The Parable of the Dog Park
ISIL, Syria, Iraq and the Illusion of American Power
Once upon a time there were three dog parks. To play in either of the two nicest parks, a dog had to be part of the pack that ran the park and kiss the ass of the Alpha Dog. The third park wasn't anywhere near as nice, but the possibility of being merged with one of the nicer parks, while attractive to some of the dogs, was never attractive enough to enough of the dogs that a merger could happen. To keep the smaller, less nice park from screwing up what was a relatively good thing, the two Alpha Dogs would occasionally send over some extra bones and treats, and the dogs in the crummy park would chow done. The end.
Welcome to geo-politics from the silly perspective of dueling dog parks. But, while I'm hard pressed to think of anything I'd much agree with Vladamir Putin on besides the idea that Pussy Riot are lousy musicians, I do grant him this much -- for the sake of a stable world, the end of the Soviet Union was a tragedy if you wanted a world that had some sort of overall organizing principle. Humans do well with bi-polar situations -- good/bad, black/white, capitalist/communist. We don't do so well with a world where there are multiple polarities pulling and pushing in multiple, incoherent and ultimately opposing directions.
The basic question asked by the McCains and Grahams and Putins of the world is fairly simple -- WHO THE HELL IS IN CHARGE HERE! Well, nobody is, much to the dismay of the various hobbit-functionaries and bureaucrats who think they're really in charge or should be.
This morning's New York Times illustrates this wonderfully. The headlines announce that Egypt and the Emirates are bombing Libya without letting the US know in advance let alone asking permission.The editorial board has a great discussion of what needs to be done to counter the Islamic State and maybe give some coherence and sense to the region. Maybe. However, it also sums up quiet lucidly the problem that the Big Dog in the Dog Park -- the US -- faces; it's not really our dog park. The local dogs all want someone to do something, but in the meantime they keep doing other stuff. Stuff that makes sense given their local interests and religious interests and economic interests but really don't help in the bigger sense of the region or the world.
The prospects of defeating ISIS would be greatly improved if other Muslim nations could see ISIS for the threat it is. But, like Iraq, they are mired in petty competitions and Sunni-Shiite religious divisions and many have their own relations with extremists of one kind or another. ISIS has received financing from donors in Kuwait and Qatar. Saudi Arabia funneled weapons to Syrian rebels and didn’t care if they went to ISIS. Turkey allowed ISIS fighters and weapons to flow across porous borders. All of that has to stop...
No matter how many American airstrikes are carried out — Mr. Obama is also considering strikes against ISIS in Syria — such extremists will never be defeated if Muslims themselves don’t make it a priority. To their credit, some leaders are speaking out. Among them is Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, the grand mufti, who called ISIS and Al Qaeda the “enemy No. 1 of Islam.” But they must go further and begin a serious discussion about the dangers of radical Islam and how ISIS’s perversion of one of the world’s great religions can be reversed.
I've referred before to Churchill's analysis of the region as one of tribes with flags. What the Times isn't getting and what the Administration isn't getting is that the primary concern for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates and the Assad family is what's good for the various dynasties. The Saudi Royal Family doesn't really see a difference between the Kingdom and the family -- which is very large, very disorganized and very dysfunctional. Same in Kuwait, same in the Emirates. If Assad was primarily a Syrian patriot, things would be better in Syria. Since that's not his primary reality, this is about maintaining power, control, position and dynastic hegemony as opposed to what's best for the people, the country, the region or the religion.
Militarily, I think most knowledgeable analysts accept that somebody has got to put boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq. I don't see the local powers lining up to do so. Now, from the point of view of stopping the current nonsense, I'd like to see a couple of US Heavy Divisions supported by the Saudi Arabian Army and some heavy forces from Iraq, with Turkish and Egyptian light forces and an Iranian logistics force to provide support and aid. Chances of that happening are slim, none and illusory.
Another problem is that Islam is even less organized than Christianity. The Sunnis and the Shiites aren't equivalent to the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. The two most cohesive elements in Islam, Iran and Saudi Arabia, are religious states in a state of ideological and religious conflict for the past 1400 or so years. While it's excellent that the Grand Mufti of Mecca has raised the issue of ISIL and al Queida as an actual threat to Islam, there are other Grand Muftis and Ayatollahs, all of whom envision themselves equally grand. Bin Laden was not a religious figure but he felt perfectly OK issuing Fatwahs, and a lot of Muslims were fine with that. The five fold path involves subjugation to God; no other allegiance is necessary.
So, going back to my dog park parable, what can we do? Consider this -- it's not our damned dog park. We have interests, sure we have interests. But it's their region and they need to work it out, and forcing our interests to the front just adds complications and frustrations. I would say that our best solution in the current world is to stop trying to run their dog park, and stop sending over bones and treats, except in a pure quid pro quo, a formula that should include Israel since they play in that region. Let the fires burn out, because anything we do just fans the flames.