- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By John T. Kuehn
Best Defense guest columnist
The so-called “Arab Spring” has now turned into a larger Mideast autumn that is reflecting warfare and conflict approaching the bloody religious wars that Europe went through during the 16th and 17th centuries.
We are seeing the beginning of a wider regional war along the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus axis and beyond — not an “axis of evil,” but rather an axis of instability and conflict. It could go further, linking to similar areas of violence to the east (in Afghanistan-Pakistan) or to the west to the mess in Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa. Instead of democracy breaking out everywhere, it seems that war is breaking out everywhere. Syria is the nexus for the current dangerous inflection point. It is in many ways similar to the Netherlands of the 16th century, that area of rebellion against the Hapsburgs/Catholic Church that rocked the world for over 80 years as the Reformation swirled about.
As we all know, voices are clamoring in Washington to “make it go away.” Or rather to make the critics of the Obama administration quiet down. Most recently, Secretary of State John Kerry argued for airstrikes on airfields reputedly being used by the Assad regime for combat missions, including chemical weapons attacks. Kerry’s proposal was vetoed during a recent principals meeting at the White House by none other than General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So much for war-mongering generals. Additionally, in recent months, Hezbollah has entered the conflict with thousands of fighters to help retake the city of Qusayr from the Syrian insurgents. Today, Qusayr is a ghost town with fewer than 500 inhabitants. Recall, too, that Hezbollah are the same bubbas that brought us the Marine Barracks attack in 1983. Reports out today indicate that the Lebanese Army has had several firefights with local Sunnis who support the Syrian rebels. Just great, a re-ignition of the Lebanese civil war might be in the offing.
Moving to the east we find the “sectarian violence” in Iraq at levels not seen since the American surge in 2007. Could yet another civil war be igniting there — this time absent the armed umpiring of the United States and its allies? It may already have. The link here is precisely Iran’s support for the Assad regime and its client quasi-state farther south, Hezbollah. From a purely military standpoint, Tehran’s line of communication with its political allies and co-religionists farther west in Syria and Lebanon runs directly through Iraq. This “rat line” is used by the Quds Force and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and has been in place in various forms ever since the U.S. invasion in 2003. See David Crist’s recent book The Twilight War if you doubt me on this issue. The sectarian violence in Iraq is directly related to the Syrian violence — make no mistake. One way for the insurgents’ co-religionist Sunni allies in Iraq to influence events in Syria is to destabilize the pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. In this way they can interrupt the flow of Iranian support to both Hezbollah and Assad through Iraq.
Afghanistan? There is no need for further discussion; war continues there and is likely to continue — although the political ties of Tehran to Kabul may strengthen given President Karzai’s recent strong denunciation of U.S. efforts to include the Taliban in peace talks. Too, Iran’s oil goes to India, which is also a supporter of the Kabul regime, all of which makes Pakistan the odd man out and more likely to support Sunni co-religionists and political allies represented now by insurgents in both Syria and Iraq.
What about further west? Let’s see, Egypt has severed diplomatic ties with Syria, never a good sign. Further south, in the always pleasant Horn of Africa, we find U.N. personnel have been blown up in Mogadishu by al Shabab. Although clear linkages to the conflict to the northeast do not exist, the forces behind this latest attack on the international order are of a religious bent that favors the insurgent-Sunni factions. Too, this sort of violent outburst does nothing to improve the stability of this entire region. Farther west we find the arc of instability running along the Maghreb (Tunisia and Algeria) as well as splitting south through Libya to troubling events in Mali and Nigeria; the latter country is itself in a low state of civil war divided along ethno-religious lines. Finally, to the north of it all is the NATO ally and Sunni co-religionist government of Turkey, warily eying the troublemaking regime of Vlad Putin, which supports Syria. But Turkey is now distracted by widespread, Westernized demonstrations against its own attempts to impose religious conservatism. None of this can be comforting for the major powers, which all have a stake in the Middle East and Africa. Get the picture? Heated outbursts to quiet political audiences are probably — as Dempsey pointed out to Secretary Kerry — ill-advised.
This regional conflict is not just about religion, nor is it all about longstanding political relationships and ethnic tensions — it is all of the above. I am compelled to ask, what should the United States do that it is not already doing? This presupposes I know the range of action the U.S. government is already engaged in, but I would suggest these steps — whatever they are — are probably sufficient for now. Those who predicted the Arab Spring turning into a messy regional war were right. It has arrived.
This is the time for calm heads to prevail and avoid a much larger general war, but first we must recognize the real potential for this mess to turn into something along the lines of Europe’s own wars of religion, something like the grim and destructive Thirty Years’ War that began with a “Prague Spring” in 1618.
John T. Kuehn has taught military history at the Command and General Staff College since 2003 and retired from the Navy as a commander in 2004. He earned his Ph.D. in history from Kansas State University in 2007. He graduated with distinction from Naval Postgraduate School in 1988. He won the Society of Military History Moncado Prize in 2010 and is the author of Agents of Innovation (2008), Eyewitness Pacific Theater (with D.M. Giangreco, 2008), and numerous articles and editorials.