The choice in the Levant is between a controlled burn or a conflagration (updated)
Michael Ledeen is surely right that the issue is Iran, but one might add that Saudi Arabia is cooperating with Israel (and signaling this cooperation in public) only because Iran is a common enemy, and because the Obama administration seems ready to concede anything that the Islamic Republic demands, over the objections of several former top Obama aides. I
Here is a summary of the attitude of the various players, as I understand it. The obvious course of action to do is to separate warring ethnic and religious groups into their own enclaves insofar as practical in order to minimize bloodshed. This will not occur because two major players in the region, Turkey and Iran, will do everything possible to prevent it. Because Turkey and Iran are on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, they will sabotage any effort to create such enclaves, as well as each other. Because neither can prevail, Turkey and Iran will opt to continue the fighting. Washington, by attempting to accomodate both Ankara and Tehran, is promoting the bloodshed inadvertently.
Turkey is backing ISIS as a blunt instrument against the Assad regime in Syria, to the point of assisting ISIS’ attacks on Kurdish-held Kobani. Turkey’s elections saw the emergence of a Kurdish party as a parliamentary factor for the first time, reflecting the long-term power of the Kurdish womb.
That raises the prospect of a three-way civil war in Syria (Assad, ISIS backed by Turkey, and non-ISIS Islamists backed by Saudi Arabia).
Egypt’s interest is unambigous: containing Hamas and defeating the Muslim Brotherhood opposition internally are inseparably linked policies, and Egyptian-Israeli relations are the closest in the history of the two countries.
Russia is playing all sides. It has opened high-profile channel to Saudi Arabia, as M.K. Bhadrakumar reported June 24. This is hardly a love-fest; Saudi Arabia holds the threat of another oil shock over Russia’s head, and Russia holds the threat of delivery of the S300 system against Saudi Arabia. In both cases the threat is mightier than the execution; the Saudis don’t want $40 oil and Russia doesn’t want to deliver the S300 to Tehran. Saudi Arabia, moreover, can make untold trouble for Russia in the Caucusus. Turkey already is doing so; its support for ISIS worries Russia as well as China. Putin’s June 13 meeting with Erdogan in Baku oozed hostility.
China has pursued a balance-of-power strategy, selling a great deal of older-generation weapons to Iran, and selling the Saudis its best intermediate range missiles (“a formidable deterrent against Iran,” a senior Chinese foreign policy analyst told me). It is increasingly alarmed about Turkey’s adventurism, not least because perhaps 1,000 Chinese Uyghurs are now fighting with ISIS, and because Turkey continues to provide covert support to Uyghur separatists. It wants good relations with Iran and its satellite Iraq, a growing provider of oil, and is loathe to meddle in local quarrels it does not understand and whose outcome it cannot influence directly.
Israel’s relations with Russia are quiet but important; we now know that Israel, not the US State Department, proposed the deal whereby Russia took responsibility for dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons capability.
The United States looks like a spastic octopus, backing Iran on nuclear weapons while supporting the Saudi intervention against the Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen.
In Iraq and Syria, the best that the Saudis and Israelis can hope for is a controlled burn, a war of attrition that eventually exhausts the manpower resources available to ISIS. The best result would be an early stalemate rather than a later one, with the partition of both countries into comparatively stable ethnic and sectarian entities in Syria (an Alawite redoubt in Syria’s northwest, a Sunni-ruled center, a Druze enclave on the Israeli border and a Syrian Kurdish autonomous zone) as well as Iraq. The worst alternative would be a later stalemate rather than an earlier one, in which ISIS gathers strength and the Alawites, Christians and Kurds fight to the death.
Even the most die-hard democratizers in the United States have come to the reluctant conclusion that partition is inevitable. Charles Krauthammer writes that the US should “abandon our anachronistic fealty to the central Iraqi government (now largely under Iran’s sway anyway) and begin supplying the Iraqi Kurds.” Unlike the Bourbons, who learned nothing and forget nothing, Krauthammer has learned that Iraq is an Iranian satellite, and forgotten that it was the Bush administration, with Krauthammer’s advice, who forced the pro-Iranian Shi’ite leader Nouri al-Maliki into Iraq’s presidency in 2006 and turned Iraq into an Iranian satellite.
The biggest part to be partitioned, of course, is the inevitable Kurdish state encompassing parts of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. Iran and Turkey stand to lose the most; if Iran’s Kurds revolt, the credibility of the Persian pocket empire collapses. Turkey, if it had good sense, would encourage the Kurds to leave; half of Turks of military age will come from Kurdish-speaking homes just twenty years from now. The Kurdish regions are poor and backward, and drain the central budget, and have no military value after the end of the Cold War. Turkey does not have good sense and will fight to retain the Kurds.
That leaves us with a paradox: the self-interest of all the powers in the region (US, Russia, China, Israel, Saudi Arabia) lies in stabilizing the region by separating ethnic and confessional entities. Turkey and Iran stand to lose the most. Yet Turkey and Iran stand on opposite sides of the most bitter conflict, between ISIS and Iran’s allies in Baghdad and Damascus.
The Obama administration is acting as an enabler of both Turkey and Iran, who will continue to try to advance their interests through proxies. That will make the burn harder to control, and keep the fire going longer. All in all, the strange combination of friends, enemies and frenemies recalls the Thirty Years War in Europe, with Iran playing the role of Richelieu’s France, Saudi Arabia cast in the role of Philip IV’s Spain, and Israel in place of the Dutch Republic-– an analogy I have drawn in the past.