Who Owns Syria?

The big news today is that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi blew himself up when cornered by U.S. Special Forces.

According to President Trump, who ordered the takedown, al-Baghdadi was weeping and cowering in his tunnel as our troops closed in on him. He reportedly also took three of his children into eternity.  In belittling the terrorist’s final minutes, Trump undoubtedly wanted to counter the usual “martyrdom” narrative that inspires budding Islamic terrorists.  (Of course, belittling any of his enemies is Trump’s modus operandi.)

What is incongruous about this event is how, over the past week or so, Trump has been vilified for abandoning the fight in Syria and deserting our allies the Kurds. According to the many critics of his Syrian withdrawal, Trump essentially surrendered northeast Syria to the Russians and Turks.  If that is so, then Trump needed their okay to send eight helicopters through Syrian airspace to conduct this operation.  Maybe things are not so black and white in the Middle East.

When our Roman ancestors expelled the Jews from Jerusalem in A.D. 135, they folded Judea into the new province of Syria-Palaestina. The Romans believed that dogmatic Judaism – its religious fanaticism, not ethnic Jews per se – was the implacable foe of secular harmony.  Sure enough, until the rise of Islam five hundred years later, the Middle East was mostly stable under Roman/Byzantine rule.

Even Christianity, as it spread throughout the Middle East before Islam, eventually conformed to Greco-Roman culture to the point that it became the empire’s official religion.

All hell broke loose when Islam arrived in the 600s, and worsened when it splintered into Sunni and Shi’ite sects. I would guess that 90% of the violence and wars in the Middle East are religious-based.  The hatred among Sunnis, Shi’ites, Jews, Christians, and the myriad other religions has boiled that caldron for fifteen hundred years.

The last Western powers to occupy any country in the Middle East were the British and French after the First World War, as spoils from defeated Turkey. Each took a colony (euphemistically labeled “mandates”) – the Brits occupied Palestine and the French had Lebanon and Syria.  The Second World War made colonialism an expensive proposition and the founding of Israel reversed the Roman peace.

So who owns Syria now? For the past eight years civil war has reigned there – fueled by the old Sunni-Shi’ite hatred.  But the UN still considers it one country with one government.  However, to the American media and lots of war hawks, Syria is by default an American protectorate.  Somebody has to keep the Turks and Russians out.  Somebody needs to keep Syrian dictator Assad out of half his country.  And of course, the Kurds who inhabit northeast Syria cannot be “abandoned.”

The American news media would have us believe that the Kurds did our dirty work in defeating ISIS as though they had no reasons of their own to fight al-Baghdadi. The truth is a bit more realistic.  ISIS terrorized Kurdish communities in Syria and Iraq since its formation.  Besides avenging ISIS war crimes, the Kurds ultimately want to establish their own independent nation with chunks of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria.  Thanks to W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Kurds took control of Saddam’s oilfields in northern Iraq and now have an oilfield in Assad’s Syria gained with U.S. arms and air support. Are we now supposed to help fulfill their dream of a new Kurdistan?

Despite all the visceral hatred Donald Trump evokes in people – for some valid reasons – he may be the only one who sees the Islamic world as one huge sand trap. His blind spots for Israel and Saudi Arabia are perplexing. Yet, he didn’t attack Iran for the recent bombing of a Saudi oil refinery.  And, by relinquishing U.S. control of Syrian air space to Russia he has stifled Israeli air raids on that country.

Once upon a time we had no troops in the Islamic World, from the Atlantic to India. We didn’t need any.  It was the old USSR that destroyed that era when it invaded Afghanistan in 1979.  Then, we supported Russia’s enemy, a newcomer named Osama bin Laden.

Sometimes, doing nothing is the best course. -JLM

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