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I’ve been thinking a fair amount lately about how we arrived at the current war in the Middle East, and if you look beyond Iraq and Syria, how we arrived at the current world war. For recognize that, across north Africa, all the way to Pakistan, we have a lot of warfare and other forms of conflict going on. We all recognize that the aggressive war the United States initiated in Iraq, in the name of 9/11, has something to do with where the world stands now. How to identify, or reconstruct the thread that leads from shock and awe in 2003 to world war in 2014, is not such an easy task.

Fire is often the metaphor that comes to mind when we think about the spread of warfare. We talk about lighting the match, tinder, kindling, fuel, winds, wildfire, firebreaks, and of course the wanton destruction that fire and warfare bring to their victims. Even though fire has long been a tool of warfare, another metaphor might be the brawl. It’s a crude comparison, true, but it captures the infectiousness of violence. Fires spread even though people try to contain them. Brawls occur because that’s how violence spreads when people become inflamed.

Here are some characteristics of a brawl:

  • Many people or parties are involved.
  • Participants may take sides or change sides for their own reasons, if they can.
  • A brawl can involve more than two sides, and can even become every person for himself.
  • Brawls exhibit every level of violence, from the somewhat stylized, bench-emptying fight between teams at a baseball game, to a barroom fight where people are killed.
  • Brawls may seem pointless, but honor, sense of belonging, and demonstrations of dominance are in fact motivators for people who fight.
  • Brawls may be short and intense, but they may lead to chronic warfare, or feuds, between groups.
  • Brawls can rapidly come to encompass many more people than were involved when the fight began.
  • Brawls may seem disorganized and unpredictable, but partipants often recognize certain roles, patterns, rules, or constraints: then break them if necessary.
  • Violence in this kind of informal, non-state-sponsored fight can intensify and spread quickly; the fighting can be hard to control.
  • In most circumstances, only application of great force, strong leadership, or both appear capable of suppressing or rechannelling violence we associate with brawls.

At the core of the current warfare in Syria and Iraq is a conflict between Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam. When you add in so many state and non-state actors, as well as state borders and defacto borders enforced via checkpoints, you can easily focus on elements other than the fundamental, core conflict between sects. Political alignments and interests change just as rapidly as military positions. Victory in this kind of fight can take a long time.

Look at the variety of motives for participation, too. For three years, from 2011 to 2014, the United States declined to participate, except perhaps to make empty promises or empty threats. Then in the middle of 2014, the Islamic State captured Mosul. Shortly after that, the Islamic State beheaded Western journalists that it had taken as prisoners of war, posted videos of the beheadings on the Internet, and dared the U. S. to do something about it. Washington said, “Whoa! What’s happening here??” Now we’re one of many participants in a major conflict that encompasses both Syria and Iraq.

Consider how quickly we have come to know the geography of this region.

By going after the Islamic State and siding with Iran, we have in effect sided with Bashar Assad as well. We can abjure Assad all we like, Sunnis in the region do not see us as a friendly party right now. We argued for nothing but unity between the two Islamic sects after Mosul fell, but someone should have told Secretary of State Kerry that not even Nouri al Maliki’s departure from his office in Baghdad would bring about a united Sunni-Shia force to fight the Islamic State. That phantasm was not going to occur, period.

Consider the number of actors, political and military, who participate in the warfare that has dismantled what used to be Iraq and Syria: Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Islamic State, the Syrian government under Bashar Assad, Hezbollah, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq’s Shiite government in Baghdad, Kurds and Kurdish Peshmerga forces, Shiite militias in Iraq, Iranian militias in Iraq, Iranian militias in Syria, Free Syrian Army, al Nusra Front, numerous militias in Syria fighting Bashar Assad’s army, numerous militias in Syria either fighting or affiliated with the Islamic state, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Gaza, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and the United Nations. Does that sound like a brawl to you?

Macabre message: Islamic State militants posted a chilling video online showing a blood-spattered Star and Stripes next to the jihadist flag with the threat 'we will drown all of you in blood' in revenge for U.S. air strikes

The Islamic State’s war propaganda does not contain hard-to-figure messages.

The amazing thing is, Washington has still not articulated realistic aims for its involvement in this war. Yes, we started the brawl almost twelve years ago when we invaded Iraq, but that does not give us achievable goals right now. Washington says it wants to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, but who believes it actually has a plan to do that? For want of a plan, we launch attacks from the air, swinging a chair over our head to wallop the fighter in front of us. Some strategy.

Let’s see where things stand when the United States elects new leadership in 2016. It took ten years for our invasion of Iraq to develop into a brawl that qualifies as a world war. It will take at least that long for the war to wind down. Whatever the war’s outcome, the neo-cons’ pre-war vision of a democratic region friendly to U. S. interests is not at the end of this road.

In the new world of warfare the United States initiated, the U. S. pleads with its friends in Istanbul and Tehran for help, and its friends tell it to go away. Turkey and Iran do not want U. S. help, nor do they want to help the United States. In fact, almost no one welcomes U. S. participation in this war, except perhaps Assad. Via blunders that had predictable consequences, the United States has given away its role of leadership, and its ability to accomplish anything good.