It’s that time of history again.
Climb up the road abutting the Golan Heights’ southern ledge, opposite Jordan’s northwestern edge, and admire the Yarmuk River’s cliffy banks, where a bridge blown up by Palmach commandos in 1946 still hangs crippled to this day, disused like the Damascus-Medina railway it once served.
Here, a short hike away from the Syrian civil war’s antagonists; several miles from Deraa, the town where the anti-Assad revolt erupted, and from the biblical Edrei, where the Israelites faced off with Og the king of Bashan – a vast Arabian army dealt the Byzantine Empire in 636 CE the defeat that broke Islam’s path into the Christian Anatolia that now is Turkey, and the pagan Persia that today is Iran.
Now the great imperial powers of that showdown are back in the field, albeit with their roles reversed. Today the Arab nation is on the retreat, while the Byzantines’ Russian heirs and the Persians’ Iranian descendants are the conquerors on the saddle, their eyes on the horizon, galloping to the unknown.
Like all imperialists, they think of grandeur, of victory, of glory and loot, scorning humility, kindling fires and brandishing swords like battle-hungry cavaliers kicking horse ribs with hobnailed boots.
The Arab defeat by this haphazard pincer movement is colossal.
The Russians have bombed Arab cities, killing thousands and displacing millions; the Iranians have effectively overtaken four Arab capitals; the Russians rule the Syrian coastline; the Iranians are pushing foreign settlers into western Syria, after having unleashed Lebanese Shi’ites, Persian commandos and Afghan mercenaries on Syrian towns.
The Iranians have driven wedges between Arab and Arab in land after land, the Russians have turned the government of Syria into a troupe of puppets, and the Iranians have done the same to the government in Beirut.
Like ancient Judah the morning after its demise, the Arab nation today sprawls dismembered, dispossessed and dishonored, “her enemies are now the masters, her foes are at ease” and “her infants have gone into captivity,” as the Book of Lamentations described Zion in its defeat.
Why the Arab nation tolerates all this is a mystery. How does it not pull its act together in the face of this invasion? Where are its many kings, presidents and sheikhs? Where is the Arab League in the face of the Arab nation’s humiliation, robbery and despair? Can it really do nothing other than pay seasonal lip service to Palestinian suffering, which, Allah knows, dwarfs when compared with what Moscow and Tehran have done to millions of blameless Arabs now trapped between Aleppo’s rubble, Europe’s angry cities and the Mediterranean’s hungry waves? These questions will surely be addressed, sooner or later, one way or another, by Arab literati and thinkers. Until that happens, there is a question to the imperialists, a question that can be answered already now: Why conquer? THE AIMS of Moscow’s and Tehran’s military thrusts are different: Russia wants to restore its imperial prestige, while Iran wants to dominate its neighbors.
Yet both quests, besides being morally evil, are also equal in their political folly, strategic anachronism and economic futility.
Politically, besides the likelihood that the two invaders will in due course clash, both have sowed the Sunni Arabs’ long-term enmity.
Which refugee, driven from Mosul, Raqqa, Sanaa or Homs, will not tell his or her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren just who it was that leveled the home they once inhabited, razed the store they once owned, or scorched the earth they once tilled, and who it was that drove them from the lands where they and their forebears had lived since antiquity? The Russians seem to realize this, and are careful to avoid stationing ground forces in Syria, evidently fearing the kind of guerrilla warfare that drove them from Afghanistan a generation ago. The Iranians are also cleverly limiting their own troops’ imperial expeditions, deploying instead an assortment of non-Iranian militias between Basra and Beirut.
It won’t help them. Measured though they have been, both invasions have landed thousands of Russian and Iranian “advisers” in the thick of a hostile Arab world.
Visible, tempting and easy targets, they arrived in fire and will leave in disgrace.
Strategically, too, both invasions will reap no edible fruit.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is inspired by the czarist thirst for a so-called warm sea. Harking back to Peter the Great, this urge was informed by European colonialism’s conquest of the high seas and the New World. That setting, however, is long gone. What should Ivan, Igor, Olga or Katya gain from their leader’s bloodily won Mediterranean toehold? Indian spices? American bullion? African slaves? The Iranian thrust is even more misguided. History shows that Persian attempts to expand to non-Persian realms always ended in defeat – in the Middle Ages by the Byzantines, and before that by the ancient Greeks.
The current Persians not only don’t belong where they are inserting themselves, they can’t afford their imperial project economically, and neither can the Russians.
As happened to the Soviets in Afghanistan, they will ultimately learn that for the arms to punch, the stomach must be fed.
Yet both Russia’s and Iran’s economies are embattled, beset by industrial backwardness, cracking infrastructure, addiction to mining, plunging oil prices, weak currencies and demographic decline.
Both are in no position to sustain an imperial adventure in a region whose only treasures are the same oil and gas they already have in abundance.
Yes, Vladimir Putin and Ali Khamenei have sent today’s Arabs on a grand retreat. But tomorrow’s Arabs will emerge with a vengeance – the way yesterday’s marched on Byzantium and Persia, from the Yarmuk.
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