Do we know what is happening in Syria? Perhaps we think we do. The news coverage has been wall to wall. But for the most part we get little more than details of destruction and violence and are left with a feeling of helplessness rather than understanding.
The western interpretation of recent changes in the Middle East has been inadequate. Take, for example, the concept of the Arab Spring. There was prolonged enthusiasm for the notion that the Arab world was finally climbing aboard the history train. It was self-delusion however to believe, in the absence of evidence, that that world had risen up to embrace parliamentary democracy. Whatever is and has been going on it isn’t that. It should be very clear at this point that the Middle East is not about to follow the western model no matter how “natural” we think it is.
Maybe the turmoil throughout the region is a late consequence of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire or maybe it is a response to being long excluded from economic power and international standing. If self-serving interference by the West has historically been part of the problem it seems unlikely to be part of the solution.
The current issue of the US diplomatic house journal Foreign Affairs notes:
Despite giving Obama and the United States a “get out of jail free card” at home, most observers agree that, on points, Putin is the real winner of this particular round of the Syrian conflict. The question now is whether the United States and its allies can outmanoeuvre Putin to regain the diplomatic advantage.
There are many more articles on Syria in Foreign Affairs and they are overwhelmingly concerned with how the US should respond to events in that country. I wouldn’t be too encouraged by them if I were Syrian, particularly if I were a member of a minority group such as the Aramaic-speaking Christians.
Hugh Eakin and Alisa Roth in a recent issue of the New York Review commented:
Among the many effects of the Syrian war, the collapse of one of the Arab world’s most diverse societies may be the most consequential. The Syrian Arab Republic was long known for its authoritarian government and brutal security apparatus; but it had also been an unusually mixed country for decades. As has been widely reported, Sunni Muslims make up a clear majority (some 74 percent) and Alawites, the sect of the Assad family and many of its supporters, a minority (12 percent). Yet before the war, there were nearly as many Christians as Alawites, as well as the world’s largest population of Druze (700,000) and smaller populations of Ismailis, Sufis, Yezidis, and Shias, among other sects. Though predominantly Arab, Syria also had some 2.5 million Kurds, as many as a million Turkmen, and tens of thousands of Armenians, Assyrians, and other groups.
Owing to its relative stability, Syria had actually been a haven for people escaping persecution elsewhere, from Armenians fleeing the genocide in 1915 and Palestinians chased out of Palestine in 1948—there were some 500,000 Palestinians in Syria in 2011—to both Christian and Muslim Iraqis escaping the recent war in Iraq. In 2006, the Syrian government took in more than 120,000 Lebanese whose homes had been damaged or destroyed in Israel’s war with Hezbollah. When the uprising against the Assad regime began, Syria also had sizable numbers of Somali, Sudanese, and Afghan refugees.
Although seldom emphasised authoritarian regimes have often been friendly to ethnic and religious minorities. If Assad is to go or to be confined to a smaller territory what will be the fate of these multiple minorities?
Syria is experiencing massive displacement, slaughter and a de facto partition which might well become de jure. Maybe this sort of Balkanisation is what the West wants. The Arab world is unlikely to settle for this outcome. Historically Arabs have understood that in order to command power internationally they must unite.
Arab nationalism was the mid 20th century response to enfeeblement. That is now a spent force and the new one which seeks to give appropriate regional and world power to the Arab world is Islamism, which may or may not be open to non-Arab Islamic peoples. If Arab nationalism was potentially inclusive, Islamism is not. There are now numerous Islamist militias operating in northern Syria. Syrian people are experiencing extreme violence and a vast flight of people who regard themselves as vulnerable is now underway. Eakin and Roth describe the effects:
Since the summer of 2011, what happened in Jisr al-Shughour (the site of an early slaughter) has been repeated in villages and towns all over Syria, with far-reaching consequences on almost every side of its 1,400-mile-long perimeter. The country had a population of 22.5 million when the war began; about 10 percent have now left. With nearly a half-million Syrians now in Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is actively supporting the Syrian opposition and has turned his country into a primary conduit of arms to rebel groups. Along with the FSA, which is favored by the US and its allies, these include other militias, some of them associated with aggressive Islamism. Notably, the Turkish government has not impeded the activity of the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-linked rebel group that has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the UN Security Council …
This is to say nothing of the more than four million Syrians who, according to the UN and other aid groups, have been uprooted by the conflict but remain inside Syria; overall, nearly one third of the country’s population have been forced to abandon their homes. Many of those within Syria have taken refuge in schools and mosques in large cities. Tens of thousands of others now occupy makeshift encampments near the border and still hope to leave the country. By April of this year, there were more than a million displaced people in the single northern governorate of Aleppo, many of them subsisting without adequate food, clean water, or medical care, and at continued risk of violence. This summer, in northeastern Syria, Islamist rebel militias have reportedly threatened Kurdish villages with beheadings, kidnappings, and other atrocities, driving tens of thousands toward the border with Iraqi Kurdistan. When a single border crossing opened in August, more than 46,000 Syrians flooded across in ten days, forcing the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq to set a three-thousand-per-day limit …
Ironically, in order for Islamism to work in bringing about a united Arab world that would facilitate economic development and command respect internationally, it would have to change. Islamism would have to become tolerant. It would have to be open to both Shia and Sunni muslims. Perhaps the other minorities of the region might also benefit as an unintended consequence. In the meantime the Sunni intellectuals of the Muslim Brotherhood and other organisations should avoid the temptation to burn the works of the eighteenth century French philosophes.
Read Eakin and Roth here: