In a Feb. 1 Wall Street Journal essay, the always eloquent and astute Fouad Ajami characterized Syria's bitter and bloody struggle as the Cold War's last battle.
Ajami's Cold War frame is very instructive — to a point. The ongoing diplomatic defense of Syria's Assad dictatorship by Russia's Vladimir Putin, with the semi-fraternal support of (still communist) China, has definite Cold War echoes. Syria was a Soviet client state; deep ties remain between Putin's Moscow and Bashir Assad's Damascus.
Ajami noted other Cold War elements threading the Syrian thickets. In 2011, as the Arab Spring revolts spread, the Soviet Union's arch-Cold War nemesis, NATO, prosecuted regime change in Libya. Libyan strong man Muammar Gadhafi, a Soviet client of a sort, died in that war — shot by his own people. Now NATO, with Turkey its frontline, turns on Syria's strong man. Putin, a former KGB officer, was schooled in Soviet Cold War-era repression. For a KGB man, vetoing a U.S.-crafted United Nations condemnation of the Assad regime must evoke thrilling Cold War muscle-memories.
Ajami tied the Cold War analogs to 21st century matters. Strong man Putin, overseeing a KGB-mafia oligarchy challenged by a disenchanted domestic opposition, has decided that in Syria secret police-fear will triumph and the strong man will survive. Though "the sun has set on the Soviet empire," according to Ajami, Putin and his cadre believe that "a line has to be drawn in defense of an autocratic cabal of nations."
I agree completely with his assessment of Putin's objectives. However, we are not dealing with the last battle the Cold War, and I am not referring to a potential nuclear war with the world's Stalinist holdout, North Korea — that would be a Cold War coda.
The current Syrian revolt, the entire Arab Spring phenomenon, and for that matter, the Cold War share a sobering (and I suggest more explanatory) origin: World War I, the Great War. Four authoritarian empires fell in that conflagration: the Ottoman Turk, the German (Hohenzollern), the Austro-Hungarian (Habsburg) and the Russian Romanov. The Western Front slaughterhouse damaged France and Britain; though decolonization came decades later, the democratic imperialists never really recovered. What to do with all the imperial fragments? The Nazis, exploiting German grievances with World War I's outcome, tried to create a super German empire, but lost. The Soviets did resurrect the Russian empire, and extended it, until 1991. Gone forever? As Ajami noted, Putin exhibits commissar tendencies. He is not above creating an empire with an authoritarian sword.
The European Union seems to have solved the Franco-German border issues, which it was designed to do. The EU, however, 100 years after the First Balkan War (1912), now confronts a Balkan crisis in Greece. Though Greek austerity protestors decry German financial imperialism, this is a battle of budgets, not bullets. Parliamentary democratic politics direct Berlin, not the Kaiser's whim.
Not so in the Near East, where World War I's aftermath remains most unsettled.
Follow Arab Spring's Mediterranean littoral. Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria were at one time Ottoman provinces. (For that matter, so was Yemen.) The Turco-Italian War of 1911-1912, which was fought in Libya, set the stage for the Balkan Wars, which ignited World War I. Aspiring Italian imperialists snatched Libya from the decaying Ottomans. Rome won, Constantinople lost, the desires of Libya's Arab and Berber residents be damned.
By 1918, however, "self-determination" mattered enough that Woodrow Wilson said the "interests of the populations" (the residents) must be balanced against "questions of sovereignty" (political authority of the imperial power). The ex-Ottoman provinces missed the balance. T.E. Lawrence's Arab guerrillas harried the Turks. They thought they were fighting for independence; they got Sykes-Picot, and became satraps.
Which dovetails with Ajami's analysis. He noted that China, vexed by Tibetan separatists, insists on "unfettered claims of national sovereignty." Hence Beijing consorts with Putin's Moscow to draw a line in Syria — yet another attempt by empires of the sword to thwart self-determination. That great war continues.
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