Syria, like one of those mysterious black holes in space, is irrevocably sucking its neighbors and the major powers into an unknown vortex that could lead to regional war – or more. Historical analogies are rarely valid but one has to recall a royal assassination at Sarajevo, the Nazi Luftwaffe bombardment of Guernica during Spain’s Civil War, the question of the Sudentenland’s German minority, the U.S. oil embargo on Japan. All were relatively minor tripwires which led to much larger unpleasant events.
In Syria all the regional powers already have a critical stake in the outcome of what started out as a peaceful protest against a long-time demagogic, tribal and corrupt dictatorship but turned into a civil war. That, in turn, is leading to the entanglement of all the major powers. Some – certainly the Obama Administration – are trying desperately, but increasingly unsuccessfully, to resist the pull of a political morass they cannot decipher or resolve.
My metaphor can be extended: the astrophysicists tell us that black holes form when stars collapse at the end of their life cycle. Nothing could be closer to this historical parallel: the 1920s creation by the Allied powers of a group of artificial Arab states with lines drawn in the sands of the old Ottoman Empire is now imploding for a variety of reasons. Around a spatial black hole, there is a surface called an event horizon that marks the point of no return for those nearby and so the black hole grows. That also correlates with the Syrian conflict’s increasing seduction of co-religionists and co-ethnicities with its neighbors across its borders, not the least the regime of the mullahs in Tehran which is its principal financial and military support.
It’s no wonder that high Iranian officials are adamant that Tehran will never abandon its “51st province”, the Basher al Assad Syrian regime. The mullahs supply not only oil, finance and weaponry but increasingly they organize local militia directed by its notoriously brutal and effective Iranian Revolutionary Guard. For that price Iran reaches into the Arab world and to the Mediterranean. As important, Syria provides the trampoline for aiding Lebanon’s Hezbollah in its growing role as a worldwide surrogate for Tehran. That includes alliances and infiltration in Latin American with the Lebanes’ ongtime background of drug-running out of the Bekka Valley now allied with the Mexican cartels extending their tentacles into the U.S.
This spillover into Lebanon which has always faced a Syrian claim against its very existence, has initiated a mew bitter sectarian struggle there, a reflection of the struggle inside Syria. And it suggests the frightening possibility of another internecine struggle like the bloody Lebanese civil war [1975-90] which took more than 120,000 casualties and destroyed Beirut’s roaring prosperity as the Mideast’s outstanding commercial capital.
It’s these Lebanese connections that bring continued Israeli air and naval strikes to destroy Soviet, Chinese and Iranian weaponry arriving in Syria destined for Hezbollah. Although unacknowledged by either side, they dramatize the growing “non-Syrian” aspects of the conflict. It was Hezbollah’s antecedents who inaugurated the current era of international Islamic terrorism when a Persian suicide bomber killed 300 U.S. Marines, soldiers, civilians and French military in Beirut in 1983. Now heavily armed, they constitute a state within a state in Lebanon, threatening its fragile multiethnic, multi-religious structure. Hezbollah’s growing missile arsenal if used again as in the past to bombard northern Israel becomes a weapon for Tehran in any regional conflict. Syrian interventions could be a prelude to an Israeli strike to slow Iran’s development of weapons of mass destruction. With memories of The Holocaust always present, Israeli leadership cannot ignore Tehran’s repeated official threats to destroy “the Zionist entity” as a minimal part of its effort to dominate the region and thereby world oil.
That growing Tehran presence and in Syria and other Arab Shia areas, of course, puts the wind up for the Saudis and their friends among the other Sunni-dominated regimes in the Persian Gulf. Riyadh, unusual for a regime that plays its cards close to its chest, has publicly excoriated the Obama Administration for its failure of promised aid to the Syrian rebels. Washington, of course, whatever the current state of its wildly gyrating Syrian policy, fears those weapons could fall into the hands of the jihadists with al Qaeda connections among the rebels. And, in fact, that ties into the resurrected scandal of the American deaths at Bengazhi where the CIA was collecting the downed Libyan dictator Mohammad Qadaffi’s untended weapons for shipment through Turkey to the Syrian opposition. Meanwhile, ineffectual American and French efforts to bolster the opposition has helped put the Basher regime back on track to a continuing bloody war of attrition against the squabbling, divided anti-regime forces.
Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbor and the channel for Saudi — and the trickle of U.S. — aid to the anti-regime rebels is increasingly entwined. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, with his more and more blatant Muslim-revivalist agenda, has pointed the aid at jihadist elements that are rapidly coming to dominate the Syrian opposition. At home Turkey’s politically vanquished but still powerful secular and Alevi minorities are under pressure to conform to Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule as the country, after a period of unrivaled prosperity, heads into an international payments and economic crisis. In this process, a promised accomodation has virtually collapsed with Turkey’s Kurdish minority, perhaps a quarter of its population, heavily concentrated near Syria with a long history of border disputes. At any moment, a three-decades long armed Kurd insurrection could reignite. The Syrian flood of refugees produces both a humanitarian crisis and sanctuary for the opposition darting back and forth across the border and occasioning clashes between Turkish and Damascus forces.
Damascus’ own Kurd minority, disaffected from the regime, lends weight to the independence ambitions of adjoining Iraqi Kurdistan, emboldened by its growing oil production – some of it with U.S. companies’ new finds. The federal Iraqi government in Baghdad, with a Shia-dominated government, virtually bereft of American influence by the precipitous flight of the Obama Administration, faces a growing Sunni/al Qaeda revolt, increasingly linked to the most radical elements of the Syrian opposition forces. Whether, indeed, because of its lack of fighter aircraft which is the proffered reason, Baghdad acquiesces in the continuing Iranian overflights of materiel and cadre from Tehran to Damascus on my enemy’s enemy is my friend basis.
Iraq’s neighbor, Jordan, an Arab state carved out of the old British League of Nations Palestine Mandate, is threatened by a flood of some 600,000 Syrian refugees. King Abdullah II, always carefully balancing his own volatile “Palestinian” majority with his largely Bedouin army which keeps the regime afloat, has threatened unspecified action if the refugee flood continues, crippling his economy. Always dependent on U.S. and other international aid, as well as tacit Israeli military protection, Abdullah has expressed ambivalence about his own role at the outset of this crisis. So he looks frantically to Washington for additional support.
But U.S. policy has foundered in the face of all these conflicts.
Pres. Obama fist threatened to play the world policeman when Damascus used chemical weapons against its own people – a catastrophe avoided in World War II and succeeding wars in Korea and Vietnam and the Balkans [although not in Sadam Hussein’s Iraq]. In fact, Basher’s use threatened the relatively successful worldwide dismantling — including the Russians and the Americans — of old stockpiles. But Obama welshed on that threat, and fell into a trap laid by Pres. Vladimir Putin and Damascus, when they swapped the issue of eliminating his chemical weapons for Washington’s earlier dictum Basher’s regime had to go. Now Secretary John Kerry – his State Department media claque calls it a great diplomatic coup – is scrounging up a United Nations conference which would “settle” the Syrian question. With both the opposition and Basher initially adamant they are not going to participate, Putin’s veto, and the long dreary history of such unrequited efforts on Laos, Vietnam, Korea, and the Balkan civil conflicts, it hardly seems a winner.
Furthermore, there’s China, ominous with its veto at the UN Security Council, continuing to maintain its hypocritical position of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other countries. Recent frictions with African raw materials sellers has given the lie to that claim, unnoticed by the world media in the welter of dramatic events elsewhere. Beijing hardly looks more a Putin ally in any attempt of the Obama Administration in its search for “comprehensive solutions”, notorious whether in U.S. domestic health care or in international relations.
Finally, our metaphor dims. Can we be approaching a point the scientists tell us radiation from a black hole reaches a level at which it disappears? Alas! unlike the theories about space’s black holes, our earthbound example is certain to leave – even if it disappears – ugly debris. That, for example, would be a new body of jihadist terrorists recruited and trained as opposition to Basher al Assad’s crumbling dictatorship. They destabilize their own and other countries — a repeat of what happened when the U.S. and its allies successfully mobilized Islamicists to topple the Soviets in Afghanistan leading to the collapse of Communism. But that enormous victory left behind embittered veterans who followed the likes of Osama Bin Laden — and in some instances still fight on — for other goals.
By their very nature, spatial black holes do not directly emit any signals, or at least enough to know what is really going on inside them, the scientists tell us. That’s true of the Damascus regime, probably in deep disarray internally, perhaps as some have speculated entirely in the hands of its Persian aid-givers. So this geopolitical black hole is one we can only watch, hoping – or praying if you are of a mind – for the best.