So. I decided that I’d better get better informed, and where else to begin than at the beginning. To my amazement, the U.S. Department of State maintains an Office of the Historian (Who knew!?!) and this office publishes A GUIDE TO THE UNITED STATES' HISTORY OF RECOGNITION, DIPLOMATIC, AND CONSULAR RELATIONS, BY COUNTRY, SINCE 1776. ( http://history.state.gov/countries )
The section of this guide on Syria reads like a pop fiction romance. Our relations have been on-again, off-again over and over and on-going - much like Syria itself. Once a part of the Ottoman empire, Syria was established after World War I as a French Mandate, and represented the largest Arab State, encompassing the sites of several ancient kingdoms and empires. It gained independence in 1946 and the people immediately found themselves immersed in a series of military coups and coup attempts from 1949 to 1971, including a union with Egypt from 1958 to 1961. In 1963, the Syrian government declared the country to be under Emergency Law, suspending most constitutional protections for its citizens. This situation remained until 2011, when civil war broke out.
An alternative government was established by the Syrian National Coalition, an opposition umbrella group. This coalition has been recognized as the “sole representative of the Syrian people” by several nations, including the United States, the United Kingdom and France. And it is with this recognition that we tethered ourselves to the fight over Syria.
The complexities are center stage in the Middle East because this is not the type of “civil war” that Americans would recognize. It is a regional struggle that crosses state boundaries. It is the war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is Israel and the U.S against Iran; the U.S. against Russia; and, the Sunni against the Shia. It is a mess! And imagine if you lived there!?! Over a million people have been killed and millions more displaced. Posted at http://syriadeeply.org is a map showing the locations of refugees, as well as a great deal of other information.
In March, 2013, it was announced that we were “training” secular Syrian fighters in Jordan. In June, the decision was made to arm them. At this point, tension escalated between the U.S. and Russia, because Russia is an ally of the current Syrian President Bashar Assad. However, it seems to me that the U.S. is more concerned with Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons (believed to be one of the world’s largest).
The use of chemical weapons is abhorent. But, I don’t think that the focus of our actions is rooted in morality. I think that it is a case of self-protection. The fear is that Islamic extremists would gain access to the Syrian stockpile of chemical weapons. Not a frivolous concern.
However, what concerns me the most is my relationship as an American citizen to the actions of the American government. Reading over the historical notes, trying to comprehend so much truly “foreign” information, I have to accept that our international policy has evolved from the Imperialist Model. The technological advances of the early 20th Century fostered a demand for oil and the scramble was on.
All of us, each voting and especially non-voting American citizen, have been complicit in achieving not diplomacy, but control in the Middle East and therefore control of oil. Since the 70s, when the OPEC oil embargo caused lines at the pumps and oil companies responded to price controls by creating artificial scarcity, the oil companies have reaped nearly 40 years of unquestioned, tremendous profit. At the same time, the citizens of the United States have internalized the demonization of those who live on top of the planet’s oil reserves.
The question we should all be asking ourselves is not should we punish the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The question is what then? What happens next? What do we want our relationship to be with the other nations of the world? It’s time, past time, that we demanded a systemic change that moves us from propaganda and politics to a reality more appropriate to the 21st Century, at home and abroad.
What would that take, to make such a demand? Is a change of this magnitude even possible? Do enough of us even think it’s worth it?