The dramatic forth and back of Barack Obama on Syria has provoked a great deal of commentary and speculation about what's next. If words had power, their weight would have already pummeled Assad--or Obama--or both--into the dust.
My own concerns are less with the unknown future, than with what the paths to the present might tell us about the forces likely to affect the next few days. Given the number of factors that influence any major event, I dismay of guessing what comes later.
Speculating about history is not more certain than thinking about the future. It is instructive that Departments of History are often located in University Faculties of the Humanities rather than Social Science. Hebrew is helpful. Faculties of Humanities are מדעי הרוח, the Science of the Spirit. or perhaps the Science of the Wind. There is a lot of the spiritual, or wind, in historical analysis. In isn't all that different from what History's neighbors do in the Faculty of Humanities, among them Departments of Literature.
There are several sources influencing how we got to the confusion of this week about the US and Syria. Each historical source has its own sources, which complicate any assessment of what is most important, laying blame, or deciding which leader or country is responsible for what.
Prominent in what should be considered are
The ascendance of an aggressive element in Islam.
This has deep roots in the history of Islam, in spreading the faith by the sword, the schism between Sunni and Shi'ite, as well as various splinters that have added to the mix of tinder waiting to be ignited, now with the most relevant being that of the Alawi concentrated in Syria. Currently Sunnis and Shiites are battling with one another in Syria, each having the help of outsiders, with some motivated against what they considered an intolerable Alawi regime in what should be a proper Muslim state.
Also involved in the ascendance of an aggressive Islam is the Cold War, the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR, and the response of the US by recruiting Muslims from Pakistan, North Africa, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, North Africa, Central Asia and elsewhere, seeing to their training and supplying them with arms, some of which came from Israeli stockpiles of Russian weapons captured from Arab armies in 1967 and 1973.
The war-like Afghans might have been able to rid themselves of the Russians, but the outsiders helped. Then after the Soviets took tail, various anti-Soviet fighters--inflamed by varieties of Islam hateful of infidels, well armed, and trained--turned to other targets, most prominently the US.
The ascendance of a militant "anti-terror" campaign, along with aspirations to reform Middle Eastern regimes, and then a reaction comprised of shock and fatigue shown by Americans and others.
Involved here were the World Trade Center bombing of 1993, the 1998 attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, the USS Cole in 2000
, 9-11, and onward to later campaigns--military and political--involving Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Egypt.
Barack Obama's ambivalence with respect to Syria reflects not only his own personal concerns, but more widespread reactions apparent among many Americans. Most clearly in Iraq the United States went too far. It never located weapons of mass destruction. GW Bush's proclaimed aspirations to bring democracy didn't work. Obama's Cairo speech brought only a Nobel Peace Prize..The chaos unleashed has been most costly in Iraq, and has added to that endemic to Afghanistan. Unrest in Syria and Egypt also has something to do with an American-led assault against dictators in the Middle East, with the French deserving credit for leading the charge against Muammar Qaddafi.
The lines of responsibility for what came next are impossible to chart with clarity or certainty, but they have elements of turning inward, and aspiring to isolation from a region beyond the pale of western culture. Insofar as the US remains the most powerful and active country, the movements are most important there, but they also appear in Britain, which had been the country most inclined to participate with the US efforts in the Middle East.
It is by no means certain that the US and others will abandon the Middle East or a war against terror. Commentators cannot decide whether attack or restraint is more apparent in the innards of Barack Obama. There are calls in Congress for a more serious attack on Assad's forces than Obama has described, as well as for avoiding any involvement in Syria.
There are also signs of fatigue with looking after the interests of Israel, promoted by some with shrill accusations that the Jewish state has been responsible for all the problems.
The fascination with bringing peace to the Middle East via Israel and the Palestinians may sputter out with another impasse in negotiations. Or some kind of an agreement will provide a test of the hypothesis that Israel is at the heart of all else that is seething among Muslims.
The end of the Cold War, demise of the Soviet Union, the later economic repair and assertiveness of Russia, along with much greater wealth and who knows what aspirations of China.
If the latter part of the 20th century was the era of pax Americana, we now may be somewhere else. It is inappropriate to assign labels of who is on the side of light and who darkness. The plusses and minusses associated with all the calculations are more appropriate to the Faculty of Winds than anything more precise.
Whatever happens next will reflect the grand factors listed above, along with many devils in the details coming from debates and votes in the US Senate and House of Representatives, what follows or does not from the US military, Bashad al-Assad, his supporters and enemies. Among the ripples will be Iran and Israel, each able to cause further commentary and mayhem.
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