In his prescient book Balkan Ghosts, Robert Kaplan explains the vicious Balkan wars of the early 20th Century as an attempt by various groups to claim what territory rightfully belonged to them. But Hungarians, Bulgarians, Serbs, and others each defined their patrimony as the area it controlled at the peak of its power. It is easy to see the potential for endless warfare absent a Great Power or occupation authority to enforce the quiet that sometimes passes for peace. History is an overlapping series of claims and grievances; victory is never permanent, loss is never permanent, and chaos is common.
Consider the crumbling — collapsing — area running south from Ukraine through Turkey; down and east across the Middle East from Syria through Iraq, Iran, and Yemen; Africa from Libya to Nigeria, Mali, Sudan, and South Sudan; and farther east to Afghanistan. The fallout from fighting in those places wreaks havoc on them and undermines countries including Pakistan, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Jordan. And it produces enormous waves of refugees.
Behind the tremors and shock waves are the United States, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, al Qaeda, and ISIS in various permutations, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Russia. All of which are or have provided arms, funds, territory, fighting forces, and ideological/political support for vicious cadres bent on pursuing wars grounded in regional/religious grievance. Holding the fort against the earthquake are the United States, Israel, the Kurds, Egypt, and a variety of brave and lonely individuals and small groups.
How can the U.S. be in both camps?
Not a traditional colonial or occupying power, U.S. national interests include the free movement of goods and people across the seas, including oil to its importers — without necessarily managing the internal affairs of other countries. But when Britain withdrew from Aden in 1967, the U.S. was the last Western country protecting trade and allies in the region. The whole history need not be rehashed, but suffice it to say, America has rescued some countries, flattened others, aided some governments, ousted others and been on various sides of local wars and disagreements. Usually sequentially.
Right now, they’re not sequential. And right now, the same countries can be pursuing ends the U.S. both does, and does not, seek or condone.
Saudi Arabia is a partner against ISIS, but its invasion of Yemen has caused massive civilian destruction. Turkey has allowed the U.S. to use the Incirlik air base to strike ISIS, but itself bombs Kurdish units that have been the most effective anti-ISIS fighters in the field. The Iraqi government takes money, arms and training from the U.S., but takes the same and more from Iran. Israel and Egypt –- anti-ISIS and anti-Hamas –- cooperate against jihadist factions in Sinai and both are on the outs with the Obama administration. Egypt’s President al-Sisi has supported the secular Assad regime in the past, and has made new overtures to Moscow. Pakistan is the recipient of billions in U.S. military aid while it plays host and partner to the Afghan Taliban. The U.S. negotiates with Iran on nuclear capability, but Iran supports both Sunni and Shiite anti-American jihadist groups.
The U.S. partnered with Russia in 2013 when Vladimir Putin offered President Obama a way to abandon his red line on chemical weapons use in Syria, allowing Syria to take charge of turning over its chemical stocks to the UN (in a precursor of allowing Iran to take its own photos and samples at Parchin). Last month, when the Russians inserted front-line military equipment into Syria, Secretary of State Kerry even suggested it could be a “win” for President Obama’s political plans. It is, he said, “an opportunity for us to force this question of how you actually resolve the question of Syria. And the bottom line is, you cannot resolve it without… a political solution… Period.”
Or not. Putin is rightly concerned that ISIS contains Chechens and other Sunni jihadists that pose a threat to Russia; Russia flattened Chechnya with impunity in two wars. With fabulous irony, Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman imposed by Russia on Chechnya to govern the rubble, has called on the Kremlin to send Chechens to Syria to fight ISIS.
The first Russian bombing raids in Syria, however, were directed not at ISIS, but against other anti-Assad rebels. The Obama administration was furious! The president called it pouring “gasoline on the fire.”
But Putin told “60 Minutes”, “We provide assistance to legitimate Syrian authorities… Acting otherwise, acting to destroy the legitimate bodies of power, we would create a situation that we are witnessing today in other countries of the region or in other regions of the world.” The so-called “moderate Syrian rebels” trained by the CIA are, in his view, as much a threat to the Assad government as ISIS. Perhaps more.
Americans like their history linear and their enemies well-defined. But it isn’t, and they aren’t and the historical lessons of the 20th century Balkans appear lost on the Obama administration. In the Balkans, the Middle East and elsewhere, what goes around, goes around and goes around.