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Why Everyone Keeps Getting Syria and Iraq Wrong

It has become quite obvious to observers of the Middle East that the analysis of the region in the Western media has been deeply flawed and largely misguided. The focus of most articles until recently was on democracy, human rights and the peace process. Recent events have unmasked the irrelevance of any of those terms to the real forces in motion in the Middle East. As a result, reporting and analysis have correspondingly changed to an emphasis on sectarian warfare and terrorism. American newsreaders are now regularly informed as to the Shiite-Sunni cleavage and its violent ramifications. This is a step in the right direction but the new emphasis promises to lead to equally misleading analysis and equally faulty American foreign policy.

Sectarian divisions, just like democracy, human rights and the peace process, are subservient to the struggle for regional hegemony which has shaped the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Since the demise of the last unifying and relatively legitimate force the region has seen the rise and fall of challengers for regional domination. These rival powers, both regional and international, have utilized both ideas and force in their unsuccessful attempts to achieve wide goals and in doing so have shaped the region.

This dynamic began with the division of the Levant between the French and the British Empires.

The process led to the formation of ethnically diverse states which were divided in order to best suit the balance of power between the two empires, depending on their contributions to the Great War and the presence of their militaries in the region and with almost no regard for the desires of its inhabitants.

Among the fateful decision of this period was the British adaptation of the Balfour Declaration which promised the Jews a “national home” in Palestine. While completely disregarding the demographic conditions on the ground, the British wished to exploit the newly fashionable principle of self-determination in order to legitimize their domination of Palestine in an effort to create a buffer to protect the strategically important Suez Canal from rival powers. The dysfunctional states of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria were created for similar reasons.

When the British hold on the region was loosened, the Arab actors jockeyed for position to establish which of them would emerge as the great regional power. King Abdullah of Jordan set out to establish domination in Palestine and in order to do so was willing to reach a deal with the Zionists to divide the country at the expense of the Palestinians. The Egyptian King Farouk, fearing the ambitions of his rival determined that it would be in his interests to ally with the Palestinians and attempt to thwart this effort. Thus began the 1948 War, which saw both the birth of the State of Israel and of the refugee problem which continues to plague the region.

The other important landmarks in Middle Eastern history are products of a similar dynamic. The 1967 War came about as the result of Nasser’s attempt at re-establishing his waning reputation as the most powerful man in the Middle East. The 1982 War in Lebanon was part of a brief Israeli attempt at attaining hegemony in the region by creating a Lebanese puppet state and legitimizing the Israeli hold on the West Bank by destroying the Palestinian national movement. The First Gulf War was part of a drive by Saddam Hussein to obtain regional leadership and was crushed as part of an American policy of global hegemony.

American policymakers would be wise to keep these lessons in mind. The focus on ethnic identity and terrorism has led them to see ISIS as the major threat in Iraq, as they fear that Iraq will be embroiled in a sectarian conflict if ISIS is not restrained. However, this misses the wider and more influential context. Both sides in the War in Iraq and Syria are proxies of contenders for regional hegemony. The governments in Baghdad and Damascus are supported by Iran, which has been exploiting the Sunni-Shiite cleavage to further their strategic goals for decades. ISIS is part of the strategy of Saudi Arabia and Turkey to thwart Iranian power and strive for hegemony.

With this in mind, the United States must determine which side it wishes to see succeed in this struggle for hegemony or if it wishes to balance between the sides. There are merits to these different approaches but the policy decided upon must take the struggle for regional hegemony into account and make decisions accordingly. In the Middle East, the dog wags the tail and not the other way around and unless the U.S. wishes to continue chasing its own tail, policy should be designed accordingly.