Why this War?

According to Zbigniew Brzezinski, the West lacks a consistent strategy towards Syria and the Middle East. With the recent Deutsche Welle interview Brzezinski in essence asks the question – why this war?, to which a strategy should constitute the answer.

The answers though are rarely as easy to formulate as the questions. Let us have a brief look at some of the reasons from two perspectives. The first one should be the reason for starting a war in the sense of its legitimacy (the reason of it), the second should present the reason in the sense of the war´s possible outcomes, specifically with regard to the West and its interests (reason for it). Finally, let us add some guesses on the probable course of further development.

1) Reasons of the strikes

President Assad may not have started the civil war and it may even be true that the inner conflict escalated due to the engagement of foreign mercenaries. The same may be considered regarding the recent (probable) use of weapons of mass destruction.

However, these doubts do not change anything. For some time, the Syrian president has admitted openly that he is fighting hostile non-state forces controlling parts of Syrian territory. That means that he is not even able to claim full sovereignty over that piece of land. Almost from the beginning he does not perceive the situation as an insurgency, but as a war. Thus the Assad governement does, in a way, already de facto recognise the other party as a contestant for sovereignty over the land. France and Britain have only been following Assad on that by recognising the rebels de iure.

Also, Assad became a victim of what can be called the Milošević syndrome. In 1999, NATO launched a bombing campaign against Yugoslavia on the basis of the Rambouillet talks. The airstrikes were conditioned by the further behaviour of the Albanian Kosovo liberation army and they were perceived as a means to end the civil war. Yugoslavia and its president became the guilty party for two reasons:

a) The Albanians resolved not to commit any further war crimes and the Serbians not only did not, they could not. Mainly because of the Serbians´ ambiguous perception of the war as both full scale war with foreign Albanian mercenaries and an inner conflict and also due to the fact that nobody asked them, due to their inability to recognize the situation.

b) The Yugoslav government both did and did not claim sovereignty over the Kosovo territory. The Milošević line was claiming the sovereignty de iure and complaining about the inability to uphold it de facto, again due to the presence of foreign mercenaries. However, (recognized) sovereignty means also (recognized) responsibility. The sovereign is, unlike an insurgent, responsible for virtually everybody on the territory and for upholding laws and standards. Hence, by his actions Milošević himself declared Kosovo an independent and occupied territory. Worse than a war crime, let us quote, it was a failure.

The very same has happened to Assad, although the Syrian situation is not based on regional separatism. By denying de facto full responsibility over the majority of Syria´s population, Assad declared himself an invader of Syria de iure. He may not yet be unequivocally the bad guy, but he has already opened the possibility to free Syria. In a way, it does not matter if Assad ordered the chemicals to be used or who actually did.

As a head of (a failed) state he is a complete and utter failure and the situation´s turning point is a result of his non-acceptance of a simple peace talks condition: him stepping down, recognizing de iure what he has already recognized de facto. As Americans would say: He brought it on himself.

2) Reasons for the strikes

Unlike Albanians, the Syrian rebels have a far-reaching political value. Russia, China and Iran are presently warning the West not to escalate the conflict. Quite the contrary. There is a possibility that specifically these strikes may prevent a larger future war outside Syria. Iran is then the party which should consider what devil we should really be afraid of. Yes, Robert Fisk is right. It is about Iran too. But it just may not be that bad for Iran.

The Syrian rebels are basically sunni. So are today´s arch-enemy of the West, al-Qaeda. However, if we perceive the Middle East from a realistic point of view (in the sense of realism in international relations), the sunnis should become, for the moment, natural allies of the West.

Al-Qaeda may be considered an expression of muslim distaste for the West. This distaste has again its cultural, social and economic grounds. The cultural reasons arise from the social ones or from xenophobia between muslim and western societies due to the incompatibility of their social institutions. However, there are also the economic reasons. Most of the wealth of the West stands and falls with oil and specifically the rigid and backward parts of the muslim world pay the price by producing it and hence remain dependent on primary sector oriented production – with the result of huge economic inequalities.

It is the infamously rich and the incredibly poor, from Nigeria to the Gulf states (where the poor workers frequently are not even recognized as citizens), who create an ideal base for blaming the world´s middle class and its consumer standards. On the other hand, there is the overwhelming ignorance and quiet participation of westerners, an all-out misunderstanding with no grounds for possible understanding often even on an individual basis. By means of silent consumption and injustice, the Westerners dictate a way of life to many muslims – not the western one, but the other one – and there´s no single entity to blame, just the whole. In one word, the expression fitting the situation sounds like alienation.

That is why Al-Qaeda blames the West as loudly as it does, and by doing it the organization also claims some kind of patronage over the muslim world as a whole. It diverts the hatred of the poor from the loaded petroleum bosses to the middle class households of foreigners. Is not destroying al-Qaeda the declared main goal of the Western defence policies of the past decade? Then, many would say, why side with them on Syria? But then again, how does one destroy a hydra that re-emerges twice after each head is cut off? Only by burning off the grounds for it to emerge. For some time this determination led the Americans to a policy of rather literal correspondence to such a method. Yet the grounds one should aim at are not the Middle Eastern cities, hills and deserts, but rather the alienation factor and al-Qaeda´s potential to use it.

Of course, the first possibility would be to abandon the oil economy and hence cut the bonds. However hard the West is rushing, this will surely take some time. In the meantime, bombs are not welcome in cities. That is the Great Game for diverting the alienation to the old sunni-shia scheme.

During the past years, several attempts appeared in the United States to make Iran an international threat, although it was Iran which launched the very first strike against al-Qaeda. A proposed US attack on Iran would be quite welcome by al-Qaeda. That may be a good reason to abandon it. Not only that the US would destroy another al-Qaeda´s mighty enemy, but the destruction of Iran would also make al-Qaeda the sole surviving major muslim force prevailing in the war against the West. Simply, it would help them, although Iran is not presently at war with anyone.

On the contrary, by helping the sunni against Iran-supported largerly shiite Assad forces, the West could achieve something. Although it may also seem like helping them, this engagement can change the whole position of the West in the Middle East. Right now the West is an outer force, a global threat, superior to inner discords. It just may shift its position to that of a participant in these discords, and thus a threat at worst equivalent to Iran and the shiite. Or, to shift the perspective from the clash-of-civilizations melodrama to a realistic scenario of a clash of different powers. From emotional disposition to the grounds of reasons and interests on which any party may side with any other, in time leaving the poor al-Qaeda and the fanatics a bit purposeless with much less ground to re-grow on.

The long awaited Syrian mass-destruction-situation thus offers a much better possibility to win the minds (not yet the hearts) of Middle-Easterners than the hazardous idea to attack Iran, both from the military and the political point of view. Any further campaign against Iran would be useless then, because its goal may be achieved at a much lower cost and danger. The speaking American once again: Now, let´s use it.

3) Brief Guess on Outcomes

Western politicians talk about a short and limited strike which will not aim at removing Assad. This one strike may be short and limited, leaving Assad in his place, but once you have bombed someone, you cannot have him around. Much like Milošević and Saddam. Assad will be given another chance to step down and the Westerners will need to strenghten their cooperation with the rebels. Specifically, they will need to find some means of screening that bunch, eliminating some groups and offering the future Syrian government an Egyptian (in the worst case) or a Turkish (in the best case) way.

Nevertheless, any government will be quickly compromised due to prevailing socio-economic reasons of the original insurgence. That is why the Western support has to be more discrete. There is not much to lose for the West in the hearts of the Middle Easterners, but there is much to gain in their heads. The West though must not compromise the future government with its too wide support which would make it another “pawn”, offer explanation for the insurgents screening as “imperialist agenda”, partially undermine the sunni-shiite conflict potential and reinstate again the relevance of the al-Qaeda point of view.

De facto, the rebels and their heirs need full support. On the other hand, they must be able to save their face, much like Mahmoud Abbas, Nouri al-Maliki and even Hamid Karzai, who is fortunately losing it mainly by himself. Or, they need for themselves the exact opposite to the Assad situation. The West has to be more or less de facto in control of the situation respecting the independence de iure of the others. An American moral of this is: We all need it that way right now.


This text represents a possible explanation of the realistic drive behind the Western policies, which can be perceived as a transition from collective defence to collective imperialism. It is not something to be cheered about. In fact, it is quite sad. The author would surely prefer a peaceful development towards diminishing inequalities (clearly impossible in this case right now). However, one has to recognize that a strategy is not simply formulated by political will or by politicians themselves and their masterplans, but rather by their liaisons with the huge apparatus of planning and administration the powers are depending on and the power is exerted. Such colossal machines have their inertia, but then again, they are not dumb, Mr. Brzezinski. Strategies do not need ideologies or catchwords. America is learning more and more from France and Britain. Speaking frankly: They know how.

published: 30. 8. 2013

Datum publikace:
30. 8. 2013
Autor článku:
Jakub Wolf