Why has the heart-rending conflict in Syria dragged on for so long, with such horrific results? Part of the reason is our insistence on playing geopolitics while thousands die. We seek abstract advantage rather than concentrating on ending the Syrian war.
Geopolitics is fun. It’s about weighing options, measuring interests, and moving pieces on the global chessboard. Defining our strategic goals and crafting policies to reach them require imagination and creativity.
Besides being fun, geopolitics is important. Countries that play this game shrewdly understand that it is more than a game. Success or failure can shape the fate of nations.
Sometimes, though, geopolitics is a tragic distraction. When practiced in a vacuum, it can blind us to human suffering. Geopolitics is theoretical. Suffering is real.
It is axiomatic that peace talks can only succeed if all belligerents are in the room. For four long years, however, the United States refused to negotiate with Iran, which is a major force in the Syrian conflict. That closed off a possible path to peace. Finally we have reversed that wrongheaded policy, but the reversal came many deaths too late.
We refused to talk with Iran because of geopolitics. We fretted that inviting Iran to the conference table would give its regime added legitimacy, or bless its role as a player in Middle East politics. Those were foolish objections, since Iran’s government is as legitimate as any in the region, and it is a major player in regional politics regardless of what the United States says or does.
Even if the objections were real, though, they should have been irrelevant. As long as thousands of Syrians are dying, being maimed, or fleeing their homes, speculating on the long-term strategic impact of negotiating with Iran is deeply cynical.
American policy toward Syria has been shaped by the demand that President Bashar Assad must resign or be deposed. Evidently, we learned nothing from the chaos and terror that emerged after we overthrew two other Middle East dictators, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Moammar Khadafy in Libya. Instead we listened to our putative partners in Saudi Arabia, who detest Assad. We did that because of geopolitics — specifically, in order not to upset our relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Our other bad friend in the region, Turkey, also restricts our freedom of movement. Kurdish ground forces are the only ones effectively fighting extremism in Syria, but we will not back them fully because Turkey would object. That would upset our geopolitics. As a result, the war drags on.
Howls of protest rose from Washington when Russia entered the Syrian war. Russia is said to be extending its strategic reach, gaining a new foothold in the Middle East, and testing its weaponry in ways that could help it prepare for future conflicts. Russia violated one of our strategic principles, which holds that only the United States or countries approved by the United States are permitted to bomb the Middle East. Few asked what should have been the key question: Will Russia’s involvement help end the war and the misery it creates?
Questions like these are lost in the fog of geopolitics. Sterile discussions about tactical options unfold in surreal contrast to Syria’s human catastrophe. In the corridors of power in Washington, it is all but taboo to measure these options according to which ones might bring peace closer. Peace is not our central goal. Instead we seek geopolitical advantage and “full-spectrum dominance.”
When huge numbers of human lives are not at risk every day, nations have the luxury of concentrating on geopolitics. It should guide us when we approach trade talks, plan our relations with China or India, or shape our partnership with the European Union. When nations begin drowning in seas of their own blood, however, it is time to put geopolitics aside.
Strategists in Washington and other Western capitals should be required to make their decisions about Syria in rooms where real-time scenes of drowning children and incinerated families are projected onto large screens. That might help pull them out of the airy world of political posturing into the real world of human suffering.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.