The New Policy Map: Syria and Dealing with Regional Sectarian Strife
We must face the fact that much of the Middle East (ME) has devolved into sectarian warfare, primarily Sunni vs. Shiite but with that overlaying some deeply engrained tribal and ethnic differences. The Arab Spring was neither very Arab nor the blossoming of something new as much as a resurfacing of deep-seated conflicts tied to ethnic, tribal, clan and familial inequalities. This conflict is mostly seen as a Sunni vs. Shiite Islam conflict being no less intense than the Catholic vs. Protestant Christian conflicts of Northern Europe several centuries ago, and more recently in Northern Ireland, but it is more. While it sometimes looks like multiple versions of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s or compared to the collapse of the Soviet Union, it’s different.
The West often forgets that only a part of the Middle East is ethnically Arab; there are still profound differences that are sometimes masked by religion. Berbers, Egyptians and Kurds normally don’t see themselves as Arab, even if they speak Arabic. Islam’s religious expansion was also an Arab cultural expansion, often accompanied by submission at the threat of the sword. That Arabic empire fundamentally ended when the Mongols sacked Bagdad in 1258, literally killing the Arab Islamic Caliphate and setting the seeds for Turkish expansion under the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman’s used the legacy and title of the Caliphate, but it was Turkish and there’s was often a light touch that allowed conquered peoples to carry on as normal, with sizable Jewish and Christian communities thriving in what we now term “Muslim Countries.” The loss of that diversity too is part of the seeds of today’s strife.
In a sense, we may be witnessing the final end of post Ottoman influence, where its collapse at the end of World War I gave way to European colonialism that created a patchwork of illogical borders enabling foreign rule by making “states” without clearly defined “nations,” and the end of colonialism led to indigenous (but authoritarian) governments still confined by those artificial borders. The 2003 invasion of Iraq has had many unintended consequences, and some of that is the spark that is violently reordering the entire region.
Coming from our World War II and Cold War experience dealing with Nazi Germany’s Hitler, the Soviet Union’s Stalin and Red China’s Mao, the West has too often focused on strongman rulers like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak as “the problem.” It was once rhetorically asked about Saddam Hussein when he was in power, “did Saddam create the despotism of the Iraqi state or did the Iraqi state create a despot like Saddam?” The state that T.E. Lawrence warned the British government not to create at the end of WWI where the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites have always been in conflict has proven largely ungovernable except by authoritarian rule. We too often look to the ruler when we should be looking at what is being ruled.
The context of “Middle East Peace” is also shifting. It is no longer fixated on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. For Middle Eastern peoples, Israel, for once, has almost become a side show in what is shaping up to be a broader regional conflict. It was often said that if Israel didn’t exist for Middle Eastern governments to rail against, they would have to invent it. Israel was the perennial external spar, the thing to point too as the big reason for discontentment of ME peoples. Now, Israel is becoming just a place, and for most in the ME it is not a place demanding their immediate attention. More fundamental issues closer to home have finally taken up that position.
As the U.S. prepares to “send a message” to Syria, perhaps it needs to think of a much larger message. Punishing the Assad government is needed, but we need to clearly articulate our policy to more effectively deal with possible consequences. Assad’s opposition is now filled with Al Qaeda inspired adherents; we absolutely don’t want them to come to power. The region is changing, and this may be an opportunity help guide that change, and not naively do or say things that support any semblance of just maintaining the status quo. That order is ending, the new order is forming. In short, the United States is better served by helping to change this strife torn region covering from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq by using its influence and power to help “redraw the map.”
Additionally, our strikes involve a challenge that goes to the heart of the sectarian conflict. We do not want weapons of mass destruction used, but we also don’t want a theocratic regime to emerge, like what happened with the Taliban in Afghanistan or in the Post-Shah Iran. Particularly in states that do not reflect cohesive nationalities or ethnicity, organized religious extremists are able to leverage their one unifying principle to detriment of the greater populace. Totalitarian theocracy has proven just as bad as Marxist-Leninism or National Socialism.
Here is a suggestion, redefine the problem. Put geography front and center; build alliances with battling ethnicities and tribes by ensuring they know that we appreciate their historic dilemma, and we want to help them find a solution. Stop movements like Hezbollah and Al Qaeda; make the emergence of theocratic regimes against our foreign policy, just as we opposed communism and totalitarianism. This should be true even if they are elected. It’s not to say a party that defines itself in some way as Muslim cannot be in power, but we must draw a line between what they believe with what they do and how they govern. In that calculus, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt delegitimized itself, and we have no angst in supporting the current regime. In Europe, political parties calling themselves “Christian” maintain legitimacy by not imposing their religion as law in secular democracies.
One thing the U.S. government and western allies can put forward as it attacks the despotic dictator of Syria is that we will equally oppose despotic theocracies that do not allow religious freedom, free speech, a free press and freedom of expression. This puts limits on what comes next. The oppression of Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians throughout the Middle East since World War II should be condemned. This allows us to oppose Al Qaeda inspired rebels just as we oppose Assad and Hezbollah. We know their end state, and we oppose it. There is no confusion in what we say and do.
Key freedoms reflect our values, just like the idea of spreading democracy. That should be part of the math in weighing a regime. In doing this, we should also call for an international convention to essentially ‘redraw the map’ from Lebanon across greater Mesopotamia, mitigating the influence of these religious extremists. Perhaps the convention will adopt a greater Swiss canton approach of mostly autonomous states within a larger country, or it may end up with a plethora of smaller nation-states involving more logical borders. This would be the international community working together dealing with the devil in the regional details, and not a replay of Nasser’s Pan-Arabism of 50 years ago. It is difficult to predict the exact future, and while needed, it won’t be easy to do. Also, once this is done, there are other regions suffering from illogical borders in Africa and Central Asia, and they too need a model that provides their peoples hope and opportunity.
One of the overlooked success stories has been the emergence of a very stable, cohesive Kurdish state in Northern Iraq that is economically expanding. The Kurds also experienced genocidal usage of chemical weapons, and they are no strangers to sectarian strife. While not fully sovereign, it is a clearly defined nation-state concept, albeit as an autonomous entity within Iraq. It is already in the region, and may be a model for the region.
In clearly articulating these concepts as policy, it gives us room to tacitly support what is happening in Egypt while also opposing factional strife in Iraq and Syria. It allows us to take firm moral objection to groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad having any chance of ruling in the Palestinian territories or a new Palestinian state given their current disposition. It allows us to conduct “real politic,” backing those we want to rule instead of our tongue twisting debates on feeling obligated to support “democratic elections” that result in governments opposed to us and freedoms we hold dear. In short, it allows our foreign policy to support both our interests and values.