Great Muslim Civil WaróAnd Us
June 22, 2017
The U.S. shoots down a Syrian fighter-bomber. Iran launches
missiles into eastern Syria. Russia threatens
to attack coalition aircraft west of the Euphrates. What is going on?
It might appear a mindless mess, but the outlines are
clear. The great Muslim civil war, centered in Syria, is approaching its
post-Islamic State phase. Itís the end of the beginning. The parties are
maneuvering to shape what comes next.
Itís Europe, 1945, when the war was still raging against
Nazi Germany, but everyone already knew the outcome. The maneuvering was largely
between the approaching victors ó the Soviet Union and the Western democracies
ó to determine postwar boundaries and spheres of influence.
So it is today in Syria. Everyone knows that the Islamic
State is finished. Not that it will disappear as an ideology, insurgency and
source of continuing terrorism both in the region and the West. But it will
disappear as an independent, organized, territorial entity in the heart of the
It is being squeezed out of existence. Its hold on Mosul,
its last major redoubt in Iraq, is
nearly gone. Raqqa, its stronghold in Syria and de facto capital, is next.
When it falls ó it is already surrounded on three sides ó the caliphate
Much of the fighting today is about who inherits. Take the
Syrian jet the United States shot down. It had been attacking a pro-Western
Kurdish and Arab force (the Syrian Democratic Forces) not far from Islamic State
Why? Because the Bashar al-Assad regime, backed by Iran,
Hezbollah and Russia, having gained the upper hand on the non-jihadist rebels in
the Syrian heartland (most
notably in Aleppo), feels secure enough to set its sights on eastern Syria.
If it hopes to restore its authority over the whole country, it will need to
control Raqqa and surrounding Islamic State areas. But the forces near Raqqa are
pro-Western and anti-regime. Hence the Syrian fighter-bomber attack.
Hence the U.S. shoot-down. We are protecting our friends.
Hence the Russian threats to now target U.S. planes. The Russians are protecting
On the same day as the shoot-down, Iran launched
six surface-to-surface missiles into Syrian territory controlled by the
Islamic State. Why? Ostensibly to punish the jihadists for terrorist attacks two
weeks ago inside Iran.
Perhaps. But one obvious objective was to demonstrate to
Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Arabs the considerable reach of both Iranís
arms and territorial ambitions.
For Iran, Syria is the key, the central theater of a
Shiite-Sunni war for regional hegemony. Iran (which is non-Arab) leads the
Shiite side, attended by its Arab auxiliaries ó Hezbollah in Lebanon, the
Shiite militias in Iraq and the highly penetrated government of Iraq, and
Assadís Alawite regime. (Alawites being a non-Sunni
sect, often associated with Shiism.)
Taken together, they comprise a vast arc ó the Shiite
Crescent ó stretching from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the
Mediterranean. If consolidated, it gives the Persians a Mediterranean reach they
have not had in 2,300 years.
This alliance operates under the patronage and protection
of Russia, which supplies the Iranian-allied side with cash, weapons and, since
2015, air cover from its new bases in Syria.
Arrayed on the other side of the great Muslim civil war are
the Sunnis, moderate and Western-allied, led by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states,
Egypt and Jordan ó with their Great Power patron, the United States, now
(post-Obama) back in action.
At stake is consolidation of the Shiite Crescent. Itís
already underway. As the Islamic State is driven out of Mosul,
Iranian-controlled militias are taking over crucial
roads and other strategic assets in western Iraq. Next target: eastern Syria
(Raqqa and environs).
Imagine the scenario: a unified Syria under Assad, the ever
more pliant client of Iran and Russia; Hezbollah, tip of the Iranian spear,
dominant in Lebanon; Iran, the regional arbiter; and Russia, with its Syrian
bases, the outside hegemon.
Our preferred outcome is radically different: a loosely
federated Syria, partitioned and cantonized, in which Assad might be left in
charge of an Alawite rump.
The Iranian-Russian strategy is a nightmare for the entire
Sunni Middle East. And for us too. The Pentagon seems bent on preventing it.
Hence the cruise
missile attack for crossing the chemical red line. Hence the recent
A reasonable U.S. strategy, given the alternatives. But not
without risk. Which is why we need a national debate before we commit too
deeply. Perhaps we might squeeze one in amid the national obsession with every James