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Eureka: Explaining Syria, Iran and the Middle East
by Joseph Gatt
2018-03-26 05:43:39
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Between the early 20th century and the end of the second world war the Middle East was home mostly to agricultural or pastrolist communities, with many subsistance farmers. In the average community, you maybe had someone who hearded sheep, maybe another one rented donkeys, signs or richness were perhaps owning your own donkey, horses were for rich people. Then you had those who had a plot of land and farmed it. Islam played an important role in regulating community life. Paying alms, or the zakat, meant that there was sort of a social security system where the poor were never left to starve. Communities who lived together almost always had blood relations of some kind. Landlords existed and were known to be fierce and feared, and collected taxes. Social order was important, and most communities had a moral police of some kind. Some communities cut the hands of theieves and executed adulterers, others were a bit more lenient. I say this because this is specifically the kind of world order ISIS wanted to reestablish.

syr01_400After World War II new modern states were established. A lot of Middle Eastern countries gor rid of their kings to replace them with Arab Socialist presidents. Iran also had a socialist system of sorts. By socialist I don't mean that countries were aligned with the Soviet Union or the United States during the cold war. Many countries flip flopped in their allainces between Soviet and Capitalist blocks. But the idea of Arab socialism was a system where the industralization effort would be led by the state. So Middle Eastern countries, with no exceptions, borrowed money and got assistance to build roads, ports and state-owned factories. Roads were bumpy, ports had a bit of anarchy and factories were producing clothes that were unwearable and food that was barely edible. An exception to this system was Morocco, where the King decided factories would be privately owned, if possible by foreign stakeholders or nationals who could afford to own factories. The main driving force of the economy in Morocco was agriculture.

Using this system Middle Eastern countries borrowed money, relied on assistance, and basically misused the borrowed cash. They spent a lot of the cash in the form of private parties and mansions for the leaders and their cronies, the rest was spent on importing the goods that local factories were supposed to be producing. Saudi Arabia, the Trucial States and Oman is an exception to this rule, as oil revenues and smaller populations meant they were less prone to borrow money, although borrow money they did, they just tend to pay it back.

Now to Iran, Iraq and Syria. In the 1980s Iran and Iraq fought a war, the war reached a stalemate and was a draw. There were several reasons for fighting the war, but mainly the Ayatollah and the newly appointed Saddam Hussein were flexing their muscles. In 1991 Saddam told Kuweit that he should invade them because Kuweit owed him thanks for fighting the war against Iran. Eventually Saddam's debts accumulated and the 2003 American invasion was in a way preventing a failed state from collapsing, among other stuff. Another story for another day.

After the 2008 recession hit, Middle Eastern states could no longer get the debt and assistance that enabled them to fund factories whose food no one was eating and the roads people had trouble using, along with the imports and leaders' extravagagnt lifestyle. That led to frustration in the different populations and armies, which led to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen then Syria's populations to protest against oppressive regimes who were only worried about their personal welbeing and did not care that factories were producing food and clothes no one was eating or wearing. Tunisia was rather well organized but had their problems, Egypt was well organized but had their problems, Libya became a failed state where people were on a treasure hunt to find where all the oil money went, and Syria became sensitive ground.

First Iraq and Syria are what are called pivot states. Syria has Israel in the South, Turkey in the North, Iraq and Iran to the East. Iraq has Iran East, Turkey West and the former Soviet Union to the North. Now you understand why Russia and Turkey are involved in the conflict. The Kurds want independence which Turkey opposes for geostrategic and historical reasons, they don't want a state East constantly teasing them with the past and hinting at wars with them. Iran wants to avoid another war with Iraq but also has a strange obsession with Israel and the United States. Russia wants to avoid failed states playing at the borders of its territory.

So what are Turkey, Iran, and Russia's interests in the region? Turkey has needed strong leadership since the Iraq war, militarist and belligerent rhetoric because the likely scenario is that Iraq and Syria will end up being states divided between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. That's a lot of fronts that can cause trouble. Iran sees a possibility for a federation rather than three divided states in Iraq and Syria, but wants to federate the states and eventually destroy America and Israel. Russia wants to avoid Syria and Iraq from playing with Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and eventually Russia itself.

Now to the cultural notes. I spend a lot of time with Arabs and Muslims. They seem to have a fascination with leaders, their secrets and destroying their leaders. They have a firm held belief that leaders are secretive, hold superpowers but can be toppled. Talk to any Middle Easterner and they will have a fictional anecdote or two about meeting the leader or one of his cronies and having had fictional revelations made to them. They see Israel and the United States in the same light: a leader with lots of secrets who needs to be toppled. Except that their leaders don't care about all the bumpy roads and factories that don't produce much.  

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