Small World: Human disaster in the Middle East

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

If you believe, as I do, that the primary object of diplomacy ought to be to save lives, then you, too, condemn American policy in Iraq and Syria. Not only have we inflicted grievous harm on those countries — when we were neither attacked nor threatened — we have prepared them, the region and ourselves for a future of turmoil and terrorism.

Both countries, Iraq and Syria, were governed by ruthless, autocratic regimes. But perhaps, as subsequent history has shown, their mixture of religious and ethnic minorities could only be controlled by tough, anti-democratic rulers. Perhaps our idealism misled us into thinking these artificial states could be remade in our image. Perhaps, we thought, with some civics lessons, these creations of World War I English diplomacy could be recast as New England town meetings.

You can argue that our country was led by lies into invading Iraq, and it will be true. You can also counter that, in all certainty, there is no easy way out of the mess we created. Only Iraqis themselves when they have fought each other to exhaustion can put together the kind of compromised nation that Lebanon has become after more than a decade of civil strife. Stitched together, relative peace is the only possible, desirable outcome after a nation has been torn apart.

Those who lied us into Iraq were in good part the same political and media “leaders” who have pushed us into backing the enemies of the Syrian regime (with which we used to collaborate in our clandestine fight against terrorism). Equally important in influencing Washington were Saudi Arabia and its moneyed sidekicks in the Persian Gulf, plus neighboring Turkey and Jordan. These Sunni states decided that the “semi-Shia” Assad regime had to go. And we fell into step (albeit hesitant and covertly) behind them. This bunch (including us) gave the Moslem world the Islamic State (ISIL) which blatantly champions acts of terror against fellow Arabs of diverse faiths.

Just as we were confident that fair-minded democrats would rise from the wreckage of Saddam Hussein’s autocracy, we believed — and continue to believe, it seems — that the Syrian autocracy will yield place to a symphony of his (some) moderate and (more) terrorist opponents. The actual result is so far, far different: Probably half the prewar population of Syria has become displaced in or outside their country. Hundreds of thousands of them joined by Iraqis have reached Europe. Maybe four million Syrians have fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan where they live in misery. The Gulf states, largely responsible for their plight, have taken in nary a refugee. We, the world’s instructor on human rights, have accommodated a comparative handful.

If these unfortunate people are to be rescued, it is imperative that the Syrian regime and its backers, Russia and Iran, and the opposition together with its backers, Saudi Arabia, the Gulfies, Turkey, Jordan and we sit together and work out a settlement. To be acceptable, Assad would have to go (perhaps after a transition period) and the certified terrorists would be excluded.

ISIL would be isolated from the outside world by nonporous barriers. That would mean heavy pressure would have to be applied to Turkey to stop playing internal political games and prohibit persons and supplies from crossing the border to sustain ISIL. Saudi and Gulf money destined for the rebels would be interdicted and the senders placed under tough sanctions.

Iran’s cooperation in both Iraq and Syria should be welcomed and Washington (at least the Executive Branch and responsible elements) would end its demonizing drumbeat. Iran says it can play a constructive role; we should put it to the test. These would be difficult steps for an administration that has tried to have it both ways: signing an agreement with Iran and treating it like a pariah at the same time. A choice must be made.

Most importantly, we have to get over our fearful infatuation with the Saudis. They, not Iran, not even Israel, are responsible for most of the region’s present troubles: combating tentative moves toward more liberal regimes in Bahrain and Egypt and conducting a merciless war against poverty-ridden Yemen. Working our way toward less destructive behavior by the Saudis will be the most difficult task before this and the administrations that follow in Washington.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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