Assistant Professor of Government at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, in Doha, Qatar
Syria, the great historian Arnold Toynbee once predicted, is situated astride the pivotal fault-line between Islam and Christianity. Since time immemorial, this region has constituted the transit from the Mare Nostrum to Felix Arabia, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Arabian Desert. It is perhaps the most essential node of civilizational interaction, both productive and destructive. Speaking at the prestigious American University Beirut at the height of the Cold War in 1957, Toynbee also noted how Syria also had become a proxy battlefield between the USA and the USSR. His counsel was simple, Syria could not enter one camp at the expense of the other. It could not afford to cut itself off of its “Arab hinterland”.
What Toynbee did not take into consideration at that time was the intra-Islamic fault-line between Sunni and Shia interpretations which, if anything, has proven even more intractable.
A specter is haunting the Middle East, and it is called sectarianism. To underestimate its destructive potential would be a fatal flaw. To exploit these instincts is reckless and criminal, no less dangerous than playing with nuclear bombs. Sectarianism is the nuclear bomb of regional ideologies. Making matters worse is the fact that the regional states are awash with an unprecedented cache of weapons, a perilous situation recalling the prelude to World War one.
Yet the bloody sectarian stalemate in Syria, Iraq and Yemen might be even more consequential, and threatens to spiral out of control.
In light of the geopolitical dimension of the crisis, it is imperative that Russia and the United States come to a rational consensus which could take the following contours: Suicidal cults (including but not limited to ISIS/Daesh), have carried out barbarian attacks in Saudi Arabia, in Russia, in Iraq, in Syria and Kuwait, not to speak of the West. They have crippled the tourism sector in Tunisia and Turkey. Hence, whatever one’s vision for Syria, a consensus must be ironclad that there should be zero tolerance for any groups of this kind. It is true that regional states have had many failings, but even the worst of these can never justify the barbaric acts of ritual killings and bloodlust which mark religious ritual killings, whether they are Islamic, Jewish or Christian, Sunni or Shia. There is imperfect, there is bad, and there is worse. Terrorism and anarchy are global threats.
In light of this point of departure, let us briefly pass in review possible strategies open to Russia.
1. Reach out to America and do not give up hope. Bear in mind that the overwhelming majority of the US (or British and European publics) were and are staunchly opposed to meddling in the Middle East. So are many more seasoned “cold warriors” such as Pat Buchanan. This, in addition to opposition by some sober “big brass” generals in the Pentagon, is why the 2013 bombardment of Syria was called off at the eleventh hour. Russia must realize that despite unremitting messianic war mongering, a current of realism still is present in Washington, however marginalized it may have been by neoconservative and liberal hawks. A smidgen of such realism may have been visible in Secretary Kerry’s and President Obama’s statements, and I quote the latter: “The best chance of seeing a decent outcome at this point is to work the state actors who have invested so much in keeping Assad in power—mainly the Iranians and the Russians—as well as working with those who have been financing the opposition to make sure that they’re not creating the kind of extremist force that we saw emerge out of Afghanistan when we were financing the mujahideen.”
2. Despite the now obvious games played by the intelligence agencies shipping arms and spreading propaganda, recognize the possibility of sheer incompetence in Washington. When Senator McCain and Secretary Kerry relied on a fraudulent 27 year old graduate student and paid lobbyist Elizabeth O’Bagy to justify a military strike in 2013 it was clear for all and sundry that intelligence services are lacking in intelligence, integrity and independence. Middle Eastern Policy leaves much to be desired in Washington as lobbies with vested interests have hijacked foreign policy making from independent analysts and scholars who do not have any personal interest to support this or that faction. Rather than scold or castigate the United States, Russia should demonstrate how these “mushy brains” and paid pipers are in fact detrimental to the core interests of the United States itself.
3. A sectarian fire can be easily lit, but the costs to extinguish it are exorbitant. The British in the 19th, the Israelis in the 20th century, PNAC in 1996, Rand in 2008, Brookings and the CIA have all propagated plans to divide and rule the region by pitting Sunnis against Shia and riling up sectarian and ethnic animosities. We may recall that the Israelis supported HAMAS in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria during their first uprising in the 1980s. Today, Israel has again sided with jihadists with the ultimate and only goal to eliminate Hizbollah from their northern front. Again, this is akin to playing with matches as even some Israelis will recognize, and while cynics may point out that it is Europe and the region which will pay the price, a regional conflagration is not in the US interest either.
4. For Russia, reaching out to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other region Gulf States is imperative, and the first steps taken in that direction should be increased. Despite its recent intervention in Syria and the Ukraine, Russia does not have any expansionist, colonialist aspirations. Moreover, it is non-sensical to view Russia as an anti-Muslim bigot. Rather, we must adhere with Rousseau to the cardinal axiom: States “must tolerate all, except for the intolerant.” Freedom of faith is no less sacrosanct in Russia, as it is in and indeed many Gulf states which host millions of guest workers who can visit Churches just as Muslims across the Russian Federation find no obstacle to worship in peaceful devotion. There must be a reaching out to moderate Muslims without sticking the head in the sand with respect to the threat posed by a spectrum of jihadists which, after all, are also a threat to the majority of moderate Muslims around the world.
We live in an age in which the most hard nosed realist and the most idealist should see eye to eye.
In an interdependent global economy, a thriving Russia is a boon to Europe and by extension the United States economically and politically. The “Wirtschaftswunder” of export world champion Germany was only made possible by the supply of Russian energy. While cells in Washington were possessed by a vindictive design to drive a wedge between Germany and Russia, in the longer term the consequences of a recession in Europe to the United States would be as deleterious was the policy to stoke the fires in the Middle East by arming revolutions and rejecting negotiations.
The appeal now must be to logic and common sense. The shared interests of Russia and the United States far outweigh any alleged rivalry. Whether it is in ensuring global security or the flow of mutually beneficial trade, stirring up a concocted enmity is nonsensical at this stage. Bluster is no substitute for policy. There must be a fundamental shift from spin to substance, form proxy war to direct negotiation mediated by the United States and Russia.
Meanwhile, America and Russia should burry the hatchet. They have “bigger fish to fry” as the saying goes, and they must make clear to the Gulf States, Iran and Syria that, they too, must lay down the arms as a further escalation of this war will hurt both sides. This was the case for all sectarian conflicts, whether it was the 30 Years War in Europe, the Lebanese Civil War which came to close with the Taif Accord, or indeed the ongoing Syrian and Iraqi Conflicts. How long will it take for reason to prevail over blind instinct and misguided faith?
This article first appeared in Russian at “Vzglyad”