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US and Al-Qaeda: The Ancient Truths of Strategic Alliances and Syria

by Jeff Cox, published
The Great Mosque of Aleppo // Credit: Eusebius via Wikimedia

The Great Mosque of Aleppo // Credit: Eusebius via Wikimedia

The enemy of my enemy is also my enemy.

Many of us have seen the movie 300, based on the eponymous “graphic novel” (comic book) in which 300, scantily-clad Spartans under King Leonidas (all scantily clad in the movie and book) held back tens of thousands of Persian troops under the “Great King” Xerxes in the narrow Pass of Thermopylae for three days until the Persians outflanked the pass, surrounded and overwhelmed the Spartans in an epic clash.

Of course, 300 was based on the real-life Battle of Thermopylae, when those 300 Spartans (a bit more clothed than they were in the movie) joined with some 7,000 other Greeks to block the Pass of Thermopylae to keep an Achaemenid Persian army of maybe 100,000-300,000 troops from proceeding south to take over all of Greece. The drama of the actual battle matched and even exceeded the drama of the movie – the heroic stand against all odds, the betrayal that allowed the Persians to outflank the Greek position, the withdrawal of most of the non-Spartan contingent, right down to the Persians demanding the Spartans lay down their weapons and Leonidas giving his famous response of “Come and get them.” (“Μολών λαβέ,” Latinized to “Molon labe.”)

The Spartans heroic stand bought the Greeks time to stage an organized withdrawal and evacuation, and to mass their naval forces, in particular the Athenian navy, at Salamis, where they crushed the multinational Persian navy. The following year, a combined infantry force of Spartans and Athenians defeated the remaining Persian expeditionary force at the Battle of Plataea.

The Graeco-Persian Wars are often cited as an example of what free men can do when defending themselves against a slave state. The example is perhaps overstated, since Sparta itself was a slave state and, although Xerxes was a vicious tyrant, he was the exception for Persia because, at least as far as the ancient world goes, Achaemenid Persia was pretty reasonable and enlightened and probably a far more pleasant place for the majority to live than Sparta.

But it also showed the principle of shifting alliances to fit the circumstances. Sparta-Athens was Greece’s version of Yankees-Red Sox, Ohio State-Michigan, Coke-Pepsi, Ford-Chevy, Miley Cyrus-sanity. Yet they joined together long enough to stop the grave threat to all Greece from the invading Persian foreigners.

It should surprise no one that a generation later Athens and Sparta were fighting each other again in the Peloponnesian War. But after 300, it will probably come as a major surprise to learn that Achaemenid Persia was secretly bankrolling the Spartans in the war. All Greece hated Persia and Persia hated them right back, but Persia saw its interests served by keeping the Greeks fighting with each other than united to fight the Persians, and supporting hated Sparta against even-more-hated Athens seemed a great way to kill two city states with one drachma.

That is how the world works. Alliances shift over time, often very short periods of time. The First Punic War between Rome and Carthage took place shortly after Carthage had actually lent its navy to Rome to fight another enemy. Generally forgotten in the carnage and evil of World War II is that in World War I, Italy and Japan were allied with Britain, France, and the United States. Not generally forgotten is that while the US and the Soviet Union were allies during World War II, almost immediately after the war ended they became Cold War enemies.

During the First and Second Persian Gulf Wars, the US was often lambasted for now fighting the same Saddam Hussein and the same Iraq that it had supported in the 1980s. That the support had gone to Hussein because he was fighting Iran, whose mullahs had just made it an enemy of the US, is conveniently forgotten. To be sure, the US also gave Iran weapons, in one of Ronald Reagan’s more incoherent judgments, but however inhumane it may seem, it was in the US and probably the world’s best interests to keep Iraq and Iran fighting each other.

Alliances are made for various reasons. They could be long-term alliances based on shared strategic interests, like NATO. They could be short-term alliances based on emergency, like Sparta and Athens against Persia. Some are out of necessity. Others are out of opportunity.

This simple but ancient fact of international politics should be kept in mind in the debate over US intervention in the Syrian civil war. It has not. The debate itself has already been badly, perhaps hopelessly warped by a fundamental lack of understanding of history – even recent history – arrogance, and naked partisanship.

And rarely has the partisanship been worse. Past GOP “hawks” who would back a punitive invasion of Canada if it was led by a Republican president are now suddenly concerned about entanglement in a Syrian Civil War in which there are few good guys. Some Democrats who, if, say, the Taliban invaded North Carolina would oppose sending in the military to fight them because they would not want to get bogged down in another Vietnam in North Carolina, are suddenly hot to support the president’s plan to launch attacks in order to… well, the president has been rather fuzzy on what these attacks are supposed to accomplish.

It’s not to destroy the chemical weapons, not to remove Bashar Assad or to tip the balance in the Syrian civil war away from Assad; they were going to make Assad 'eat his Cheerios with a fork instead of a spoon.'

Give him points for creativity, as in all the years I have been studying warfare, from ancient to modern times, I have never seen a battle cry involving silverware until now. I guess if the Romans can have their legionary eagle standards, we can have our forks. I suppose he meant the meal fork, not the salad fork and certainly not the shrimp fork or the dessert fork. We would know if Obama was serious about doing something about Assad if he had said we were going to force Assad to eat his Cheerios with a shrimp fork.

Now Obama is thanking Lucky Charms that Assad has agreed – in theory – to, in the middle of a civil war, turning his most powerful weapons over to his Russian patron. So, for now, there is no need to have Cap’n Crunch sit in his flagship in the Med and launch cruise missiles into Syria, nor for Congress to get their flakes frosted over Obama using the US military in an inept fashion in a conflict in which there are no good guys.

The conventional wisdom on Syria goes like this: We have a civil war between Bashar Assad and the rebels. Bashar Assad is a bad guy from a bad family that has ruled Syria for decades. But some rebel groups are associated Al-Qaeda, and we don’t like Al-Qaeda for rather obvious reasons. Assad is bad; Al-Qaeda is worse. Regardless of the humanitarian disaster this war is (and indeed it is a disaster), why should the US get involved at all?

It sounds so simple. But it isn’t. International politics rarely is. This conflict is not in a vacuum, but must be understood in context.

As we all know, unfortunately, Al-Qaeda is Al-Qaeda – “The Base” – an Islamist terrorist network with “franchises” in multiple Muslim countries and cells in dozens more countries across the globe. In Syria, several Islamist groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda have joined in fighting the Assad regime. They are better armed and organized than the pro-Western groups in the rebellion, but the relationship between them is tense and often hostile, with the Al-Qaeda group’s answering to the rebellion’s unified command only when they feel like it.

But the Assad dynasty, while not as spectacular as Al-Qaeda, is every bit as bad. One of the reasons the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been so intractable has been Assad’s Syria. This has been by design. Syria is relentlessly hostile to Israel, and openly lays claim to a “Greater Syria” that consists of Israel (not just the Golan Heights; all of it), Jordan, Lebanon, and even the southern Turkish province of Hatay, which includes the ancient cities of Antioch and Alexandretta.

Syria joined with Islamist Iran to form the Hezbo’allah militia in southern Lebanon. Iran provides most of the funding and training, Syria provides logistical support and a base of operations; and both command the militia. Hezbo’allah likes to keep things exciting by firing rockets into northern Israel and kidnapping Israeli soldiers and civilians. They also have a reign of terror in southern Lebanon, and physically intimidate the civilians, the government, and even the Lebanese army throughout the country. It is believed that Assad and Hezbo’allah conspired to carry out the 2007 car bomb assassination of elected Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hezbo’allah regularly threatens Lebanon with civil war if any action is taken against them.

And Hezbo’allah, and through them Assad and Iran, also have American blood on their hands, with the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks at the Beirut airport, in which more than 300 US marines were killed.

Thus, we have an axis of Iran (the dominant party), Syria, and Hezbo’allah, all with malevolent designs on the Middle East, all with hostile intent towards the US and its interests. And all Shi’ite Muslim, or, in the case of Assad, sort of Shi’ite, since the Assad family is part of the Alawite sect that considers itself Shi’ite, even if few other Shi’ites do. The vast majority of the Syrian population is Sunni Muslim. The Assad regime not only murders its own people by the hundreds of thousands (see, e.g. Hama in 1982), it actively threatens multiple US allies, keeps stirring the pot in the Middle East to make life difficult for the US and terrorizes an innocent neighbor.

The Assad dynasty has been in power since Bashar's father, Hafez, seized power in 1970. Because the Assads have been a client state of Russia (their primary weapon supplier, who continues shipping weapons in through Latakia), they have been largely untouchable ever since. Until now.

Now, Assad is in such trouble that Iran has sent elements of the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard Corps) and Quds force to Syria in support of Assad. Hezbo’allah has also redeployed the bulk of its fighting forces into Syria proper. While Hezbo’allah, the Pasdaran, and the Quds are fighting in Syria, they are not bothering anyone else. For that reason, whole it may sound inhumane to say this (and it is), it is in America’s best interests to keep this Syrian Civil War, like the Iran-Iraq War, going on as long as possible.

But as a general rule America is not as Machiavellian as that. If there is a way to end the war to the benefit of the Syrian population – or, more precisely, to have the Syrians themselves end the war to the benefit of their population – the US would generally prefer that route.

So, we go back to the original question: why should the US get involved at all in thus war between Assad and rebels who have been infiltrated by Al-Qaeda?

Because this is our first, best, and possible last chance to get rid of the Assad dynasty and shatter the Iran-Syria-Hezbo’allah axis.

If Assad wins, he can keep being a menace to world society at large, and the Middle East and US interests therein in particular. And Al-Qaeda would still exist. Not necessarily in Syria, but certainly elsewhere.

If Assad loses, he’s gone. Forever. Probably dead. His minority Alawite sect probably massacred, as most Syrians absolutely hate the Alawites because of Assad’s activities and their preferred status in his Ba’ath regime. Indeed, Al-Qaeda might – might – gain power. And they might not. There is infighting between the Al-Qaeda groups as it is. With so many variables, the aftermath of the fall of Assad is almost impossible to predict, but it does seem reasonably likely that in the chaos Syria would turn inward, not outward.

It also seems reasonably unlikely the working relationship between Syria, Iran, and Hezbo’allah could be preserved in anything like its current form. Iran would be crippled politically, as its main gateway into the Arab world would be gone. With no supplies, political support, or base of operations, Hezbo’allah would be in danger of withering on the vine, at the mercy of an already angry Lebanese people.

That would be the smart play here. But Obama’s play in this game has been anything but smart, or else there would, be no Putin, Cheerios, or silverware.

Sounds weird, supporting Al-Qaeda in a war?

No weirder than the Persians supporting the Spartans.

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