In July the Obama administration and its European and Russian partners met with Iran in Vienna to sign the so-called nuclear deal. The general idea was to at least delay nuclear proliferation in an already volatile part of the world. No doubt the White House was hoping for much more—that the Islamic Republic of Iran could be welcomed back into the community of nations, bringing stability to a violent Middle East. But it is now clear that Obama’s great diplomatic endeavor has had the opposite effect: Sectarian war is engulfing the Middle East. Four months after the Iran deal was signed in the Austrian capital, Europe is perhaps irrevocably changed. The November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris look like one salvo in what is likely to become a long-running and brutal conflict on the continent.
Sure, German chancellor Angela Merkel should be held accountable for the flood of Muslim-world refugees making their way to Europe. She welcomed 800,000 to her own doorstep, and millions more will feel encouraged to follow. She didn’t mean to overwhelm her EU neighbors and expose them to danger. She didn’t mean to overtax European security services already concerned about European Muslims returning from the war in Syria and Iraq. And neither did Barack Obama. He wanted to extricate America from Middle East conflicts, not broaden them.
Obama didn’t want to commit force to the Syrian conflict because he believes there’s little upside in engaging in the endless wars of the Middle East. No less important, he feared that backing proxy forces to topple Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was likely to anger Assad’s patrons in Tehran, causing them to walk away from the deal. Senior members of his own cabinet recommended to the president that we at least establish a buffer zone, or a no-fly zone to protect those fleeing from Assad and his allies, a policy that would have had bipartisan support. But protecting those refugees might have required firing on the forces hunting them, angering the Iranians, so Obama turned a deaf ear. The Iran deal, he thought, would balance out these warring sects and force them to come to an accommodation with each other.
As the wars in Syria and Iraq raged, observers noted that the borders of the Middle East were collapsing. Whether the post-World War I state system of the region is falling apart or not, the reality is that borders are somewhat irrelevant in a part of the world where tribes extend from Lebanon to Yemen or Syria to Saudi Arabia. The key feature of Middle Eastern history throughout the ages is not the borders, but the populations. The White House had its eye on the wrong big picture.
There is some confusion in the popular imagination about the source of the refugee crisis. ISIS, for all the gory violence and punishments it visits on the townsfolk it rules, is responsible for only a small percentage of the refugees from the Syrian civil war (among them the Yazidis and Christians it has targeted for extermination). Overwhelmingly, the Syrian refugees are Sunnis in flight from the campaigns of sectarian cleansing waged by the pro-Iran camp, especially the Assad regime and its Hezbollah and Iranian allies. Many European leaders now let on that they agree with Iran and Russia that Assad should stay, believing this is the only way to stabilize the situation. But it’s the Syrian president who drove the Sunnis out. With no buffer zones, the refugees went first to the states on Syria’s borders, and some made the long trip to the Gulf Arab states. The numbers of refugees, in the millions, and their needs quickly overwhelmed Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Besides, Europe was always a more attractive destination. All they needed was an invitation.
Without question, the vast majority of these poor and huddled masses are simply looking for safety, work, and a future for their families. Some are hustlers, of course, happy to sign up for a handout from self-advertised welfare states. And a few others have war on their minds. War against Europe, and war against each other. A colleague recently back from Germany showed me photographs he’d taken of the refugees. These are Syrians, he said. And these are Iranians. Even among the Syrians are scores of Lebanese and Iraqis, including Shiites, traveling on forged Syrian documents to enhance the probability of finding refuge in Europe. In other words, the two sides of the Middle East’s sectarian conflict, Sunnis and Shiites, have made their way to the continent. Most of them are young men of military age.