The war in Syria is a global military conflict and you need to pay attention.
While American news outlets are busy analyzing every word that comes out of presidential candidate Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Schumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe MORE's mouth — a man who embodies all the stereotypes of a crass American that the rest of the world loves to hate — the world is sliding into what is increasingly looking like the early days of a world war centered in Syria, but fought across three continents. Recent developments in this conflict make the near-silence of U.S. politicians about what is really happening in Syria not only dishonest, but downright dangerous.
Here is why.
First, Moscow — which has been embroiled in the Syrian war since the beginning of the conflict by propping up a bloodthirsty dictator and betting on his regime's survival in order to entrench its own imperial interests in the region — has recently upped the ante. No sooner had an impending cease-fire been announced in Munich than Russian jets carpet-bombed (yes, I use that term consciously) Aleppo. This essentially destroyed any possibility of continuing peace talks in any meaningful way. As if symbolically thumbing its nose at the world community, Russian planes targeted residential neighborhoods, schools and three hospitals, one of which was run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), and dared the world leaders to say something about it. The silence so far has been deafening. Targeting hospitals is not only a war crime; it is designed to make living in Aleppo near impossible, emptying out Syria's largest city. This produced an additional wave of refugees that some estimate will reach 75,000 in the next few days.
Second, unhappy with the U.S.'s support for Kurdish allies in Syria, an emboldened Turkey took matters into its own hands. Despite U.S. and EU protests, a few days ago Turkey began shelling the Syrian Kurdish (YPG) forces in northern Syria, taking its war against the Kurds in southeast Turkey across the border all the while cranking up its bellicose rhetoric against the Russians. Why now? Ankara realizes that it holds a very important card: It controls the flow of Syrian refugees into a panic-stricken EU. Turkey has managed to turn the flow of desperate Syrian refugees off and on like a fire hose directed at Fortress Europa, in essence treating the refugees amassing on either side of its borders as human bargaining chips.
The EU, seemingly unable or unwilling to find a systematic solution to this humanitarian crisis, responded by turning a blind eye to war crimes being committed in the Kurdish region of Turkey with the hope of convincing the Ankara to keep its European borders closed. Additionally, rather than use the money to help coordinate safe passage and dignified living conditions for the refugees, EU leaders elected to spend billions of dollars in a shortsighted plan aimed at keeping the refugees in Turkey. They have even resorted to bullying a bankrupt Greece into acting as Europe's prison guard in the Aegean Sea, even threatening to kick Greece out of the Schengen region. Additionally, they continue to participate in a chaotic and poorly coordinated effort at defeating an amorphous enemy (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) that in turn — yes, you guessed it — produces more refugees.
Third, with a U.S. administration unwilling to take decisive action in an election year, a regional bully, the Saudi Arabian regime, is taking the opportunity to flex its muscles at will. Bypassing the U.S., Saudi Arabia is now aligning itself with an increasingly frustrated Turkish regime, sending fighter jets to an airbase in southern Turkey, from where they will conduct further strikes with the cooperation of the Turkish Army. The United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are also poised to send troops into the crowded war fields of Syria. Saudi Arabia's involvement in Syria is not an attempt at tackling terrorism as the Saudis claim (a cheap excuse used by everybody from Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinNavalny knocks Apple, Google for removing voting app Federal agencies warn companies to be on guard against prolific ransomware strain Top US general: Meeting with Russian counterpart 'productive' MORE to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan). It is another front to the Saudi-led and U.S.-backed war in Yemen, which has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and a humanitarian crisis that rivals that of Syria. The EU estimates that in a country of 25 million, 22.5 million Yemenis are in desperate need of humanitarian aid. The difference is that in Syria, both Turkey and Saudi Arabia are not playing a dangerous game without the blessing of their ally, the U.S.
And the refugees keep on coming.
Closer to home, we are continuously being fed misinformation by politicians in Europe and the U.S. about the importance of defeating ISIS to stop the war in Syria. ISIS is a horrific organism that should be destroyed; that is obvious. But in the case of the war in Syria, the true source of the suffering is not ISIS, but the unrelenting brutality of the Syrian Bashar Assad regime, bombing, torturing and starving its own population into submission. This regime is backed by what has emerged as a world bully, Russia's Putin. A legitimate hesitation to engage in a direct conflict with Russia has meant that politicians have been playing a game of "look over there!" by continuing to exclusively focus on ISIS, as if that is the source of the problem. When all else fails, politicians seem to rely on the old, terribly misleading "it's an ancient conflict between Shiites and Sunnis" line to explain their inability to make any headway in Syria. Any historian of the Middle East would cringe at such simplistic analysis meant at absolving us from any responsibility in the conflict.
Let's be clear about the real source of the problem: The Russian-backed Syrian regime. The rest, including the horrors of ISIS, are symptoms of this conflict. To end the conflict, you cannot simply describe the symptoms because they hold more political capital at home.
And the refugees keep on coming.
As it stands right now, we have a truly global war in what looks like an increasingly lawless conflict: Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, U.S. and the EU and their allies and proxy fighters engaged in military conflict playing out across Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, Turkey, Iraq and Libya. Make no mistake about it; there are no innocent bystanders here. The question is not about whether the U.S. should get involved; the U.S. is already involved. The question should be how to tackle the real problem without repeating the mistakes of the recent past.
We must demand clear reporting from the U.S. media and concrete plans from politicians — both those in office and those clawing at each other for the presidency — not simply sound bites and what is frankly increasingly becoming a mockery of the democratic process. If American politicians continue to shirk their moral responsibility to help stop this horrific war, and only react to incidents of terrorism on home soil as if they are somehow isolated from the larger context of this global conflict, the American peoples' interests are not being served. Not taking a clear stance — and I am not recommending military action — against global bullying from foe and friend alike would spell disaster in the not-so-distant future, and by then it might be too late to avoid an all-out military conflict. Yes, the suffering of Syrians and Yemenis might seem like a distant and abstract problem in the midst of our addiction to political entertainment and flowery speeches, but unless we wake up and demand real action to stop the suffering over there, we might find ourselves caught off-guard over here, and you and I might end up paying the price of this willful ignorance for generations to come.
Minawi is assistant professor of History at Cornell University, where he is also director of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative (OTSI). His forthcoming book, "The Ottoman Scramble for Africa: Empire and Diplomacy in the Sahara and the Hijaz," will be published by Stanford University Press in 2016. Follow him on Twitter @MostafaMinawi.