24 March 2013

Geopolitical Entanglements- Syria and Russia

Watching the unfolding tragedy in Syria I've often been shocked at how blatantly the American media seems to be trying to push the American government into action. Or of course it could be posited the forces within the American government (via their mouthpieces in the media) are trying to prick the consciences of the American people.

Whatever the case may be, I'm used to seeing pretty graphic images of war being aired on networks like Al Jazeera English which doesn't believe in filtering out the bloodshed. However American mainstream media is usually pretty selective in what they'll show. Several months ago when I saw dead children on the CBS Evening News, it seemed pretty clear they're trying to fire up the public. Newspaper articles about the Maine or the Lusitania, or even news of Germans in Belgium won’t quite do it anymore.

The American media has to take pretty drastic measures to reach the public. The fog of NASCAR, Lady Gaga, and Domestic politics is pretty thick and it takes something like close-ups of dead children to elicit a response. Dead bodies in Rwanda did little in the way of affecting anyone back in 1994.[i]

That said I don't advocate for United States intervention. This is a recurring problem within anti-Imperial discussion. Many who are against American power will call on American power to 'do something' when a tragedy is taking place somewhere in the world. In fact many would argue that because a nation like the United States possesses the military power to stop the Assad regime it’s under a moral imperative to do so.

While the Assad regime is deplorable, the argument falls apart because the American regime is equally bankrupt in terms of morality. The images coming out of Syria are difficult to see, but for many years the United States has supported regimes every bit as brutal. And how often has the United States ventured into other countries and generated violence of a greater caliber than what we find in Syria? Just recently an anniversary passed, that of the iconic photo taken in 1972 of the little Vietnamese girl fleeing the Napalm attack on her village. She had torn her clothes off and was running tearfully down the road toward the photographer. Deliberate or not the United States destabilized the whole of Indochina and both directly and indirectly generated a bloodbath.

To suggest the United States has some kind of moral high ground or standing is some kind of very bad joke. The international community knows this as well. Not the international community often cited by American leaders, by which they mean three or four of their closest allies. I'm referring to the majority of nations comprising the rest of the globe, upon which it is difficult if not impossible to find a place untouched by American influence. I'm afraid the moral argument doesn't stand.

The practical argument might say, fine, the United States is just another evil empire only slightly better than the one Reagan denounced almost thirty years ago...but there's a slaughter going on. Regardless of who it is, someone should stop it.

That argument certainly carries a bit more weight, but when it's 'stopped'...now what? Do any of these people have any suggestions for what will happen in Syria's future? Will Assad stay? If Assad is tossed out, what will replace him? What would another American intervention in the Middle East mean? Will stopping it today lead to more slaughter tomorrow? Isn’t the present situation and crisis simply a result of past Western interventions and meddling?

The nation-state of Syria like so many other countries is an artificial construct. It was a puzzle piece in an empire being divided up by empires. As France and Britain carved up the Ottoman realm, Syria and Lebanon fell within the French sphere...that is to say the lands that today are Syria and Lebanon fell within the French sphere. The reality is these lands are an amalgamation of many people groups which over time have developed deep hatreds and a lack of trust.

Though France had to formally abandon Syria at the end of World War II, they've still played a large part in the politics of the country and region. French cultural influence is strong and often during these periods of western imperial domination the minority groups would look toward the new power for 'enlightened' protection. Lacking foresight this turning to the West is often viewed as betrayal and in a radical time such as the one we live in, the minority groups are having to pay a price.

This cycle...of minority groups gaining status and success under a Western power and then feeling the backlash when the disenfranchised majority is radicalized (by tribalism or religion or both) and regains power...has almost eliminated the Assyrian population in Iraq. Other groups like Yezidis and Mandaeans continue to hang on, but their lives have become difficult.[ii]

In Syria the minority Alawites gained control of the Baath party under the current president's father. The Assad family has ruled Syria with an iron fist and yet they've kept the peace. The people have not been free, and the majority Sunni population has essentially been disenfranchised.

Syriac and Assyrian Christians, Armenians, Druze, Kurds, and of the course the Alawites themselves have all benefitted from the Assad Regime. During the Cold War, due to the presence of Israel and its conflicts with it over the Golan Heights, Syria naturally allied itself with Nasser’s Egypt, and the Soviet Union. There were communists at work in Syria, but during the Cold War countries would often ally with the United States or Soviet Union not out of ideological unity but out of pragmatism. These states were facilitating the wars of the world through arms, trade, and political maneuvering. Overlapping interests created and still create a complicated mosaic of loose alliances and affiliations... and ultimately stunning betrayals and historical turns.

Syria was a natural ally of the Soviet Union due to their conflict with Israel. An anti-Israel stance naturally led to an Anti-American position. At this time the Baath Party (A secular socialist party started by Pan-Arab interests including non-Muslims) was also antagonistic to the Shah of Iran and his pro-American policies. The Kurds were fighting Saddam Hussein and it is during this time forces were at work that would later lead to the creation of the Kurdish Worker's Party or PKK in Southeastern Turkey. Turkey was an American ally and often proxy in the region adding to the confusion and complicated system of interests.[iii] 

In other posts I've talked about America's very aggressive posture toward the Soviet Union post-1991. Americans tend to think the Cold War ended and we suddenly became friends with the Russians and that a new era was upon the world.

So now what has happened with Russia? Why the antagonism? If you follow the Right-wing interpretation of events leftover elements of the KGB led by Putin have reasserted themselves and are in the process of trying to recreate a quasi-Soviet super state.

While it is true that elements from the KGB and former regime power players have played a role in the formation of the new Russia, to accuse them of Imperial aspirations is to say the least misleading.

First it could be questioned to what degree the Soviet Union was ever really and truly and Imperial power. Secondly the Soviet Union was purportedly built around the idea of creating a common bond through the vehicle of Communism. The modern Russian state is more akin to a kleptocracy built on a foundation of oil and natural gas.

There’s no need to pretend the rulers of today’s Russian Federation are good or nobly intentioned men. They’re after power and yet once this is understood as well as Russia’s history, and the present state of things…their actions are not illogical or as outrageous as American audiences seem to think. The judgments are often made in ignorance of Western actions and how they are perceived in places like Russia and China.

We are in the midst of a titanic shift in the realm of geopolitics. There are many variables and forces working to shape what is happening and in the case of the United States, a great attempt to steer the ship.

If there is instability in the world at present a more thorough assessment might lay the blame in places that would seem less than obvious, at least to some,

[i] In large part, the floundering Clinton administration after its terrible blunder in Somalia, was reticent to jump back into Africa.


[ii] I think of the Yezidi who named his kids George Bush and Dick Cheney. Poor names in any setting, but to grow up with names like that in the post-Iraq war period? Poor kids.

[iii] Syria became a natural place of refuge for the PKK leadership as the Syrians were also furious with Turkey’s seizure of Hatay in the 1930’s as well as Turkish dams on the Euphrates.

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