Sunday, November 29, 2015

Fixing the Middle East

The Game: “Unrest in the Middle East”
The Major Players these days: Syria (both Assad and the Rebels), The Islamic State (ISIS, aka ISIL, aka Daesh), Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, the Kurds, and Russia.
Also in the picture: Lebanon, Jordan, and now Libya.   Oh yes, and the U.S. and its E.U. allies.

 The Story:

1. The most recent major “Middle East” problem, the antagonism between the Palestinians and the Israelis, is still there, but it has taken a back seat to the “refugee problem” now destabilizing European governments (Merkel's support has dropped to 44%) and challenging the unity of the EU.  The millions of refugees are a direct result of the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS).
2. The refugees are fleeing both ISIS and the battle between Syrian rebels and Assad’s Syrian government. We don’t support Assad in Syria, but his forces are also against ISIS, so we would like to support them in that, but we can’t do that without hurting the rebels in Syria, whom we also support.
3. The Russians support Assad and are bombing not only ISIS in Syria, but some of the Syrian rebel groups backed by the U.S.
4. ISIS shot down a Russian commercial airliner and killed all aboard, and we want to show solidarity with Russia, but that is awkward because of their actions in Ukraine and Syria.
5. The Saudis have supported the Wahhabi Salafists who included Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and more recently ISIS, but we and our allies, like the Germans, still profit enormously from selling them weapons.
6. We support the Kurds, who are the most effective ground forces against ISIS, but if we send them too many weapons, they are likely to turn them on Iran and seek independence from Turkey.  But - it's worth repeating - they are the most effective forces now fighting ISIS.
7. Turkey is fighting with the Kurds, who are 18% of their population.  Turkey has also supported ISIS forces and has also shot down a Russian military plane involved in fighting ISIS, but Turkey is our NATO partner and a boundary country in the refugee crisis, so we have to support it.
8. Iran has hated us ever since we overthrew the Mossaddegh government to protect British oil interests against the Russians and set up a puppet government in the Shah, which they overthrew and replaced by a (Twelver) Shia Islamic state. 
9. The U.S. invasion of Iraq led to a Shia victory in Iraq, and boosted Shia Iran’s power in the region and radicalized the Sunni to create the Islamic State (ISIS).  We don’t know how to support the Shia without supporting Iran and we don't know how to support the Sunni without seeming to be supporting ISIS, so we try to stay neutral, which leads both sides to think we are supporting the other.
10. After the terrorist attack in Paris where 130 people were killed and 368 injured, François Hollande has been speaking of “war” against ISIS, just as Bush spoke of “war” against terrorism after the 9/11 attacks.  Most knowledgeable insiders agree, however, that war means bombs and bombs only kill more civilians and generate more refugees and that the real problem with ISIS is that it draws its energy from its ideology, not its military forces.  We are notoriously ineffective in fighting ideology.
11. There have been peace talks in Vienna, but neither Assad nor his rebel opposition, two main players, were invited.  Russia, who was, is seeking greater influence in the Middle East, which makes the U.S. uncomfortable.  Iran, also participating, is bargaining to keep its shipping channels open to ship weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which makes Israel, and therefore the U.S., uncomfortable.

I've used "we" all through this piece to refer to Americans, one of the players in this game.  It's perhaps worth noting that this "we" includes the following:

  • 20% of us believe President Obama is a Muslim.  That number is 30% if we're talking about Republicans.
  • 24% of Americans, according to one Gallup poll, didn't realize it was Britain we got our independence from.  Only 54% of black Americans were able to answer that question correctly.
  • 18% of Americans believe the sun goes around the earth and not the other way around - but to be fair, that's about the same as the number of Germans and even fewer Brits are able to tell you which goes around which.
  • 1 out of 5 Americans, the same percentage that believes in witches, will tell you George W. Bush was a great president and his goals were accomplished.
  • 30% of Americans don't know 9/11 happened in 2001.  5% can't tell you what month and day it happened.
  • 37% believe global warming is a hoax, 21% believe a UFO crashed at Roswell, 14% believe in Bigfoot, 13% believe Obama is the Antichrist and 4% believe politics is controlled by lizard people.
But nobody ever said you had to have everybody on board.  After all, between 15 and 20% of Americans were loyal to the British crown all through the Revolutionary War.

It's not always the numbers that make the difference.  It's what you do with the numbers.

photo credit:  An ABC news photo from 2013 with credit to: Abo Shuja/AFP/Getty Images.  Image still appears relevant.

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