I was with a group of people discussing politics last night. Principally, we talked about the war in Syria and what the United States should do, if anything. It’s a sticky widget, all right. I don’t envy President Obama’s role as The Decider of this problem. The more we talked about it the more we came to consensus that there is no way to impose peace on Syria at all.
Syria of course is hardly alone in being embroiled in war and sectarian conflicts across the Muslim world. Sectarian violence in Iraq resulted in more than a thousand deaths in May. We haven’t seen this level of violence there in a long time, like since 2006 when our forces were embroiled in the worst of it. Pakistan is rife with a mixture of sectarian and religious violence. In Afghanistan the Taliban are getting more serious again about waging war there. In Lebanon, Hezbollah apparently finds supporting Syria’s President Assad more important than waging war against Israel, and has entered the conflict there. In Egypt, their new democratic government seems autocratic and large-scale violence flares up periodically. In Yemen, the government and elements of al Qaeda duke it out periodically. In the Sahara Desert, al Qaeda temporarily overran Timbuktu, only driven out when French forces came to Mali. In Nigeria, Muslims periodically burn Christian villages and often kill the Christians within them. Iran is not directly at war with anyone, but feeds conflict in Syria and probably in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Muslim extremists periodically wage attacks against Christians in the Philippines. It seems like pretty much the whole Muslim world is at war, or aiding and abetting a war. Of course that’s not literally true. It’s not true in Indonesia, at least at the moment and places like Saudi Arabia are largely free of conflict. Even Turkey is getting civil strife, and it has a well-established democracy. Of course it also has periodic flare ups with ethnic Kurds.
Subtract out conflicts in Muslim countries though and the world otherwise looks pretty darn peaceful. Muslim related religious and ethnic violence however is almost global and scope, reaching from the Philippines in the east to Timbuktu in the west, from former Soviet Republics in the north to the savannas of Uganda in the south. Almost all of it is principally Muslim against Muslim violence. When I consider the scope of the conflict, I feel the need to call it what it is: The Great Muslim War, sort of like World War III. It’s not a world war in the classic sense. There are no clear Axis vs. Allied powers. Except in places like Syria, you usually don’t see tanks and missiles deployed as weapons. It’s mostly Sunni vs. Shia violence, but even within these major branches of Islam there are many ethnicities battling it out. It’s all a huge and confusing mess. Which leads to some questions that I will try to answer in my typical macro-thinking way.
How will this all play out? Most likely it’s going to be a series of decades-long conflicts with few clear winners and losers. In general, those with better armies and more fanatical followers will do better than those without. It’s giving President Assad in Syria the upper hand there at the moment. The most likely effect will be the continued Balkanization of the Muslim world, with communities becoming more polarized by religious and ethnic beliefs. However, given that it is so easy to move between these communities there is no reason to think that as long as one party still has hatred in its soul for the others, it will finish at all.
How will it all end? Again here it is unknown, since each conflict has its own unique elements and animus. It strikes me that it will end slowly when hatred finally gives way to utter exhaustion and simple desire to do something else in life besides wage war. My suspicion is that it really ends when moderates gain control over extremists. The generally apathetic center has to decide, “We got to get rid of these extremists. Every single damned one of them.” And then they do it through various tactics not all of which we will approve of. This process will be long and messy. The overwhelming majority of citizens in a country must decide they will not tolerate it anymore. This will happen while boundaries shift, countries form and reform and the resulting new countries look a lot less diverse than the old ones.
What’s causing it? I don’t claim to be a Muslim scholar, but there are a couple of roots to the problem, some of which are mirrored here in the United States and should be worrisome to us. A lot of it is about religious points 1500 years in the past that really don’t matter and center around whether Muhammad wanted descendants from his family to lead Islam after his death. It’s partly due to the increase in the gap between the privileged and the impoverished. Egypt, for example, cannot support the population that it has, and the plentiful and growing poor lengthen the odds that economic growth can change the dynamic. In general, Egyptians are not ready to accept some unpleasant facts, like they need to stabilize their population to really address long-term poverty. Democracy is a step in the right direction. It provides non-violent means to affect general changes. But it is not necessarily the solution; it just improves the odds of a viable non-violent solution. In implementing a democracy they also get a chance to practice civility toward each other in spite of enormous differences.
What can the United States do? Last night we talked about the alleged use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict as a “red line” that suggests we should enter the conflict and impose a peace. We largely agreed that it would be stupid to cross this red line. Drawing an unequivocal moral line in the sand usually makes problems worse, not better. Whether a civilian dies as a result of a chemical weapon or a bullet, they will be dead either way. The numbers who have allegedly died from chemical weapons in Syria is a tiny part of the total casualties. Chemical weapons in general are a terribly inefficient way to kill people. We can certainly continue to provide humanitarian aid. Providing weapons is probably not a good idea. It won’t shorten the violence or really bring peace to Syria, unless peace simply means everyone is dead. Humanitarian aid is of course not a solution, just a bandage, but should be ladled out generously.
In short it’s a mess and will be a mess for a long time, with no deterministic exit criteria. Whether we go into places like Syria or stay out, the most likely effect is we won’t be able to control or really do much to change the situation. These conflicts when looked at in the macro sense simply fall beyond the ability of a superpower, or large entities like NATO, to control the outcome. In the short term, staying out of these conflicts keeps the rest of us reasonably safe. In the long term we may end up embroiled in these conflicts ourselves, whether we like it or not. September 11, 2001 was an example of an event deliberately created to force the United States to get more embroiled in these Muslim-related violent conflicts.
My belief is that these conflicts in general will frame the rest of the lives of all of us, even the babies. In the end these Muslim-on-Muslim conflicts can only be solved by the will and determination of Muslims themselves. All we can really do is be careful not to stir the pot and stay the hell out of their way while they continue to pointlessly kill, maim and hate each other.