Why Did We Almost Go to War Again?

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Dennis Brack/Black Star/MCT Campus

Josh Behrens, Guest Writer

Even though America narrowly avoided another war in the Middle East earlier this month, the conflict is far from over. And while Assad’s chemical weapons were the main instigator in the would-have-been US intervention, what were the other factors influencing not just Obama, but the other major players on the international stage?

The conflict, as conflicts so often are, is about more than meets the eye. Yes, the rebel and national forces have obvious goals, but when the scope turns international, the situation becomes a little murky.

Countries always like to spout off ideology as the basis for their foreign policy. America, for example, has had a long standing position as the “world’s policeman”, protecting democracy and freedom in every corner of the earth. So, naturally, when a people revolt against their tyrannical dictator, America is right at their side making sure this budding, young democracy survives (though, there are many, many exceptions to the contrary). This ideal shapes the way America sees and interacts with the world, leading to a country that tries to support its beliefs in other countries, i.e. supporting the Syrian rebels.

The international community is often quick to forget that Russia and China have their own ideologies that affect their international policy too. Historically, both countries have supported keeping regimes in place in favor of the status quo or at least keeping foreign powers from meddling in other countries affairs. Last year, Putin summed it up saying “We think that no one has the right to decide for other peoples who should come to power and who should be removed from power”. China joined them on this effort in an attempt to keep the West out of the Middle East. Granted, this ideology was a convenient excuse to exercise their interests, but if looked at in that light, couldn’t the US’s position be viewed that way too? Nevertheless, this aspect shouldn’t be overlooked.

While looking at whether ideologies are convenient excuses or fundamental ideals can be argued, the political impact of a regime change cannot. The gravity of the situation is felt on both sides as they both have highly vested interests in their side’s victory.

America’s support for the rebels has been public for a while, with direct support being offered only recently. What does America have to gain from having Assad fall? Well, it’s actually more about what America’s rivals have to lose.

Iranian-American relations are rocky to say the least. A more accurate term may be arch-nemeses, with extreme tensions existing between the two countries. Iran, unlike many other Arab countries, is predominantly Shiite. Syria is one of the few countries that is led by a Shiite (even though the country is mostly Sunni). If Syria fell, Iran would lose an ally in Assad.

As it seems in every conflict in the Middle East, Israel is implicated too. Golan Heights, an area taken in the Six Day War from Syria is still a bone of contention between the two, with Assad intent on reclaiming the land. A weak Syria would mean less of a threat for Israel. Again, the Shiite-Sunni rift comes into play when discussing Israel because of Israel’s long term enemy Lebanon. Lebanon, a Shiite nation, is naturally allied with Assad. The extreme militant group Hezbollah, based in Lebanon, has taken an active stance in the civil war, fighting alongside Syrian National forces to repel the rebel advance. Israel’s enemy would be extremely weakened if their ally lost his regime, leaving Israel that much safer.

However, the major player influencing America to intervene is Russia (deja vu much?). To start off, Syria is Russia’s only ally in the Middle East. They allow Russia to use a naval base in Tartus, Russia’s only such base in the Mediterranean, quite the strategic location. Syria’s alliance also means trade opportunities with Syria buying $4.7 million in arms from Russia in 2010. These political, strategic, and economic incentives are quite motivating to keep their ally strong. Russia has a lot at stake when it comes to Assad, and they will not let him go down without a fight.

But wait, there’s oil! Well, natural gas, but fossil fuels none the less. Qatar, a small country with vast natural gas reserves, wants to build a pipeline to Europe, so they could get their product to a large market. Russia, being Europe’s largest supplier of the stuff, wanted no part of this, and got their ally, (guess who?) Assad to block the pipeline. Not wanting their monopoly to be stopped, Russia needs a friend to make sure a rival pipeline can’t be constructed.

Seeing Russia lose big and most importantly, lose strategic footholds in both military and economic senses is a huge motivator for America. With relations at the lowest point they have been in years, having a big victory would bolster the US cause and give America a strategic advantage. With a huge loss in the case of Snowden, Obama is really looking for a way to strike back, and Syria can give him that opportunity.

While American intervention in Syria certainly isn’t only about chemical weapons, oil, or some Israeli plot, as some radicals on every side may want you to believe, it’s the conglomeration of a multitude of factors, years in the making, some we probably won’t even know about. But hey, what can you expect from an international conflict?