal worse. More recently we have been trying to bring down Bashar el-Assad, who like Saddam is no Boy Scout, but this time we are doing it indirectly, through proxies. One does learn from experience: we’re getting more cautious, even if our strategic sense of direction remains stunted. So far, Assad has managed to hang on, but tectonic movements in the region suggest that his days may be numbered.
The most immediate shift in the pattern of regional alliances, and the one that poses the most immediate threat to Assad, is the rapprochement between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. They’ve papered over the gap that existed between them over the Muslim Brotherhood and have agreed to coordinate support for divergent military groups in Syria that have been fighting each other as well as Assad’s regime. In the process they’ve agreed to moderate their dislike of the new Islamic State and pay less attention to the garbled signals coming from Washington. A covert game of footsie with Israel is also emerging.
The sectarian split between Sunni and Shia was always there, but has hardened and is now a dominant feature of the political landscape. Iran is emerging as the major player for the Shia, with strong influence in Baghdad and with the Hezbollah, plus some influence with the Houthi in Yemen. Sunni power is centered in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, except that the Islamic State has emerged as even more Sunni than the Saudis and increasingly challenges everyone in sight.
Israel has succumbed to its own propaganda and seems honestly to believe that Iran its it number one mortal enemy. This is understandable when one recalls that Iran’s local ally, Hezbollah, is the only party in the region that has stood up to the Israeli military. Any country celebrates its victories but its defeats rankle most vividly in its institutional memory. Apparently Israel fears none of its neighbors, except perhaps Hezbollah, which at least has its respect.
The Israelis are not stupid. Presumably they see their interests served by a policy of overt non-involvement in these regional squabbles backed by either indirect or covert support for one party or another, whenever and wherever it serves their interests. Covert support can be hard to identify, but not the indirect support, especially when it is exercised through its powerful lobbies in Washington. So while it may not be flattering for us to consider ourselves the mere instruments of someone else’s purposes, that’s the way it is, and at least it gives us some means to gauge Israeli intentions. Thus it is possible, just by sitting in Washington, to estimate those intentions: Iran still the strategic target, with the destruction of Hezbollah as the more proximate goal.
If that estimate is accurate, the Israelis my be committing a strategic error that makes our goof-up over Saddam look trivial. If one looks at history, and the medieval history of the region in particular, it is plausible that the leaders of the Islamic State are actuated by an overriding goal. And in geographic terms that goal is not Damascus, that goal is Jerusalem.
The Crusades revisited. If that fantasy is taking root in what is still a semi-organized movement, now is the time to squash it. If the movement is allowed to grow and flourish, it will be Israel that will pay, not its proxy across the Atlantic.
May 12, 2015
Note: I’ve cribbed the central idea—Jerusalem, not Damascus, from a short piece by Jere Bacharach, available at