Go West, Young Bombardiers

The third century Christian theologian Tertullian is famously credited with defending his faith with the outrageous claim, “Credo quia absurdum” (I believe, because it is absurd). That is a paraphrase of Tertullian’s actual statements from De Carne Christi, notably “certum est, quia impossibile” (It’s certain because impossible). Some have claimed that Tertullian was appealing to an Aristolean notion that it is possible to deduce an argument of probability from the astonishing improbability of an event. If so, then we ought to take seriously President Obama’s strategy “degrading and destroying” ISIS, no matter how absurd it seems.

The folly of fools

Welcome to the coalition of the noncommittal. Turkey vacillating. Iran petulant and distrustful. Syria cold-shouldered. Iraq in shambles. Jordan a bumbling rest stop on the way to jihad. And rebel factions arguing about which way to fire their American-supplied weapons (NE at ISIS or SW at Assad?). Bastions of democracy all. Which begs the question, why would the White House and its Pentagon advisors even draft a plan to defeat a jihadist group that—by most American intelligence agency estimates—poses no threat to the U.S.? The fable of the Khorasan group had to be manufactured to provide a more “immanent” threat than even ISIS. But the ruse was quickly seen through. Surely there are so many cross-purposes in the Middle East that no stable alliance can truly be formed. Aside from the fact any such plan ought to shut down points of ingress or egress for the enemy. Yet we’ve not heard a concerted plan to seal the borders of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Probably because there are thousands of refugees streaming across the borders. Not incidentally, American armed forces have a name for this kind of situation. They call it a socio-ethnic-economic-political-religious (SEEPR) conflict. The acronym itself should give the president enough pause to realize that a diplomatic effort would better serve nearly every population within harm’s way.

The strategy is prima facie ludicrous. But what if the underlying goal is not to degrade and destroy ISIS? What if it is to unseat Assad? Then the plan doesn’t look so arbitrary. In fact, there’s a trace of geostrategic continuity in it, however alarming in its bellicosity. Syrian regime change has been on the books since the apostles of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) sketched their rash and heedless plan to topple “seven countries in five years,” according to General Wesley Clark, who revealed the plan years after first hearing of it. Only another gaffe by our masterful secretary of state and some dithering by the president prevented this from happening a year ago. In fact, talk has already surfaced about enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria. Sounds benign, but a no-fly zone can be anything but. Our open participation in the Libyan war in 2011 began with an attempt to establish a no-fly zone. It quickly metastasized by design into a regime-changing conflict. Controlling air space over Syria would likely entail “degrading and destroying” large portions of the Syrian air force.

The nagging question of why?

Yet why overthrow Syria? They are a nominally pluralist secular presence in an increasingly sectarian fundamentalist neighborhood. They are also a bulwark against ISIS. And look what happened the last time we toppled a secular government. Iraq happened. Well, consider this: Syria sits at the crossroads of a series of oil and gas routes to the lucrative European market, with access to the Mediterranean and a long border with a NATO member (Turkey). In fact, Bashar al-Assad has evidently conceived of Syria as a kind of signal crossing for exports from all the major underwater fuel fields in the region: As Mike Whitney expertly laid out last month, all the regional heavyweights are scrambling for vantage over the westward flow of fossil fuels and Syria is in their crosshairs.

To begin, Qatar is sitting on a huge field of untapped natural gas. Several years ago it floated a proposal for a Qatar-Turkey pipeline that would route through Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and on into Europe. Were this pipeline ever built, it would instantly accomplish—to some important degree—the American objective of separating Europe from dependency on Russian fossil fuels. So what prohibited this project from being green lit? Bashar al-Assad. He turned down the Qatari proposal. In rejecting a Qatari line exporting gas from the South Pars field in the Persian Gulf through Turkey to Europe, Assad was partially doing Moscow’s bidding, protecting Russia’s significance as an energy supplier to a well-lit and warmed Europe. But he’s also supporting his regional and confessional allies.

After sending the Qataris and Turks packing, Assad pivoted East and cut a deal with Iran. Nicknamed the “Islamic pipeline,” this line would funnel Iranian gas via Iraq and Syria to Europe across the sparkling Mediterranean. It would feature a key pivot in Qoms, Syria, where one pipeline would branch in multiple directions. Note that this pipeline would be a Shiite line to Europe, evading Sunni countries along the way. Naturally, the Sunnis in Qatar and Turkey and their Western backers were underwhelmed by the idea of being excluded from the Euro riches the deal would produce. Was it mere coincidence then that a rebellion was ignited in Syria not long after Syria inked the pipeline deal with Tehran? Billions of Qatari dollars suggest not. How convenient would it be if Assad were to fall, a Western friendly Sunni leadership ascended to power, stalled the Islamic pipeline and in turn green-lit the Qatari-Turkey project?

Also in question is Russian energy flow to Europe. By fostering a coup in Kiev, the West grabbed the reigns in a nation whose leader was temporizing as he weighed competing IMF and Russian loan offers, and had begun to lean east. Ukraine is the main passageway for Slavic fuels into the EU. Recently, as part of its IMF loan facility, duly accepted by the coup regime as soon as the shooting stopped, Kiev has enacted legislation that permits foreign companies (read U.S. and EU) to lease up to 49 percent of the transit pipelines in the country. With hostile American puppets in power, Russia can shelve any idea of using Ukraine as their main thoroughfare to Europe. Hence the significance of Moscow’s South Stream project, which would happily sidestep Ukraine and send natural gas to Europe through Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary to Austria.

Naturally, the idea of an Iranian pipeline through Syria and heavy Russian oil and gas flowing through Ukraine and points south is a nightmare scenario for western interests. Hence the possibility of an effort to capsize Damascus. Also note that the Russians have contracts for oil exploration in Syria and station its Mediterranean fleet in Tartus. These would come under tremendous threat should a Washington-directed regime assume power in Syria, perhaps similar to the momentarily uncertain fate of the Russian fleet at Sevastopol in Crimea.

Making sense of the war

Given this picture, it would then be hard to imagine the U.S. not using the ISIS war as a convenient pretext to dispatch the vexing Alawite cabal in Damascus. Nor would it be hard to comprehend Qatar’s massive funding of a vulgar assemblage of anti-Assad rebels. In light of these underlying schemes, the ISIS war hardly feels as foolish as it does at first glance. Of course, numerous government sources have suggested that we may find that degrading, demoralizing, defeating and destroying ISIS will take decades. This will suit the Pentagon and the defense industry just fine, supplying steady profits and giving each successive administration a useful asset with which to whip up terrorist hysteria whenever the economy tanks. (And surely ISIS will spawn novel constructions just as it evolved from al-Qaeda.)

In the end, although they may be worthy causes, the war on ISIS will not be fought because they are “unique in their brutality,” as outlined by our principled commander in chief. Neither will it be because they behead infidels. Or threaten minority groups with genocide. Or rape and enslave women. Or kill infants. Or because they are a threat to America. The rhetoric of moral outrage is necessary to align our latest actions with the perennial depiction of the United States as the “indispensible” nation, nobly making the world safe for democracy, which we assume is the penultimate aspiration of all peoples.

The reality that underlies this surface rhetoric merely reveals the pedestrian self-interest that some states cannot seem to help but pursue—namely, hegemony. In fact, Obama even conceded as much in his speech, saying his ISIS strategy, “…is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests…” There it is in a nutshell. Has any press reporter ever asked the president to specifically define “core interests” and what their protection might entail? It ought to go without saying that whenever a president—of any nation—climbs into the pulpit to declaim on the moral necessity of military action, he is hiding something.

Of course, the great historical irony of the situation is what a RAND report so plainly stated in 2008, “The geographic area of proven oil reserves coincides with the power base of much of the Salafi-jihadist network.” General Clark, one of the more clear-sighted voices in the military establishment, said that there are some 170 trillion dollars worth of oil reserves still in the ground in the Middle East. To be sure, the region is home to some 56 percent of the world’s recoverable oil and 40 percent of its gas reserves. What can we deduce from this small footnote to the story? Expect unrest in and around the Gulf for decades to come. The RAND report, which was sponsored by the U.S. Army and its Training and Doctrine Command, called this, “the long war.” Believe it. Quia absurdam.

Jason Hirthler is a writer, strategist, and 15-year veteran of the communications industry. He has written for many political communities. He lives and works in New York City. He can be reached at: jasonhirthler@gmail.com. Read other articles by Jason.