“We’ve long said the Assad regime’s days are numbered,” said U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell at a May 6 press briefing about the Syrian civil war. No kidding, observed an Associated Press reporter. The Obama administration has been using the same talking point to portend the imminent overthrow of the Bashir al-Assad regime for nearly 600 days.
Some 80,000 Syrians have died in the interim, and the risk of the conflict escalating into a major regional war is higher than ever. Yet Washington remains paralyzed by war weariness, fiscal constraints, waning dependence on Arab oil, increasing preoccupation with China, and fading hope that the “Arab spring” will establish democracy in the lands of Islam.
The preponderance of evidence suggests that American passivity in the Middle East could lead to far worse outcomes. The Syrian conflict is mutating into a proxy war pitting the Assad regime and its mostly Shiite allies – notably Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon – against the motley collection of mostly Sunni rebel groups supported by co-religionists throughout the region, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia, mortal enemy of the Turks, is helping sustain Assad with money and weapons, as is China. Syria is now armed to the teeth with state-of-the-art missiles and other high-tech weaponry. It also inherited much of the Libyan arsenal dispersed throughout the region following the overthrow of Moammar Khaddafi, and evidence is mounting that it has a formidable stockpile of chemical weapons, some of which have already been deployed against the rebels.
As ever, Israel has much to fear from the pressure building inside this powder keg on its doorstep. Already the target of cross-border potshots from both the Syrian army and rebel groups, the country has only enemies in the Arab world and increasingly unreliable friends in the U.S. and Europe.
In recent weeks Israeli military officials have issued numerous warnings about the imminence of a regional conflagration. Its major population centres are within reach of Syrian missiles, potentially armed with chemical and biological weapons. “Syria is collapsing before our eyes,” said Israel air force commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel. “We could [soon] find its vast arsenal dispersed and pointing at us.” A three-front war against Syria, Lebanon and Iran ranks high among the near-term, worst-case scenarios, added Israel Defence Force chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.
The prospect of another regional war between Israel and one or several of its neighbors might occasion shrugs in the West. We’ve seen this movie before – at least a dozen times since the State of Israel was born in 1948 – and invariably the Israelis have defeated their opponents. But the military and political circumstances of the Middle East have changed profoundly in recent years, and the odds are weighted against Israel as never before. (See The Christians: The High Tide and the Turn, Chap. 18.)
While hatred of the Muslim states towards Jewish Israel has been constant, until recently most of those states have been governed by semi-secular Arab nationalist regimes motivated primarily by strategic interests rather than religious fervor. Islamism now dominates the Arab political world to a degree not seen since the heyday of the Ottoman Empire.
Western governments, and particularly the U.S., despite decades of painful experience with radical Islamic terrorism, have been remarkably optimistic as the Arab Spring has evolved into the Islamist Summer. In the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the messy transition in Libya, conciliation has supplanted intervention as the prime directive of western foreign policy in dealing with the Muslim world.
There is a certain logic to American disengagement from the Middle East as the U.S. weans itself from dependence on Arab oil and “pivots to Asia” to engage the emerging Chinese superpower. But the consequences are unknowable and incalculable.
The Islamist government of Turkey sees the potential for a revival of the Ottoman empire if the West leaves the Muslim world to its own devices. In a speech earlier this year, Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu described the century following the collapse of the old empire and the creation of Arab nation-states by the western victors of the First World War as a historical “parenthesis”. Islam will be the catalyst for reconstituting the Caliphate, he said, and restoring the “ancient unity” between Turks, Kurds, Albanians, Bosnians and Arabs. (For more on the military rise of Islam, see The Christians: The Sword of Islam, Chap. 6.)
Pointedly missing from his list were the Persians of Iran, who have their own ideas about reuniting the Muslim world, which are likely connected to their ambitions to become the first nuclear-armed Islamic country. Using the threat of exterminatory violence to build and control an empire would be very much in keeping with Mohammedan tradition, and the mullahs who control Iran are nothing if not traditionalists.
The Syrian civil war is shaping into the first battle in a much longer war over the reunification of Islam. Such a war would likely consume Israel in the early stages, erasing it from the map of the Muslim world as it was for 1300 years, from the rise of Mohammed to the collapse of the Ottomans.
In the meantime, the thinking in Israel is that the longer the Syrians are fighting each other, the longer Israel has to prepare for the inevitable life-or-death struggle that will follow.