May 12, 2017

Iran would win from US plan to partition Syria, by absorbing Kurdish region

It looks like the Pentagon geniuses who brought us the Iraq War are planning to partition Syria so that the northeastern region, where Kurds are a plurality, gets split off as a US client state in order to form a buffer between Iran and Israel. If the Pentagon cannot get regime change against a non-client state (Syria), they might as well try to check the spread of our regional enemy (Iran) toward our regional client (Israel). And they would get at least a pocket of the region under the US sphere of influence.

See this review of the plan, and below for a map of who controls which regions now. ISIS (gray) is confined to the desert in the southeast, the Kurdish militias (yellow) control the northeast, the Syrian government (red) now controls most of the heavily populated Levant, although with pockets of al-Qaeda forces (green) still in control of regions there as well.

I'm not going to go over the details of what may happen when in the short term, between the various players. The longer-term goal of ours is to carve out a pocket in the northern Fertile Crescent that would be under our sphere of influence. Let's assess the viability of that goal itself, even assuming we could win our short-term battles.

In short, the only plausible outcome is Iran, our geopolitical rival, absorbing Kurdistan, whether as a client or through territorial union. A simple look over the history of empires in the Middle East, from the start to the present, shows that Iran would take the northern Fertile Crescent, not the US or any of its regional allies (Turkey, Saudi, Israel, etc.).

The Pentagon just got through trying to carve out a pocket of US influence in the Fertile Crescent -- Iraq -- and it has only ended up handing that country over to Iran's sphere of influence. Not to mention, no material spoils for us -- "blood for no oil," as Greg Cochran put it.

It's not so much that Iraq and Iran are both majority Shia rather than Sunni, although that certainly helps most Iraqis want to huddle under the Iranian aegis rather than some other group in the region, let alone the US that has been starving it and demolishing it back into the Stone Age for 25 years.

Rather, the reason is that the eastern Fertile Crescent has fallen under the Persian sphere of influence, off and on, since 500 BC (the Achaemenid Empire), and for hundreds of years at a stretch. It was most recently under control of the Ottoman Empire, based in the Anatolian peninsula, although that's the only empire indigenous to Anatolia that has ever ruled Iraq. And of course there was a one-off period where the nomadic desert Arabs fanned out and conquered the whole Middle East.

But as of around 500 BC, the eastern Fertile Crescent has been unable to originate its own empires (like the Akkadians), and has generally been absorbed by the Persian civilization that arose just to its east.

Before we began to bomb, starve, invade, and occupy Iraq, it was an independent nation that was somewhat aligned with the Soviets but not a mere client, it was at war with Iran, and was not under the sway of the Salafi state of Saudi Arabia (Saddam Hussein was a secular nationalist). Once we obliterated their society, it was too weak to remain independent -- and would therefore go to the strongest regional ally with whom they had the closest affinity, namely Iran.

It was clear we would not absorb it ourselves because that has never been the way we won over client states in the Middle East -- we didn't bomb Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia into oblivion.

An identical outcome will result if we try the same old failed plan, this time in Syria. It's an independent secular nationalist country, aligned with Russia and Iran though not a mere client, and not under other regional control.

This time the plan would not be to bomb, invade, and occupy the whole country, topple the leader, etc., like we did in Iraq -- thank God that Russia has already beaten us to the punch, and we won't risk nuclear war over Syria. (Or so a sane military would conclude -- don't count on them as they flail for a victory somewhere, anywhere.) But it would replicate that strategy on a smaller scale, to carve out the northeastern region for a Kurdish client buffer state.

Now we ask the same question: would a client state that we imposed by force hold up? No: look at when we tried to impose the Shah on Iran -- that lasted all of 25 years, and triggered a violent revolution that made us their enemies for the indefinite future. When we tried to turn Saddam into our puppet, he rebelled and got too big for his britches, which the nomadic pastoralist Kurds would be certain to do before too long. Then we would invade, occupy, and destroy our Kurdish client state, hoping that someone more compliant would come along. In reality, a severely weakened client that we just obliterated would turn to someone else in the region.

So, which regional power would absorb this Kurdish state, given that we would not control it outright for more than a generation? Again we turn to the history of imperial spheres of influence in the Middle East.

Here's a map of where Kurdish people were concentrated in 1986, to give you an idea of the fullest extent of any potential Kurdish state that would be our client. It is roughly the northern Fertile Crescent:

Indigenous empires used to form in this region, including the Indo-European Hittites and Mitanni during the 2nd millennium BC, and the Semitic (or Semiticized) Assyrians, whose last great empire died before 500 BC. So a Kurdish state would most definitely not grow into anything broader.

An empire headed in the Anatolian peninsula has done the trick twice -- the Byzantines and the Ottomans. But those were separated by 1000 years, and may have been bookends to a single period where Anatolia could conquer the Fertile Crescent. That rules out Turkey as the absorber of Kurdistan -- we see how much trouble they have even subduing those within their current borders.

The nomadic desert Arabs only had their one heyday with the spread of Islam throughout the Fertile Crescent, and are a clear non-factor today. They are decadent, fractured within their elite royal family, and have no encircling foreign empire to hold them together (like the Sassanian and then the Ottoman empires did to them).

Turkic or Mongol nomads are not about to sweep through from the East again, so they're out.

The Levant to the west has never spawned a regional empire, at least a land-based one (the Phoenicians were sea-based around the Mediterranean coastline). And being as riven by civil war as Syria already is, it is in no position to absorb Kurdistan.

Egyptian-based empires have never reached up into the northern and eastern parts of the Fertile Crescent, although they have occasionally conquered the Levant.

That leaves only the Persian sphere of influence. And sure enough, go through any map of a Persian-based empire from the Achaemenids circa 500 BC to the Safavids circa 1600 AD (including the Parthians and Sassanians in between), and it usually includes the eastern and northern Fertile Crescent. Here's the Safavid map showing not only Kurdistan but also Iraq under Persian control:

That shared political history is in addition to the greater ethnic similarity that the Kurds have with the Persians than they do with any other major ethnic group in the region. They're an Iranian people who speak an Iranian language, and who have a pre-Islamic Iranian substrate under their form of Islam. They already form 10% of the population of Iran, and have largely given up on ethnic separatism, unlike in Turkey.

The only plausible outcome of the US partition plan for Syria ends in the Kurdish region getting absorbed into Iran, whether as a client or through outright annexation / unification, and whether sooner or later. The clueless geniuses running the Pentagon have learned nothing from the Iraq War, and are hell-bent on handing over another part of the Middle East to our geopolitical rival of Iran, after impotently trying to impose its will on another unruly client state.

I don't buy the geopolitical BS about the US having to counter Iran's every move. Let them take over the northern and eastern Fertile Crescent -- it'll mean far fewer rampaging jihadists using the area as "the Harvard of terrorism" as Trump described post-Saddam Iraq. Our only goal should be countering radical Islam, and although Iran is a theocracy, it does not spread its religion violently or instigate religious war elsewhere. No more September 11ths (that was the Saudis, not the Persians).

I look at the geopolitical angle only to show that, even by their own standards, our military brass has absolutely no clue what the hell they're doing, what long-term historical forces there are in the region, and which of those forces is most likely to pull Kurdistan into its orbit. They're simply tunnel-visioned into punishing the Middle Eastern nations that resisted our sphere of influence from the Cold War era. If we don't get the hell out of there, that will be our own figurative Afghanistan (on top of our literal Afghanistan).


  1. Reminds me of the movie "Syriana" from 2005:

    " In a December 2005 interview, Baer told NPR that the title("Syriana") is a metaphor for foreign intervention in the Middle East, referring to post-World War II think tank strategic studies for the creation of an artificial state (such as Iraq, created from elements of the former Ottoman Empire) that ensured continued western access to crude oil. The movie's website states that "‘Syriana’ is a real term used by Washington think-tanks to describe a hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East."[13] Gaghan said he saw Syriana as "a great word that could stand for man's perpetual hope of remaking any geographic region to suit his own needs."[14]"

  2. The US already had a buffer state between Iran and the Israel-Saudi side -- Iraq. But it was independent rather than a Pentagon puppet, and that was not good enough. By trying to turn it into a client state through force, they end up handing it over to Iran and vaporizing Iraq's former status as a buffer.

  3. On the continuing topic of which M-E country really controls US policy in the region, who got Uncle Sam to first declare war on Iraq?

    Iraq had gone to war against Israel in 1948, '67, and '73, either outright or sending financial and expeditionary force support. Saddam was an outspoken advocate for the PLO against Israel, and Iraqi-Israeli relations remained poor throughout the 1980s.

    What was the US' response to this history of aggression and hostility toward Israel? Diddly squat.

    The nano-second after Iraq invades Kuwait and by extension threatens the other Sunni extremist monarchies in the Gulf, Uncle Sam flies in with the Gulf War, then cripples Iraq with sanctions, tries to stage a coup against Saddam, invades, occupies, topples Saddam, and lays waste to the country.

    Hmm, maybe the oil-rich jihadist monarchies have a little more pull with the Pentagon than does Israel...

  4. That has to be taken into account when somebody points to how much aid we give to Israel as supposed proof of the Zionist tail wagging the goy dog.

    First, we give the same yuge amount to Egypt and Jordan, to keep all three at peace with each other.

    Second, the cost of the Gulf War does not get counted into "support for Saudi Arabia" even though that's what it was. Then add in the Iraq War. One great big effort to defend against and then punish Iraq for threatening the jihadist monarchies in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

    Israel may get billions, but the Arabians have gotten trillions.

  5. If Israel want "regime change" in Syria (and let's be honest - Israel's wishes are what it is all about) then let them bloody well do it, and not connive a gullible American President into doing it for them. There is zero benefit to the US in deposing Assad. And Iran is not an enemy of the US.

  6. The biggest riddle for me has been how leaders with access to the best analysts money can buy can't seem to understand even the basics of the region and how its geopolitics work. These are people who can phone up experienced guys like Kissinger and get a frank assessment of the local balances of power.
    Is it arrogance? Incompetence?
    As far as I can tell, George W. Bush and the neocons, despite their contractor pork schemes, really believed American democracy could be transplanted into the Middle East.
    I suppose blank-slatism and political correctness played a role in creating a crippling blind spot in their calculations but you'd expect someone with basic common sense would make it to the top of the hierarchy.
    The start of the 2nd Iraq war was a big moment in my life because that's when it was confirmed beyond doubt just how far gone the system was. I was just a teenager in high school and marveling at the stupidity and insanity of the elites in charge of hundreds of millions of Americans.

  7. I think it's more cluelessness or delusion, and that comes from having what seems like a never-ending string of victories, that you will never believe otherwise no matter how much evidence piles up against you.

    In other words there's a hysteresis where we keep forging ahead despite 60 years of abject failures, because that idea of American superiority had gotten "baked into" the elite consciousness over the course of our expansion against the Indians, Central Americans, Caribbeans, and South Pacific enemies, ending around 1945.

    It's the same with every empire, so there's nothing that will change this time around, qualitatively. "But this time we have the benefit of hindsight and historical cautionary tales!" Yeah, but who in the elite will believe it? They're too insulated and smug.

    It's not as though the British Empire didn't know about the rise and fall of all sorts of empires before it -- did that stop it from pouring resources into the "Scramble for Africa"? It sounds so stupid today, but we have the Scramble for Afghanistan.

    1. As someone, who like you, likes to analyze stuff, I nevertheless find it hard to really understand the mental processes of dissolute elites and put myself in their shoes.

      W. Bush destroys Iraq when his own Dad could have told him 1,000 times over why it's a bad idea to stay.

      Hillary Clinton insists on ignoring the white working class, listening to her sycophants rather than repeated warnings from her husband who's a political genius former president.

      These are people who have experts, resources, secret information at their fingertips in a way we can barely imagine!

      The only psychology that remotely makes sense to me is they did it to spite figures they felt overshadowed by...a strong need to finally prove them wrong. And then went down like Ahab in his obsessed quest to kill the white whale.
      Even so, such willful and wanton stupidity with such great responsibility on one's shoulders is tough for me to explain or empathize with in a non-insane adult.

  8. Just to temper the idea that the Saudis are the tail wagging the dog (in reality, they're compliant clients), they were against the invasion / occupation / decapitation of Iraq in the 2000s. So was Israel.

    Both were more concerned about Iran, and both were actually clued in to the local state of affairs, having skin in the game. They both knew if Saddam was toppled, Iran would expand its influence into Iraq (shared religious sect and political history), pushing Iran's influence *closer* rather than *farther* from Israel / Saudi Arabia.

    The Saudis may have wanted Saddam humbled or kept in check from invading the jihadist Gulf monarchies again, but not actually taken out and a democratic election held, which would let the Shia majority align itself with Iran.

    Imperial over-extension is related to Taleb's ideas about skin in the game. Britain, the Soviet Union, America -- they have no skin in the game in Afghanistan, so none will have the motive to figure out what's going on, what the right goals are, and how to go about achieving them.

    Meanwhile the Pakistanis have major influence over Afghanistan, and the Turko-Mongol Mughals took over a decent chunk of Afghanistan including Kabul. They're from the region, nearby, have a stake in what goes on in Afghanistan.

    Not to mention the greater leverage that gives them, being a closer threat.

  9. At this point it just comes off as thinking that this time the socket won't electrocute you when you stick the fork in. It utterly mystifies me that the repeated failure of our attempts at making spheres of influence via client states -- going back nearly 70 years to the Korean War per your earliest posts! -- are going to keep going until pretty much with any real memory of the Cold War is dead and buried. I guess the idea of the Victory Myth, that hey we spent 150 years winning so it'll always be as such probably is the best explanation.

    It feels a bit disheartening to feel like we might have to pin our hopes on Generation Z and beyond to unshackle us from the Forever Cold War mindset as the Boomers finally start dropping though I guess that could just be me swalloing the blackpill.

    Client states in general just never seem to work out as you'd want them to because all it takes is one successor to get a bit uppity and the whole thing goes to pot. Rome would learn this many times (be it Egypt under Cleopatra, Judea, Greece, etc.) and usually after one or two times they'd just go in, then conquer and annex the offender with the only real exception being Armenia. Wikipedia, of all places, has a pretty nice quote from Christopher Clark (which is nice as I greatly enjoy both Iron Kingdom and The Sleepwalkers) on the folly of investing in client states, this in relation to Serbia and Russia prior to World War I though I think it can be applied generally:

    "It was a risk enhancing initiative [of Russian Foreign Minister Serge Sazanov] to see Serbia as a kind of client...Serbia to my knowledge, has never been a client of anyone. This is a mistake, when Great Powers think they can secure the services of "client states". That "clients" are never in fact "clients". But this is a mistake that is presumably going to be keep being made by our political leaderships, though one hopes one day it will stop."

  10. I am glad we are losing the Kurds, or the whoever. I don't want a client state in the region; I don't want to be in the region at all, whatsoever. Kurds belong to that world, they are more conducive to Iran that to us. And they would inevitably be flooded into America. I hope we lose Jordan next, and all of our extra-European client states.

  11. There is a strong generational component, maybe having to do with what kind of national mythology you get (and check against reality) when you're growing up. The enculturation process that tells you who we are, where we came from, and how we got here.

    The last truly sane Secretary of Defense we had was Charles Wilson, Eisenhower's guy from the start of '53 through the end of '57. He got us *out* of Korea, and then slashed the defense budget big-league as a result of no longer being at war. What craziness!

    He was born in 1890, along with the rest of the shapers of the Midcentury (including Ike himself).

    When he was growing up, he would've heard how we'd won and won, expanded more and more, but it would not have been told as a triumphalist "end of history" narrative -- the US sphere of influence was still busy expanding (successfully) during his formative years, into Central America, the Caribbean, and Pacific. And they'd only just closed up the Frontier when he was born -- that would not be perceived as fait accompli, allowing you to rest on your laurels.

    So the mindset must have been that we were really good at expanding and winning, but that it could not be taken for granted. Maybe we'd lose one -- OK, don't be stupid and double down, try expanding somewhere else maybe, or just leave good enough alone.

    Pulling out of Korea, where we were not going to get what we wanted, would not have felt like violating a sacred narrative about "America never loses because America never quits" or similar BS.

  12. There were only a handful of Greatest Gen Secretaries who lasted at least a year. One was a major disaster -- McNamara, who got us into and escalated in Vietnam.

    But then the guy who pulled us out and devolved the war to the locals ("Vietnamization") was also a Greatest Gen, Laird. Nixon's guy for his 2nd term.

    The last Greatest Gen Sec Def was Reagan's, Caspar Weinberger, who also had enough sense to pull us out of Lebanon once the Hezbollah bombed our embassy and Marines barracks. He generally kept things on the covert side, supporting local (para-)militaries, rather than sending American troops, let alone en masse.

    I guess the mindset with them was formed while the US was still expanding, during the '20s and '30s, up through WWII. It was not written in stone that "America never loses" and was not just taken for granted. It wasn't a taboo to suggest that we could lose -- in fact, that prospect might have made them make smarter decisions and fight harder when they did get involved.

  13. After Weinberger, everyone has been a Silent or Boomer -- that would be HW Bush and after as Presidents. Total disasters, no clue what the big picture is, realistic assessments, or sense of humility. We can just invade wherever and impose our will -- that's what we learned in school growing up.

    And if your formative years were after WWII, that's what the narrative was. End-of-history, unquestioned superiority of America and its institutions, etc. Fighting the humanitarian war against the Nazis (nevermind that most of our fighting was against Japan).

    After WWII the narrative became more self-congratulatory, especially seeing the old European big players bite the dust.

    That's why the Cold War has fried these guys' brains so much. Our incapability of imposing our will began to show throughout all of our attempts to put down a proxy Soviet force, or someone who was vaguely pro-Soviet / anti-imperialist.

    That goes against the ingrained sense of unquestioned superiority, so they're determined to prove it false -- once and for all. Doesn't matter if the Cold War has been over for 25+ years. There are still all those countries that we didn't subdue that are still there like open wounds. The ones that were still haunting the egos of the "Axis of Evil" thinkers into the 2000s, continuing right through to today.

    It'll be a welcome sign when there's a Gen X-er as Sec Def, with a more realistic sense of what's possible, what's worth pursuing, etc. Someone who may have been brought up with twilight-era Cold War triumphalism, but who also got shocked out of that complacency with 9/11 and the Iraq / Afghanistan wars.

  14. One variable in future Middle East politics we have to take Into account is coming formation of Eurabia. France is close to having 50% of babies born to MENA parents, recent elections will mean full steam ahead to getting that number over 50%. What will a Europe with sizable Muslim population do to ME politics down the road? Well one Factor we already know is that European Muslim population will draw it's ideology from Sunni fundamentalism, the kind sprouted by Saudi clerics. Unless France and rest of Europe splinters and city and country states, expect Europe to be a big time ally to Sunni powers in Middle East.


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