In Houston, high school freshmen have to take a year of world geography and no history. After that, we have world history in 10th, US history in 11th…and then I remember taking European history in 12th, but I might have taken that one “just for fun.”
My geography teacher was intense, and anyone who took her class with me will attest to that. I probably worked harder in Ms. Lucas’ class than I did in some of my grad school classes. I even kept the 3-inch binder I filled up because I couldn’t bear to part with all of the effort I’d put into it.
In the class, we learned about the basics of geography. I can tell you what a steppe is, where you’re likely to find one, and what the climate will be like once you get there. I can tell you about the physical differences between the Appalachian and the Rocky Mountains. I can explain why it is that Iceland has such crazy weather.
While all that is good to know, the thing I’m most grateful for is that we had to label and study maps.
Those damn maps. Oh, I hated them at the time. I could never get my handwriting small enough to cram everything on there with it still looking neat, and of course, points were deducted if it didn’t look neat. Just imagine trying to write “Luxembourg” twice (country and capital) in a space as tiny as Luxembourg.
Anyway, as the class progressed, it became incredibly clear why these maps needed to happen. History is rooted in geography. The land tells the tale of the world. It shapes civilizations, technological advancements, and the people themselves. It dictates movement and expansion, and it serves as the literal battleground in times of war.
So much of history is war-centric, and so much of war strategy is based on geography. To this day, those basic tenets still hold.
Which brings us to the Middle East.
Specifically, let’s talk about the Arabian Peninsula. The conflict over there is much easier to understand if you can see the lay of the land. Take note of how the two major Middle Eastern players, Iran and Saudi Arabia, are buffered by Iraq and Syria. That’s important.
The Arabian Peninsula sits smack in the middle of the Middle East. To the west, there’s Arab-dominant North Africa, much of which was formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, and to the east lie the -stan countries, many of which were formerly part of the Soviet Union. Further east of that is India, which is not considered part of the Middle East.
The Middle Eastern “Cold War”
I’ll try not to go all Rachel Maddow on you, but understanding history helps to understand present conditions, so first things first. The Ottoman Empire collapsed following World War I. After being defeated by the Soviets and Europeans, the empire was disbanded, leaving its people divided into tribes. Long story short, Great Britain and France took control of much of the Middle East, including Iraq and Syria, and shortly afterwards, nations such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey emerged.
Following World War II, the Cold War was “fought” between the US and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies. This so-called war was never officially declared between the two sides, but it functioned as a proxy war. This meant that both sides backed smaller conflicts in an effort to support their own goals. The US sought to minimize the spread of Communism and the Soviets hoped to expand it.
The Middle Eastern conflict functions similarly. There’s essentially a proxy war being fought between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Islam is divided into two primary sects, the Sunni and Shia. There aren’t too many fundamental religious differences between the two groups, so much of this conflict is rooted in political power. While the majority of Muslims identify as Sunni (approximately 80%), the Shiites live primarily in Iran and Iraq. So, the Shiites of Iran are fighting against the Sunni of Saudi Arabia.
Both nations have large oil reserves, so they’ve both attracted international attention, notably from the US, Russia, and Britain. Saudi Arabia established itself as the unofficial Islamic capital of the Middle East, but Iran faced significant instability. The democratically-elected prime minister, Mossadegh, wanted to limit British control of Iranian oil. Unwilling to cooperate, Britain and the US decided to stage a coup to overthrow the Iranian government. The Americans executed the coup d’etat in 1953, arresting Mossadegh and replacing him with a monarch, the Shah of Iran.
The Shah, expectedly, turned out to be largely unpopular with the Iranian people. Maintaining power through his connection to the western world, he sought to secularize the Islamic nation. However, dissatisfaction with the new direction Iran was being taken in resulted in…
The Iranian Revolution
I promise this is all relevant to what’s currently happening in Syria. Bear with me…
Lead by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolution in 1979 overthrew the shah, rejecting both western capitalism and eastern communism. When the shah was successfully removed from power, Khomeini took over as the Grand Ayatollah of Iran. Upon his death in 1989, he was succeeded by Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, the current leader of Iran.
When Saudi Arabia saw what was going on in Iran, they started to fear similar uprisings within their own nation. Over the next several decades, the two nations engaged in proxy warfare, similar to the Cold War. The problem with all of this is that both nations have significant superpower backers. Additionally, Iran is a strong backer of radical Islamic groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
Notably, in 2003, the United States overthrew the government in Iraq – but they didn’t have a follow-up plan. The result was political and social instability which allowed for the rise of various tribes and military groups. Saudi Arabia and Iran both saw this as an opportunity to gain power in the region that had once served as a buffer between them (refer back to the map!), so they each supported Sunni and Shia groups, respectively.
And then, in 2011…
The Arab Spring
Ok, we’re getting closer.
The Arab Spring was a series of anti-monarchy-pro-democracy uprisings against oppressive governments in the Middle East. Syria’s revolt against Bashar al Assad was huge. Remember how I said the majority of Shia Muslims lived in Iraq and Iran? Well, in Syria, the population is predominantly Sunni, but the government is run by Shiites. It goes back to representation in government. People like it when their government supports them – go figure.
Anyway, how are Iran and Saudi Arabia involved in this? The Iranian military is backing militias, such as Hezbollah, in support of Assad against Sunni Saudi-backed rebel groups. Additionally, Iran can’t lose its bridge to Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based, or Palestine, where Hamas is based (refer back to the map!). Saudi Arabia is hoping to gain some traction over territories recently held by ISIS. Through all of this, Saudi Arabia is backed by the US, while Russia fights on the Iranian side. Just like during the Cold War, a lot of the reason for this is based in ideology.
During the uprisings in Syria, Assad decided the best course of action was to attack his own people. He shot them with rubber bullets and tear-gassed them. His plan was to destroy them militarily, at least enough to quash the revolution. However, factions of his own military defected, supplying weapons to the rebels.
Last week, Assad allegedly issued a chemical warfare attack on his people.
The conflict in Syria is one of the deadliest the world’s seen. It’s ongoing with no end in sight, and the situation only appears to be escalating. With hundred of deaths every day in the region and millions of refugees struggling to find a place elsewhere in the world, the land that the groups are struggling for control over has been completely destroyed.
As of April 13, 2018, President Trump, along with British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron, ordered “precision strikes on targets associated with the chemical weapon capabilities of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad.” The reason for this, as explained by May, is that “We must reinstate the global consensus that chemical weapons cannot be used.”
It was meant to send a message that chemical warfare will not be tolerated. However, the move is controversial in that neither the American Congress nor the British Parliament approved of the attack. This is not completely unheard of, but it does complicate matters. In the US, the president does not have the authority to declare war – only Congress can do that – but the president can still order attacks. For example, while the US never officially declared war, we were still active participants in the war in Iraq.
Since the attack, China said that it was an illegal act of international law to commence with the operation without approval from the UN Security Council. Vladimir Putin has referred to it as “an act of aggression” and has called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. In the meeting, he is expected to request approval to arm the Syrians against similar attacks. Iran called the attack a “war crime,” and Khamenei referred to Trump, May, and Macron as “criminals.” Still, as of now, there are no reported Iranian or Russian casualties, which might deter a significant response.
Following the attacks, the UNSC will be meeting to discuss next steps. The overall situation is possibly no better or worse than it was, but the hope is that Assad got the point – no more chemical warfare. So far, though, he seems pretty stubborn about the whole thing, which is obviously problematic.
Theresa May asserted that the attack was big enough to send the message but small enough not to illicit a strong retaliation, which may or may not be complete nonsense. You decide.
Whichever way you look at it, though, this conflict is way bigger than however big you think it is. There are tons of moving parts, various motives, and millions of lives at risk.
Where is Jared Kushner when you need him??