North Africa, West Asia

A great unravelling, and a new map

The crisis around Iraq-Syria reflects the weight of a past that is no longer relevant to the region's peoples, says Hazem Saghieh.

Hazem Saghieh
27 June 2014

Some observers are looking at Iraq and Syria and making a hasty and facile argument: namely,  that events have shown the only alternative to tyranny in the region is Islamist ultra-radicalism and chaos. It is a form of posthumous vindication of Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad.

Many living in the region are justified in being afraid of the radical Islamist threat, which encircles them from every side. They may also be certain that a tyranny like that of Saddam and Assad will ultimately meet a wretched end, after which everything around it collapses. But the logical conclusion is not to pine for their tyranny, but to realise that entities able to survive only through tyranny are after all unviable.

Hence, assuming that a dictator like Bashar al-Assad or a proto-dictator like Abdel Fattah al-Sisi or Nouri al-Maliki will defeat terrorism is also an absurdity that leads back to square one.

Yet it would also be delusional to think that saving these entities, and also preserving international security, can be done through the “war on terror” that emerged after 9/11 and led to two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with their vast human and material costs. Neither can the remnants of that war, such as drone-strikes, ever accomplish what the original war failed to do. 

A blocked legacy

But while it is easy to criticise the narrative of the war on terror, it is not easy to come up with alternatives that can benefit the peoples of our region and the world. There are many perenially good ideas, from economic development and poverty reduction to parliamentary democracy and representative institutions. But when the societies concerned are deeply divided, in a way that prevents them from reaching even the minimum level of consensus, such ideas remain closer to being empty rhetoric.

Moreover, the countries where al-Qaida and its ilk have spawned are also those where ruling elites have identified with particular groups, religious communities, regions or ethnicities to the exclusion of others. In the absence of traditions of coexistence, or ways to resolve disputes through political institutions, these countries have often been dominated by tyrannical regimes. In such cases the ruling power worked to repress society's unacknowledged contradictions, only to find the latter metastasizing in the shadows. The resulting deformities were reinforced by the cold war from the late 1940s until the late 1980s, which guaranteed the survival of these regimes and the political units on which they were built. 

To escape from this dysfunctional inheritance, the solution can only come from a reconsideration of existing national and societal arrangements. The latter, after all, are the true incubators of the conflicts that have now erupted in full. They too did much to contribute to later disasters, by curbing healthy interaction among religious, sectarian, and ethnic groups; forestalling any potential change; closing down avenues of public expression; and quickly turning even small-scale protest into open-ended civil conflict.

In Syria, for example, the national framework soon pushed the popular uprising of 2011 towards civil war. In Iraq, the chance of an inclusive nationwide movement against a corrupt government with authoritarian tendencies was thwarted by a centrifugal landscape of Sunni, Shi'a, and Kurdish questions. The same applies, albeit with different labels, to the situation in Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere.

A decree of separation

This inheritance makes any substantial reform difficult. It has been many decades since the Arab peoples believed the lies about nationalism and modernisation, which they ignored in part by moving to live alongside their “compatriots”. This great demographic movement, which the ideologies of nationalism and modernisation sought to camouflage and distort, today makes any demographic separation harder than ever. And yet, in a situation where distinct communities have come to believe, or been made to believe, that they are nothing but mutual enemies. it is even more problematic to keep living side by side.

There are two prominent experiences in the region of the separation of hostile communities: namely, Cyprus and Iraqi Kurdistan. Both resulting statelets enjoy de facto if not de jure independence, and are in a far better position than their war-torn neighbours. The more recent case of South Sudan is a reminder that a successful secession requires the establishment of a freer, fairer, and less corrupt regime. But a viable argument can be made that a sine qua non for the revolution the Arab peoples need is a profound reworking of existing national frameworks and arrangements.

This is not a prospect Arab intellectuals - long preoccupied with dualities like “heritage vs contemporaneity” or “tradition vs modernity”, which often confuse more than enlighten - find it easy to contemplate. Yet their endeavours today should focus on understanding their societies as entities where many factors - most notably tyranny - have prevented a mature nation-state from evolving. The absence of such a state becomes critical where it becomes impossible to separate the belligerents in a civil war, and prevent their work of wholesale destruction. 

Yet it is only through such a separation that each side can be spurred towards inward thinking focused on the rational interests of their respective groups. This process will weaken the extremist, dogmatic tendencies that thrive on hostility to the “other”. Some would regard this as a conspiracy to “fragment the Arabs” though in fact it is the opposite: an attempt to save what is left of their energies and to put an end to their divisions.

Any reconsideration of existing frameworks will also require regional and international efforts to de-escalate tensions in the region. The circumstances that dictated the current map - the two world wars and then the cold war - are now in the past, and will never return. When their causes are gone, it is neither logical nor reasonable for their consequences to remain.

Almost a century after the region's political maps were redrawn with the collapse of the Ottoman empire, the demarcation of new lines that meet the wishes of the communities to govern themselves and live alone will be another political earthquake. But to do so, through an international conference or its equivalent, has become the only alternative to the violent earthquakes that have already occurred.

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