The Links Of Syria

A participant in my recent Workshop on leadership and credibility asked a great question: what are the key historical connections with the Syrian civil war and the US interaction with it? Super question. Here is my thought: five jump to mind. 

First, the current situation in Syria points to something I’ve been pounding on for the past three years. We are reliving the replaying of the late 1930s. Yes, differences exist, important differences at that. Still, the similarities are compelling and, frankly, disturbing. We see the United States drifting in its international strategy and leadershipwhile a massive trend, hostile to the US and the West at its core, continues to build. I’m referring jointly here to fascist
totalitarianism in the late 1930s and to radical Islamic totalitarianism now. This also encompasses the political will of the two systems, Nazi then and Jihadi now, to embrace unimaginable measures. The US and the West behaved badly then, dwelling on variousdomestic and economic issues. I’m afraid I’d give them comparable marks today. We’re headed in a dangerous direction.

Second, the Syrian issue today strikes me as sadly similar to the Persian Gulf in the aftermath of Gulf War I in 1990-1991. As you may recall, after that war, President George H.W. Bush and other western leaders called for Shiite activists to rise up against the Iraqi dictator left standing, Saddam Hussein. The Shiites indeed rebelled, Hussein crushed them, and the US and West did nothing. Those awful days burned into the memories of Shiites across the Middle East and added to anti-American feelings. I wonder what memories are being formed right now. They’ll live on to affect us again.

Third, as my Workshop alumnus pointed out, the Obama Administration may want to portray its conduct in today’s Syrian story as reminiscent of John Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Themotive in doing so is to cling to the legacy mantle of Kennedy, a young, hip, cool-thinking, and steely-eyed crisis manager who saved the world from nuclear disaster. I agree with the motivation. However, a closer look at the missile crisis of 1962 reveals three other similarities not as well known—a) the Kennedy Administrationbumbled and stumbled to the closure of the event; b) the crisis
revolved around a split between US civilian and military leadership; and c) national security and political leaders didn’t know how to engage the general public in a setting few understood: managing a dispute by responding to a largely unaccepted method of armedconflict (nuclear then, chemical now). It’s sobering to note that the two same nations had dominant roles in both eras—the United States and Russia, both of which will interact on the United Nations
Security Council as the current issue continues.

Fourth, the 1967 War involving Israel and Syria is a crucial source for the current issue we confront in the Syrian civil war. That’s because the Assad family drew its formative political power and energy from the aftermath of a humiliating defeat at the hands of Israeli forces in 1967. The Ba’athist Party, to which the Assad family belonged in Syria and, ironically, to which Saddam Hussein belonged in Iraq, used the supposed lessons of the defeat to help drive toward dominance of the government in Syria (and Iraq). The Assad family and the
Ba’athist Party prevailed in an internal crisis that gained speed and intensity after 1967. The chaos of today’s events will produce amomentum that will spin forward, affecting Syria and the people around it, including Iran. 

The fifth historical connection is the Iraq War of the early 2000s or, as it should be called in my view, Gulf War II (same head of state either as an individual or
family for Iraq and US, respectively). This event emboldened many anti-American radicals in the Middle East, including Syria, andproduced another public “syndrome” within the United States, sapping confidence and increasing nervousness over foreigninvolvement by the American people and government alike. That’s a very unhealthy combination of external aggressiveness and internal anxiety.

Certainly, other historical ties can be made. These five, I think, rank high on the list. Before you go, think about this—the events that directly affect your personal
leadership have their own set of historical ties and connections. Be sure you know them for your group, your team, or your organization.