Today’s video tries to present the relationships that Saudi Arabia has with Turkey and Indonesia. I don’t really do much of this on this channel, unless we’re talking about one of the world’s great rivalries, like Saudi Arabia vs. Iran. That’s too bad. Almost all of the videos on this channel deal with the way the United States relates to some other country. That’s only natural, as I am a US citizen, and all of us are living in the shadow of the world’s most powerful country to some extent. But I think a lot of valuable detail gets left out if we just focus on the relationships between the US and other countries. And that detail is only getting more important.
Power is flattening. The old imperial model, and the early US world system lent itself to a “hub and spoke” approach. Colonized or just weaker countries tended to have one all important relationship, and then lesser ones with neighbors or other countries with which it had some kind of historical connection. Nowadays more and more places are getting rich, and therefore their relationships are getting a lot more complex. Business and cultural ties can strengthen for a wide range of reasons. Everything’s getting a lot more interesting. I hope to do what today’s video does more often, and cover more relationships between countries outside of the context of the United States.
Keen eyed viewers may have noticed something a bit odd about this video… Have I gone full tin-hat and joined the “Assad doesn’t use chemical weapons team?” No, no I have not. I feel the same way about this issue that I do about religion. I find those who claim any kind of certainty, one way or the other, deeply silly.
In April the United States bombed Syria, supposedly in response to a chemical attack that Assad carried out in the Damascus suburb of Douma. In my video on the topic I covered the two interpretations of the event, and why I didn’t find either particularly persuasive. The bombing struck me as being about US domestic politics more than anything else. My video demolished the idea that there was any real security or humanitarian rationale to the Trump Administration’s bombing, but it also pooh-poohed the claims of the “Assad was framed!” set. Today’s video is a bit more sympathetic to the idea that the rebels cooked up April’s chemical attack to get the US to bomb Assad.
People shouldn’t be forced to be on one side or the other. Neither the Assad regime, nor the US intelligence community are trustworthy actors. I tend to give the US intelligence community more of the benefit of the doubt, but perhaps I’m biased. Our opinion of a given controversy shouldn’t be black and white. It’s entirely possible that what happened didn’t fit either narrative. It wasn’t necessarily a CIA stitch-up, the US could have been manipulated, or it could have let itself be manipulated by elements on the ground. We should also change our opinion based on new information. And with respect to April’s chemical attack, the US intelligence community has burned up a lot of my good will.
In April the US government justified its bombing with assertions that the nerve agent sarin was used in the attack on Douma. This is important, because it’s well established that many actors in the Syrian war have the capacity to deliver more widely available and more easily deliverable chlorine gas. The presence of sarin was important in the US’s story that this Douma attack was different, and more worthy of punitive action. The US made this claim, and got the United Nations to back them up. Well, earlier this month, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released its report, and they didn’t find any Sarin. So we know that a significant portion of the story Trump and Mattis was selling was bullshit.
But once again, this is a spectrum. It doesn’t mean the CIA planned this. But it seems much more likely, to me anyway, that April’s Douma attack was carried out by the rebels themselves to try to win a propaganda victory against Assad. This could very well not be the case. Who knows, maybe Assad hopped in a helicopter and dropped those Chorine canisters himself. But if that’s the story the US government wants to tell, it shouldn’t let itself get caught out in such obvious lies. It forces me further down the path to tin-foil hat territory.
With this video we bring our investigation into Yemen to a close. Looking at the country in depth, it’s become clear that the stories we tell about Yemen don’t have much relation to reality. Al Qaeda nightmares, and the much heralded hegemony of Iran are ideas that I find annoying at the best of times, but they’re especially pernicious when it comes to Yemen. These issues are tangential to the conflict in Yemen, which is really about independence first and foremost. I hope you find this series useful.
I’m quite pleased with how this has gone. It’s nice to produce a handful of videos with a defined beginning, middle and end. Those who make their way through this Yemen series will know more about the country and the conflict than anybody in Washington, DC. I hope to be able to make more things like this in future. Which is why I close today’s video with another Patreon Pitch…
The popularity of the Shia Sunni “Eternal Hatreds” myth is mostly about Iraq. It’s a bit sad really. The power of this meme comes from the desperate wish of the American thinking classes to find anything else to blame for Iraq. And Syria as well. If these two groups are destined to fight each other forever, then hey, it’s not really our fault. Bloody, endless warfare is just the natural state of the Middle East! Pay no attention to the fact that we isolated and brutalized Iraq for a decade, before destroying its government completely. Pay no attention to the funding and support we’ve been fire-hosing towards Sunni militants in Syria. This was all going to happen anyway!
I find the whole concept of religious war to be a bit over-sold. The standard go-to comparison from European history for the modern middle east is the 30 years war in 17th century Europe. In that war the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor went after some Protestant princes and 30 years later 25-30% of the German people had been killed. The Catholic-Protestant divide certainly had a lot to do with this conflict, but is that what it was really about? Not really. Catholic France spent a lot of time helping Protestant princes because they didn’t like the Holy Roman Emperor. The Holy Roman Empire had gotten along for most of a century with both Protestant and Catholic princes and regions. The war was started by, and perpetuated by political actors who saw more opportunities for land and power. Sure, some of the actors were primarily motivated by religion, but not many. And even the most vocally religious actors, like Gustavus Adolphus, the Protestant king of Sweden, and Ferdinand II, the Holy Roman Emperor, were pursuing very non-spiritual aims. Ferdinand’s attempt to impose Catholicism Empire wide was as much about administrative consistency and control as it was about doctrine.
This is all to say that war is a complicated state, and it’s never just about one thing. Wars can attain a life of their own. The roving mercenary bands of the 30 years war weren’t interested in conclusive battles, because that would mean an end to contracts and pillage. I fear that we may be reaching that stage in the Middle East at the moment. Throwing up our hands, and insisting on a simple religious explanation will not help us avoid that unhappy result.