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Our CF-18s in the desert: What to do?

Could it be the new government’s got it right? The Huffington Post Sunday quoted Stéphane Dion, the new foreign affairs minister, as saying Canada’s goals in the Middle East go beyond the conflicts in Syria and Iraq to include the stability of Lebanon and Jordan and the region.

Let’s be clear: the CF-18s are not the issue. The real issue is whether the “West” — more specifically NATO and its major powers — can rediscover its “sense of reality”, to quote the title of an important essay by Isaiah Berlin, before provoking a catastrophe.

Is this an overstatement? The current mess in the Middle East can be viewed as the simultaneous breakdown of four interlocking systems: (1) the collapse of the League of Nations mandate system as a result of the legacy of World War II and the rivalries of the Cold War; (2) the loss of legitimacy by successor regimes which were corrupted from the outset or removed by force if they weren’t; (3) the sinking by the recent price collapse of a financial system based on a politicized oil price and the recycling of the oil money which sustained mainly Western economies; and (4), as a consequence of (3), the impact on a handful of Mideast tyrannies rich beyond dreams in a region mired in extreme poverty, linked to a global banking system hooked on speculation rather than investment and still suffering from  the Great Recession its manipulations triggered. The region is now dissolving into sectarian war between Shia and Sunni, reminiscent of Europe’s Thirty Years War (1618-1648) between Catholics and Protestants.

Another important change is us.  Culturally, the West — one hopes temporarily — has become  incapable of applying any analytic framework broader or deeper than the pragmatics of immediate short-run political interest. Thus problèmes d’état can now only be discussed in narrow terms that frankly favour kinetics: if it moves, shoot it or not, as in The American Sniper.

Unfortunately, such a perspective yields no solution for the Middle East and could transform the region into the Balkans of 2016. Consider:

1) The Saudis and other Sunni strongholds are torn in their allegiances. The Saudis are members of the international coalition against Daesh/ISIL for fear Daesh will inspire Saudi jihadists to challenge the monarchy, while backing hardline Islamist Sunni groups who serve as a main line of defence fighting Shia groups Iran supports.

2) To their north, the Saudis face Iran, Iraq and Syria, key parts of a fragmented Shia crescent which the destruction of Daesh would help cement together. To the east along the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates have sizeable Shia populations vulnerable to destabilization by Iran – as is the Saudi kingdom itself.

3) Syria is the traditional controller of Lebanon, at one time an administrative district of Syria when the whole region was under the Ottomans. A completed Shia crescent would settle the much disputed orientation of Lebanon, home of Hezbollah, placing it in the pro-Iranian camp.

4) Iran and Russia are helping Assad’s legal if tyrannical Shia/Alawite regime maintain its ferocious hold on power in Syria, Iran because the regime is Shia and Russia because it is pro-Russian, even if the Russians admit Assad would have to go were any peace arrangement to be worked out. Problem: if Daesh is destroyed, who will protect the Sunnis in Syria?

Bottom line? Perversely, a semblance of stability is maintained by the current ambivalence about Daesh. Its defeat and the likely closure of the Shia crescent would paradoxically not promote peace in the region, but could on the contrary unleash a much wider regional conflict that would very likely trigger a wider global war as follows:

(a) The Saudis and Israelis intervene to protect the Syrian and maybe Iraqi Sunnis (the Israelis to keep Lebanon independent).

(b) The Israeli intervention provokes an Iranian counterattack, probably on the Saudis, including the destabilization of that country.

(c) The US and perhaps NATO thus are dragged in to save the Kingdom, thereby risking a clash with the Russians.

(d) Egypt, a wild card in these events, could well intervene on the side of the Saudis as the home of the largest Sunni population in the region. The potential impacts from any spillover on Pakistan and India and other large Muslim populations are incalculable.

Dion’s comment aligns with other signs that a better solution than the current course may be emerging. For one thing, a peace process of sorts is getting underway under UN aegis. It’s flawed at the moment but the attention it is getting suggests that some improvement may be possible.   The challenge is to produce an agreement on a structure that would safeguard the Sunnis at the expense of Daesh. One solution frequently mentioned is to freeze the Syrian combat in its current positions and negotiate a new political arrangement that would allow minorities to co-exist constructively. Only the UN Security Council today has the legitimacy to secure a treaty of this general magnitude. Up until now, its members have lacked the will to support a common future. But maybe Dion’s comment is signaling the beginning of a common understanding of the need to do better.

Even if the diplomats succeed, oiling the deal would require a significant regional economic development plan coupled with a massive humanitarian aid program that would enable refugees to return home or emigrate. Part of any stable settlement would also prevent Israel from pursuing dreams of territorial expansion by military means and perhaps work towards comprehensive controls on weapons of mass destruction. The reconstruction and development programs might help reignite economic growth in NATO countries and Russia – and help with adaptation to climate change. Dion’s comments may be signaling a strategy to position Canada as a major instigator of that development which would have to involve the whole region.

What about France? Most of the attacks it has suffered are rooted in the non-integration of their young Muslim males. A regional development plan might offer them some better alternatives both in France and the region. Such a plan would coincide with the current demographic bulge of 15-30 year olds in the region to ensure that they all had something useful to do rather than kill each other — much as Europe found a way to put itself back together again after the war. Even without such encouragement a few countries like Tunisia are managing to move ahead.

Based on the situation and Dion’s comment, one might tentatively suggest that subtracting the CF-18s from the coalition (combined with reinforcing our special forces training role and disaster relief) emphasizes that Canada is rediscovering its broader interests in the region. And, moreover, is now committed to doing something about the larger picture, in particular helping to forestall the prospect of regional conflicts exploding like they did in the Balkans in 1914.

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The feature image is of Canada’s new foreign minister, Stéphane Dion, speaking in the House of Commons on 25 January 2016 (Courtesy: REUTERS/Chris Wattie)

 

 

 

Guy Stanley

Dr. Guy Stanley is currently a research fellow in the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa. His background is in diplomatic history and international commerce.

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