The Islamic political philosopher Alfarabi (872-950), one of the notable transmitters of ancient Greek classical texts from the Eastern Mediterranean through the Maghreb to Spain’s al-Andalus and on into Western Europe, produced in his major work the idea of “The Virtuous City,” an ideal form of governance I occasionally heard mentioned by my Arab colleagues when I served at the United Nations in the 1990’s.
In 1920, a young Winston Churchill wrote a memorandum to the Cabinet outlining his concerns about British policy in the Middle East. Britain was, he wrote, “simultaneously out of sympathy with all the four powers exercising local influence.” The Arabs, erstwhile allies in the war, were already unhappy with the emerging postwar settlement. The defeated Turks, Britain’s traditional regional ally, were resentful and looking for new partners. The Russians, under new Bolshevik leadership, were skillfully courting Turkey and Persia. And the Greeks wanted greater British backing against Turkey.
The reinsertion of Russia into the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East is one of the big stories of the past decade. Although Russia’s recueillement after 1991 resulted in its effective disappearance from the Middle East, her presence in the region is of course not a new reality in history. Tsars and Soviet leaders pushed their military might and political influence into the region for the last three centuries, clashing with various great powers, from the Ottoman sultanate to the British empire and the United States. But the speed at which the current Russian advance has occurred is surprising and troubling. Moscow has inserted an enormous level of instability and unpredictability to the already murky local power dynamics.
Discussing America’s stake in the Middle East has increasingly become a shell game where our “interests” can quickly disappear depending on the changing sentiments of the president. The trajectory for American foreign policy in the Middle East is clear: down if not out. And although Democrats can occasionally give the impression that they are in favor of a more vigorous presence, that is probably just an anti-Trumpian reflex: if the president is in favor of abandoning the Kurds and leaving Syria, then Democrats are in favor of staying and reinforcing the alliance.
The policy debate on Syria has unfortunately been reduced to a discussion of whether or not U.S. troops should remain in that country. What is missing in the debate however is a fundamental reflection on why we should be in Syria at all. Iran should be at the heart of that question.
I had to take a pause once news filtered out that the ‘caliph’ of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been killed in the small village of Barisha near the Syrian-Turkish border—of all places. Notwithstanding that that area of Idlib Province is currently controlled by his ideological rivals—fellow jihadists who would have gladly killed him off themselves—and has been so for a number of years, there were several other mitigating factors that would deem such a locale a forbidding refuge from a jihadist security mindset.
President Trump’s withdrawal of US troops on the Syria-Turkey border met with a bipartisan rebuke. While rejection of the president’s decision was the consensus, the rationales for the rejection varied, reflecting multiple and often discordant objectives that the president’s critics have projected onto the US military mission in Syria.