Failures Everywhere in Western Asia
June 30, 2014
President Barack Obama’s latest request to Congress to provide $500 million in
equipment and training to “appropriately vetted” moderate Syrian opposition
forces will provoke lively debate on two issues: on whether this is too little,
too late to influence events inside Syria, and on what exactly defines a
“moderate” opposition force. These are both valid questions related to how
non-Syrian powers work to bolster or topple Syrian President Bashar Assad’s
regime, and also how everyone deals with the growing threat of the Islamic
State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
One of the important recent developments in our
region has seen the lingering, and very broadly Saudi-Iranian-led, ideological
battle that has defined the Middle East for some years now transform into a
single military battleground that stretches from Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and
Iran. The Iran-Syria-Hizbullah alliance—aligned with Prime Minister Noori
Maliki in Iraq—has emerged victorious in recent years, which is why the Assad
government remains firmly in place, if only in about one-third of the country.
That alliance is under pressure today, as Iran’s
three partners in Arab Western Asia all face challenging new realities. Assad
continues to hold onto power only by bombing and destroying parts of his
country, Maliki’s incumbency in Iraq is in deep trouble and unlikely to
persist, and Hizbullah is fighting inside Syria and may have to go to the aid
of the Iraqi prime minister, creating new logistical and political challenges
to a formidable organization that forged its credibility, legitimacy and power
by defending Lebanon from Israeli aggression, not by fighting in other Arab
All three of these Arab parties depend heavily
on Iran for logistical, financial and political support, and all four of them
face new vulnerabilities now that did not exist a year ago—or even three months
ago, when considering the challenge to them all by the Islamic State in Iraq
and Greater Syria (ISIS).
The sudden renewal in the past week of American
military assistance to the Iraqi government and the anti-Assad Syrian rebels
will do what foreign military interventions in Arab West Asia have done for
millennia—they will exacerbate the political equation and intensify military
action all around, leaving the region more scarred and brittle than it was
before the fighting started, without resolving the underlying problems of
incompetent and criminal governance that generated conflict in the first place.
Neither the United States nor Iran and their
allies can control foreign lands for very long by relying primarily on military
power; and despite their determination and large armies, neither of them can
prevent the rise of militant fanatics like ISIS when prevailing governance and
living conditions follow the pattern we have seen in recent decades across much
of the Arab world. Every power has learned this lesson over and over again,
including Syria in Lebanon, and the United States and Iran in Iraq.
The United States, Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and
the Iraqi and other Arab governments will now effectively work together
militarily to contain and push back ISIS troops, while simultaneously working
politically to weaken each other. The weakness in the policies of both regional
ideological camps is their misguided conviction that local actors in places
like Tripoli, Lebanon, or Deir ez-Zor, Syria, or Fallujah, Iraq define
themselves and respond politically to the same impulses that shape identities
and interests in places like Qom and Kansas City. When Hizbullah and Iran move
quickly to support their friends in Syria, and the United States and its allies
move slowly, the result is what we have seen in Syria: Assad regime
consolidation, but in ever-smaller territorial parts of the country, along with
the birth of new and more dangerous fighting groups such as ISIS. Syria is not
a victory that Iran and Hizbullah can brag about very loudly.
The critical criterion for success lays in the
second issue I mentioned above, which is, from the United States’ perspective,
how to define a “moderate” opposition group to support. This is a truly
childish approach to waging ideological and military battle abroad, and
guarantees failure, as we have seen in the recent trends in Syria-Iraq during
the last three years.
The critical criterion for supporting a foreign
group of fighters or politicians is local legitimacy, not “moderation” defined
in distant lands. But legitimacy is an issue that the United States, Iran, Arab
powers and all foreign armies ignore as they march into battles in foreign
lands. This is why they leave behind such ravages and chaos when they march
home a few years later, staggered and bewildered at the furies they encountered
and the sandstorms and cultural forces that momentarily blinded them.
Moving decisively to bolster legitimate local
forces breeds success; moving gingerly to identify people who will friend you
on Facebook is really stupid.
Rami G. Khouri is
Editor-at-large of The
Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and
International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global