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[It’s also] cold hard strategy. I think it gives us the moral high ground and we’re going to use the moral high ground when we get an opportunity to do so while pursuing our interests. — Prof. W. Andrew Terrill, US Army War College

A war between Austria and Serbia meant a war between Austria and Russia — Serbia’s traditional ally. That meant war between Russia and Germany. And that meant war between Germany and France. And that meant war between Germany and Great Britain. In a flash, the whole continent was at war.The Great War, PBS

Why Syria? Why now? Are chemical weapons really that important? Why is this still happening?

Battles are fought for strategic reasons, wars for economic ones, and it’s been that way throughout history, certainly throughout modern history. The American Revolution was fought to protect the wealth of the colonists from England. America’s civil war was a dispute over one region losing what it saw as a workforce and another who couldn’t afford to lose its economic and strategic value. Both World Wars, as well as Korea and Vietnam, were waged to protect the West’s shared economic interests against encroachment from the Eastern powers. And it’s become clear that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — the latter of which is still going on, if you haven’t heard — were fought to gain strategic footholds in an oil-rich and geographically crucial region.

Put simply, the US is not concerned about Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons against Syrian rebels in their own civil war — if they were, they’d have spoken up the other eleven times he was accused of using them in the past two years. And there’s still no concrete evidence Assad used those weapons at all: White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough made the dubious claim last week that the Obama Administration’s plan to bomb Syria was operating under “a quite strong common-sense test, irrespective of the intelligence.” When a shocked and frightened nation heard about Saddam Hussein using chemical weapons on his own insurgents, they decided it was a good moral reason to take him out back in 2001. Yet Saddam had actually gassed the Iranian enemy back in 1988, and not only was the American government not outraged, they gave him money to buy some more.

So it’s not about morality in Syria, any more than it’s ever been. The proposed bombing is a tactical maneuver, a war-by-proxy that seeks to keep the rebels from toppling Assad. And it’s a response to a military maneuver of his own.

On April 4, the embattled Syrian leader poured his forces into the sleepy town of Al-Qusayr. If you’ve never heard of it, you weren’t supposed to — until this civil war began over two years ago, it was mainly home to a few nomads (whom the CIA reportedly used, through Saudi Arabia, as their eyes and ears in the region). Al-Qusayr sits about 6 miles from the border of Lebanon, largely controlled by Israel and supported by the US, and it’s been a major stronghold for the rebels; in fact, it was the major hub in their supply line. When Assad finally succeeded in taking the city in early June, he divided that rebel-held area of Syria in two, all but assuring he would regain his iron grip on the nation.

To the Western powers, this is intolerable. Obama first mentioned back on August 20 of last year that the use of chemical weapons by the regime would be “a red line for us” that would trigger American involvement, but by then the administration already knew that Assad was massing his troops for an Al-Qusayr strike. In fact, by that time, they’d already fought the rebels in the city to a stalemate and withdrawn.

Without a 9/11 or a Pearl Harbor or a sinking of the Maine to frighten and anger ordinary American citizens, a war weary country has so far shown little support for yet another foreign military intervention, even one without boots. So the backsliding began: “I didn’t set a red line; the world set a red line,” Obama told reporters at a press conference in Stockholm. Except that the US is already involved; it’s been training those same rebels for years.

The real red line in Syria, however, and the real reason the balance of power keeps shifting, is a geopolitical fault line that more or less runs right through Al-Qusayr, much like Korea’s 38th Parallel or the Berlin Wall. Since the Reagan Administration decided to use Israel as a proxy in the region back in the 1980s, major countries have been taking sides  — the US bought and paid for the continued cooperation of Israel (which also now means Lebanon), but also Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, and Egypt, while Russia and China have joined forces with Syria and Iran. Axis and Allies.

The precedent for this kind of ominous division is not Korea or even Vietnam, however: it’s World War I, where the assassination of a hated archduke by a crazed student somehow drew countries in, one by one, thanks to just such a network of unbreakable alliances (and which first introduced the chemical warfare civilized countries pretend to detest). The strategic bombing of Al-Qusayr is merely a tactical maneuver designed to tip the economic scales in the West’s favor, and it might be worth mentioning at this point that Syria is also strategically vital to oil production in the region.

Morality, as usual with war, hardly enters into it.

And that’s why Syria.