With the recapture of the strategically important city of Qusair by the forces of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the discussion concerning what policy the United States should pursue vis-à-vis Syria has come front and center. Opinions from the left, right and center cover a full spectrum of choices — i.e., arming the rebels, setting up no-fly zones, or remaining aloof, the latter view assuming that we have no viable options in that a victory by either al-Assad or the rebels is problematical for the United States.
The dilemma in Syria is part of the current “Middle East Question” and not the historically important “Eastern Question.” However, the historic Eastern Question has a bearing.
The situation that we face in the Syrian civil war is reminiscent of a dilemma faced by Otto von Bismarck and the German empire in dealing with the so-called Eastern Question in the Balkans in the mid-1870s. The Ottoman empire ruled or controlled a huge area of the Balkans, including Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.
Problems in the Balkans had been percolating for well more than 50 years. The issues had to do with religion, nationalism, a corrupt dictatorial regime in Turkey and conflict among the Great Powers, particularly Russia and England.
Revolts against the Turkish sultan by the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina broke out in June 1875, caused by emerging nationalism and high taxes. The Bulgarians joined in the revolt in April 1876. The slaughter of the Christian rebels in Bulgaria by the Muslim Turks was so extensive and brutal that it created a very tense diplomatic situation in Europe.
The situation was made even more complex by the conflict between the Great Power interests of Russia and Great Britain, with Great Britain being more interested in stopping the Russian ambitions in the Middle East than in forcing the sultan to implement moderate reforms for his empire.
The Russians were seeking to protect their brother Slavs from persecution and extend Russia’s physical presence around the eastern Mediterranean Sea, which the British believed would be a threat to British control of the Suez Canal.
After Serbia and Montenegro entered the war in July 1876 and were crushed by the sultan’s army, the Russians demanded that the sultan grant an armistice. But the Turks refused, having come under the leadership of the new and warlike Sultan Abdul Hamid II, also known as “the damned” or “the bloody.”
After several months of negotiations, war finally erupted between Turkey and Russia in April 1877. While both sides demonstrated considerable incompetence — the famous German Gen. Helmuth von Moltke described it as a war between “the one-eyed and the blind” — by January 1878, the Russians were on the verge of seizing Constantinople. An international crisis was created when the British dispatched a fleet to the straits to protect the city from the Russians. It was truly a tragicomedy situation, with the British whale facing off against the Russian bear.
The Russians, however, quickly forced the Turks to sign the severe Treaty of San Stefano in March 1878, extending Russian influence in the region and granting autonomy to much of the Balkans.
Both Austria-Hungary and Great Britain believed that their national interests were threatened by the overt increase of Russian influence in the Balkans. With war a real possibility, von Bismarck — the chancellor of Germany — entered the scene and proposed an international conference to deal with the crisis. Representatives from the major powers of Europe attended the Congress of Berlin in June-July 1878. It was the most distinguished gathering of statesmen in Europe from 1815 to 1919.
Germany had no vested interests in the Balkans and was looked upon as the honest broker in the negotiations. The net result was that Russia had to make concessions, but still achieved much of its aims in the region. Turkish control of the Balkans was greatly reduced, and England received the strategically important island of Cypress. Germany received nothing from the settlement and had no desire to get involved in the Balkans.
As Bismarck famously stated in 1876 as conditions in the region deteriorated, the Balkans had “no German interests worth the bones of a Pomeranian musketeer.”
The Congress of Berlin did avert war between the Great Powers, an achievement unto itself. But the Great Powers did not really deal with the problems — nationalism, religious tensions and the Turkish presence — in the Balkans. Ultimately, the Great Powers solved their issues but did not take into consideration the aims of the people in the Balkans, in particular the Bosnian desire to become part of Serbia and the Macedonian desire to be free of Turkish rule.
Since approximately 1815, the Balkans have been a problem in Europe, producing the Balkan crisis — war — from 1875-1878, the first and second Balkan Wars in 1912-1913, and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand that sparked the outbreak of World War I in 1914, as well as the Bosnian wars of 1992-1995.
The Balkans were and remained a tar pit in which the Great Powers found themselves mired, a tar pit that exploded in 1992 and engendered the bombing of Serbia by the United States and the presence of U.S./U.N. peacekeeping troops for several years thereafter.
The Eastern Question of the 19th century has shifted a few miles in distance and has morphed into the Middle East Question of the past 25 years, the civil war in Syria being the latest variant of that question.
The issues are somewhat similar to those of the Balkans in the 1870s: religion — Alawite, Shiite, Sunni and a few Christians; nationalism/Islamic nationalism — al-Qaida, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood; dictatorship; and Great Power conflict — Russia vs. the United States.
What we have today is another tar pit in the Middle East — Libya, Egypt, Iraq Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine and Iran. When attacked by Osama bin Laden, we responded in Afghanistan and even invaded Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction. The president articulated national interests — debatable — to justify our aggressive action in 2001 and 2003.
But what now? Are our national interests at stake in Syria? It is certainly reasonable to argue that, as regards the Syrian civil war and our current policy in Afghanistan, there are “no American interests worth the bones of one Virginia National Guardsman.”
Syria, under the dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad, has not been a major threat to our vital interests in the Middle East. He clearly has been an ongoing irritant to the state of Israel, but that has been the nature of the Muslim-Jewish issue in the region ever since 1948.
Al-Assad has not threatened the flow of oil from the region nor threatened to upset the balance of power. True, he has continued to support the Hezbollah terrorists, but save for the attack on the Marine Barracks in 1983 in Beirut, Hezbollah has not directly threatened the United States.
One might argue that the desire to crush the government of Al-Assad is an indirect way of defeating or beating back the growling influence of Iran in the region. But given the emergence of our vast oil and gas reserves, should we really care about the flow of oil out of the Middle East? I think not.
The only remaining argument for intervention in Syria has to do with the humanitarian issue — to save lives. People of good conscience are justifiably appalled by the loss of life in this civil war. However, this civil war is in part a struggle of nationhood, the creation of a state. About this, Michael Howard, the well-known military historian at Oxford, states: “International law may recognize and legitimize their existence, but it can neither create nor preserve them. They come into being and have their geographical extent delineated as the result of political process in which the actual potential use of force often plays a considerable part.”
In his view, states come into existence and go out of existence through war or the threat of force — e.g., Norway’s separation from Sweden in 1905. If a humanitarian rationale justifies our interference in this civil war, then China should be wary of U.S. actions in the event of another Tiananmen Square.
The realpolitik diplomacy of Otto von Bismarck would suggest that we should avert our eyes, swallow hard and let the people of Syria work out their own destiny. Has anyone considered that in giving weapons to one side in this struggle we merely prolong the suffering?
Realpolitik also dictates that we avoid a major dust-up with Russia over Syria, because Russia has invested a great deal of money, material and prestige in its support of Bashar Al-Assad.
In addition, is there any guarantee at all that the regime that might replace Al-Assad will be more favorable to American interests?
The costs of getting more involved in Syria seem to outweigh the benefits, and as Chancellor Bismarck might have stated, in Syria there are “no German interests worth the bones of a Pomeranian musketeer.”
James Y. Simms Jr. is emeritus professor of Russian and modern European history at Hampden-Sydney College.