It is at least moderately significant that war games are going on right now in Syria, a nation whose regime is unstable (and that is putting it rather charitably) between Syria and three other nations: Russia, China, and Iran. This seems significant for a variety of reasons. For one, war is going on right now in Syria between Sunni Islamists at least loosely supported by Turkey, the United States, and Europe and the Assad government and its allies (Russia, China, and Iran). In Bahrain, the threatened Sunni government over a majority Shi’ite population was bolstered by Saudi Arabia, with its own nearby restive Shi’ite minority in the Persian Gulf area . In Syria the situation is reversed, where an Alawite minority is threatened by a Sunni majority.
I think that the role of Iran has been greatly misunderstood. Some prophecy enthusiasts (I have at least one of them in mind) have mistakenly thought of Iran as a power capable of uniting the Middle East under its rule. Given the longevity and severity of the Sunni-Shi’ite divide as well as the Persian-Arab divide, this is an unreasonable expectation contrary to history (the last time Persia in any form had substantial holdings in the Middle East was under the Mongols, and before that one must go all the way to the 600’s AD, before the unification of the Arabs under Islamic rule). But that does not mean that Iran has no useful role at all to play. As I have argued previously, Iran’s role is as a spur to Arab-Sunni unification, especially as democracy in the Arab Middle East means Islamist rule of some kind.
Here is a case where the interests of Europeans and Islamists temporarily coincide. Europeans (and Americans) have the naive belief that Middle Eastern countries will overnight (or in a reasonably short time) become functioning parliamentary democracies. Given that Europe itself has a hard time keeping functioning parliamentary democracies going (see Greece and the Ukraine), the West does not at this time have the moral or political (or economic) capital to export its ways to the rest of the world, nor does it have the time or patience to engage in nation building which would teach other peoples the self-discipline that is required to be a free state. That is in large part because the West has forgotten itself that self-discipline is required to maintain freedom, and one cannot teach what one does not remember or understand.
It is clear from the war games (which are the largest war games in Middle East history) currently being conducted that Syria sees itself as a client state of an Iranian, Chinese, and Russian alliance . It recognizes the need for outside help in the face of local challenges to its legitimacy and its isolation from neighbors over religion. Likewise, the United States and Europe do not at this point have the stomach for a long and bloody war, even to overthrow a particularly corrupt dictator (and they are all corrupt). In fact, Iran, China, Russia, and Syria all share a deep concern with the spread of Sunni Islam in their spheres of influence.
The confluence of Western political and economic bankruptcy and the threat of a massive alliance seeking to maintain the control of a minority over Syrian rule suggests that if the Arab states of the Middle East want a power to counteract distant imperial behavior from Russia or China or nearby regional domination by Iran, they need to form the power base necessary to resist Iran themselves. To do that will require Egyptian population and military strength (or their Turkish equivalent) and plenty of money from Gulf oil states, along with a common Islamist ideology that is transnational in nature and capable of overcoming the barriers of different national histories within the same region. Such a force would have to play on the same kind of religious beliefs shared by Arab Muslims in that part of the world as a way of overcoming “artificial” boundaries.
What this would look like would not be a parliamentary as the West understands it. Minority rights would not be respected–whether those minorities were Christians, Jews, Kurds, or any other little people unfortunate enough to be in the way. The rights of women would be strongly curtailed, and we can expect that the interpretations of Islam in such regions would be extremely strict, especially as it is unfaithfulness to Sharia that many Islamists blame for the division and weakness of the Arab world. This is not a type of “democracy” that we in the West would celebrate, and the people we freed from militaristic nationalistic dictators in order to form Arab Islamic republics would not be likely to show us any gratitude for the blood and treasure we expended on allowing them to establish their harsh medieval regimes.
And here is the central problem. War is not a game. Not everyone plays by the same set of rules, and decisions made for tactical reasons often carry much larger and much darker consequences. There are stark differences between civilizations, differences of worldview based on religious beliefs, history, mindset. These views can be changed over time, but they take a long time and require a process of conversion from one worldview to another. In the meantime, even when people use the same words, like democracy and freedom, what they mean is not the same from one civilization to another. Indeed, even within the West what is meant by a republic was far different in the late 1700’s than it means today, and the expectations of people for their own duties and responsibilities and the duties and affairs of governments and other institutions on all levels is far different now than then. Only if we understand this can we avoid making tragic mistakes for ourselves and our nations. Sadly, it does not appear as if the world’s governments are thinking at all beyond the narrow tactical level, which suggests a massive shortfall in diplomatic, logistical, and strategic understanding. And these shortfalls may end up proving decisive, as they are problems both within and between nations.