Small Wars Journal

The New Policy Map: Syria and Dealing with Regional Sectarian Strife

Fri, 08/30/2013 - 7:48pm

The New Policy Map: Syria and Dealing with Regional Sectarian Strife

Hal Kempfer

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.

About the Author(s)

Harold “Hal” Kempfer is the founder and CEO of Knowledge & Intelligence Program Professionals, a strategic risk management firm headquartered in Long Beach, CA.  Hal is a former senior intelligence officer with multiple Middle East tours, and is a featured expert on military affairs and terrorism for KABC 7 television news and National Public Radio station KPCC.



Tue, 10/01/2013 - 1:51pm

Let me start from your conclusion. I think most "realists" will agree that the post-colonial status-quo that lasted until the last few years is mostly untenable at this point. Henry Kissinger weighed in recently with the idea that there is no necessity in Syria staying as one country. Also, the Shi'a, Sunni, Kurd trifurcation of Iraq (incidentally resembling the pre WWI Ottoman Provinces) was the West's first true introduction to the confessional, ethnic, and tribal undercurrents of MENA society. In short, Iraq has been redefined de facto, as has Libya, and so many will surely follow. Now what are we to do about it............

This is where I do have to take issue with your thesis, mostly in the following points:

1. The Arab Spring has a fundamental cause that his little to nothing to do with the ethnic, tribal, religious divisions. Its primary cause is economic, and more specifically food. When Bouazizi set himself aflame in Tunisia global rice and wheat prices were at historic highs. Before the Daraa protests sparked a revolution in Syria, that country had been in the midst of a drought not seen in generations, causing a major rural-urban migration. The ethnic, tribal, religious divisions were the context within which these States lost control, but they lost control because a nontrivial proportion of their people were chronically unemployed, and barely subsisting, if at all. If a major depression caused another rebellion in the US our divisions would follow ethnic and regional lines, but to surmise that the Southern whites and urban blacks CAUSED the rebellion through their disaffection or repression or some such is superficial.

This is a critical point because it does not make ethnic/confession based nation-states an inevitable solution to the wars. If Assad wins his war (which he is more likely to with every passing day), he will re-consolidate his territorial power and then embark on a multi-decade repression campaign to stamp out the rebel hold-outs. That is historically normal. Nothing in history presumes that states that span ethnicities and religions are inherently unstable and unnatural. The unnaturalness of the post colonial states is a statement about the fiat nature of the governments that were installed, not about the fact that more than one titular group was represented in the populations.

2. Democracy and liberal freedoms in the MENA region are anomalies. They are not repressed people in any non-ideological sense. To put this in perspective: since written records have existed, the only type of state that has existed in the region is a monarchy. That Assad and Saddam called themselves "Presidents" of nominal "Republics" is wholly irrelevant. They were monarchs in every conceivable sense, who were planning on hereditary succession (in case of Bashar, let's call him the second monarch of the Assad Dynasty). The implication of this is that 1. all of the institutions in these states are geared to function in a monarchy 2. all of the social norms in these societies are geared to function in a monarchy 3. there has been no society-destroying upheaval (the Arab Spring as a wave of rebellions is pretty minor, historically speaking, lending only one truly serious rebellion, Syria; it is fair to say had we not given the Libyan rebels a navy and an air force, Lybia's flag would still be a green rag) that would destroy the existing norms and institutions and allow for their rebuilding on new terms. In case there is confusion on this part, every single monarchy-republic transition since 1780 happened on the heels of major destruction, the biggest spate coming with the advent of continentally destructive wars that thoroughly eviscerated the existing orders. The few constitutional monarchies that survive span the spectrum from barely hangers-on post war to monarchies that have lost their share of power over centuries of liberalization of power.

In other words, illogical borders were never the problem. Weak, externally propped up governments were and continue to be. Yes, if we were to only let these states fail and collapse into some more "natural" order, we would wind up with very different maps. But all states have illogical borders if your measure is demographics.

Ned McDonnell III

Sat, 08/31/2013 - 2:10pm


Thank you for an essay filled with excellent reasoning and concise writing. Your thinking is a happily coincidental complement to that of Dr Grey about the atmosphere of refugee camps for Syrians in Turkey. As I prefer to do, I will place my two micro-quibs after my siggy. There is so much with which I agree (e.g., the implication of nested autonomy for the Kurds:…) that this response will 'far more too long' than usual if I spell them out.

My concern has been primarily humanitarian and gives rise to a thesis that may sound compelling but definitely remains limited intellectually by its ad-hoc nature. By arguing against the end-state of any variant of (what I call) Islamaoism, your article brings a sense of order to what the currently confused and confusing Western response ought to be.

That is: a guiding vision, that unified a collective response among the democracies, of a more just society than those proposed by imperial fascism and imperial communism. This end-state, when articulated, ought to be explicit in rejecting any return to any form of imperial colonialism (i.e., the source of many of the problems we face now) and be careful to focus on the consequences of the behaviors of, not basic religious doctrine invoked by, the current crop of totalitarian extremists.

In this case, we know enough of the end-state of these religious extremists (in Iran, Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, Egypt, etc.) to rally secular societies against them to preserve the value of religious liberty. The secular societies can work toward this end, over at least the next generation (likely several), by supporting moderates to redefine the political climate and by empowering enough women (e.g., the ones who tire of burying their children) to change the culture.

Ned McDonnell
Peace Corps-Mexico

1. We need to allow elections of extremist parties to stand until they either change their ways or fail. Overturning the election of Hamas in 2006 before it took office was a mistake.
2. The invasion of Iraq, I would submit, proceeded for many reasons, of which one was the intention to set the Arab Spring in motion. This M.E.N.A. Spring (not Arab, as you are very right in pointing out), will take a long and rocky time to lurch toward an end-state of a secular governance (at the national level) constructed on compromise.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 08/31/2013 - 1:16pm

" 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..."

Yes, neither were about religion per se, but rather were revolutionary responses by populations who were no longer willing to live in oppressive political situations imposed upon them by governance controlled by another flavor of population.

Religion, ethnicity, language, culture, etc are all convenient ways to pick teams and tell who's who. Like going "shirts and skins" in a pickup basketball game. They do not define the game, only the teams.

But at the end of the day it is a fundamental aspect of human nature abuse power, and equally a fundamental aspect of human nature to revolt against such abuse once one feels they have a chance at successfully doing so.

The "Arab Spring" began in Iran and Turkey over 100 years ago, but then was shut down again by WWI, the collapse of the Ottomans and the subsequent decades of colonial European and US Containment influence. But the people are moving again. Not because they are Arab, or Muslim, but simply because they perceive the current systems of governance they have been forced to live under as unfair and oppressive, or simply out of touch with the times.

Many fear that the US is "losing control" of the Middle East. That would actually be the best thing we could do to curb the motivation that many feel for committing acts of transnational terrorism against us. We must transition to a more influential approach to foreign policy that is less concerned about what the specific political answers look like. Not our business. Likewise, the governments of the region need to listen and evolve. This is one game of dominoes that is not done falling...and the route is down into the Arab Peninsula, and the governments there know it.