It is striking that the promise of the ‘Arab spring’ has, in such a short time, given way to depressed optimism, or so it seems from the political outcomes in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, with Syria, like Iraq, perhaps on the road to ethnic perdition. Apparently, national cohesion eludes the Arabs, though they enjoy abundant blessings of traditional, ethnic, and sectarian loyalties and identities, perennial obstacles to a stable social compact.
The European colonial powers effortlessly created states, along with elites eager for power, out of the formerly Ottoman provinces in the Arab lands of the Middle East, but forming nations was another matter. National identity, national consciousness, had shallow roots and traditions in Arab culture. Middle Eastern ‘cultural pluralism’ is ancient, and the pre- and post-Islamic Arabs essentially did not lose their factional, sectarian, and parochial tensions and conflicts. What Europeans cobbled together nearly a century ago seems to be crumbling, and the west, specifically the US, plays a central role in this regard.
Syria is a microcosm of the persistent ills in Arab society: the tyranny of Arab regimes, the violent inter-Arab state rivalries, and the devastating effects of western imperial interventions that have prevented genuine democratic participation and kept this region in bloodshed and despair. It’s a dreary, eternally recurring formula: hegemonic powers, aligned with collaborating ruling elites, obstructing social progress, democratic aspirations, people’s needs and economic interests, and aggravating sectarian conflict and other destructive divisions.
The Ba’athist regime is cruel and fearsome to be sure, at its hey-day touting its Arab nationalist credentials to conceal its originally narrow Alawite base. But the autocratic Arab regimes are also reflections of the political cultures over which they rule; in the case of Syria, these include social cleavages between urban dwellers and villagers, family, ethnic, social, and geographic divisions, and, above all, a deep rooted regionalism. Overlaying these divisions is a constant in Arab societies: Islamist versus secular socio-political visions.
At the same time, modern Syria, to continue to exist as an entity in its current geographical borders, required a national identity; that identity is naturally Arab, and there is no other, for Syria’s Arab character took deep root with the Arab conquests and their first, Umayyad Empire ruling from Damascus. Also objectively speaking, Syria’s 23 million people are homogenous: 94 percent Arab, 90 percent Muslim, 75 percent Sunni. Syria is a microcosm of the promise, not just perils, of Arab democratic possibility, not least because of the intelligence, education and sophistication of its people, certainly its large urban majority.
However, the persistence of parochial sentiments is undeniable. These sentiments wax and wane, aggravated by regime-imposed differential punishments and rewards. The Ba’athist state, Bashar al-Assad’s government, is secular and modern and wishes no less than to create a nationally unified society. However, its compulsion to stay in power for life requires it not only to divide and rule, but also to suffocate society’s freedom of thought and action, leaving people to revert to their secure local identities—families, sects, religions, towns. Repression and fear breed suspicion and sectarian tension.
The three elements—divided political cultures, foreign control, and illegitimate autocracy— cohere, dissolve, and transmute in complex local, regional, and international alliances and interests. In this moment, at this time, these three elements are converging to cause Syria’s dissolution, a country that has been a pawn of powerful neighbors (Anatolia from the north, Egypt from the south, and Mesopotamia/Iraq from the east) since at least the break-up of the Abbasid dynasty in 1258. Regardless of the regime in power, and because Syria is a critical geo-strategic territory, power calculations remain constant much as they were during the height of the Cold War and long before, today involving Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Israel, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Lebanon’s Shi’a, the US, Russia, and China. A war by proxy is devastating Syria.
In an apparent repeat of arming Muslim fundamentalists in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of that country, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have been busily engaged in xenophobic propaganda and subversive war against the Syrian state from the uprising’s start, funneling money and arms to the Syrian “opposition,” essentially the increasingly dominant Islamists types. One must see these royal autocratic states’ actions within their larger context. What was once, during the “Arab Cold War,” a violent rivalry and struggle between republican Arab nationalist and western supported monarchic regimes, is now a struggle between secularism and Islamism.
The Sunni ruling regimes in the peninsula framed the Arab people’s uprisings and calls for democratic reforms as a Shi’a conspiracy in concert with Iran, to overthrow them. The Saudi regime is terrified of the Arab demonstrators’ liberal, democratic, electoral demands for political freedom and civil rights starting on its doorstep in Bahrain. It is aggressively leading the charge to mobilize other Muslim nations, including Malaysia, Indonesia, and Pakistan, in an anti-Iran, read Shi’a, front.
On the heels of the Arab spring, Sunni political Islam is gaining victories in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt: why not Syria? The Saudi vision would turn all the Arab states of the Middle East into Islamist-dominated governments, for that is a further guarantor of their own survival. Essentially modern and secular states, regardless of their authoritarianism, present an ideological threat to the monarchies.
This would seem to be antithetical to US interests, which after all is fighting a “War on Terror” throughout the Middle East and in South Asia. It is and it isn’t antithetical. Washington’s grand design is to topple all regimes (Syria) and crush all groups, (Hizballah and Hamas) that oppose its agenda, allowing it to weaken and encircle Iran, the great strategic prize. The US, whose policy’s centerpiece is Israel, is interested neither in democracy nor human rights, but only in one goal: regime change, in both Syria and Iran. Its invasion of Iraq, its untamed hostility to Iran, continues to inflame sectarian conflict throughout the region.
The US is keenly aware of an Afghanistan-like repetition, that is, arming mujahidin who may come to dominate Syria and turn against Washington. This is why it took a year after the Syrian protests began, by spring 2012, for it to abandon its reluctance to arming Syrian groups, hoping to control whichever armed groups received the ever more lethal weaponry from the Saudi and Qatari regimes while publically voicing its opposition to the conflict’s militarization.
Washington’s hesitation to call for Assad’s ouster and militarize the uprising in its early stages was certainly not based on good intentions of avoiding civil war, breakdown, and suffering in Syria, but on fear of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood coming to power. That made it appear to be a responsible player. Currently, with the increasing power of the Islamist armed groups, and the unlikelihood of a political settlement to Washington’s liking—i.e., a Syrian regime aligned to the US—Washington thinks it can sponsor and strengthen its “own” groups in the hope of avoiding anarchy and the emergence of jihadi-like groups. It is assuming it can restrict the flow of weaponry to “Wahhabi” groups and determine the outcome by proxy power.
This dangerous game will most likely lead to the sort of consequences the US wishes to prevent. Divide and rule in service of the Pentagon’s hegemonic fantasies will only further militarize, destabilize, and radicalize the region. Syria is an overwhelmingly Arab and Muslim society. As such, the majority of armed groups will resist according to the Islamic nationalist ethos, and that includes Washington’s control. (This by no means implies that the majority of Syrians are interested in a Shari’a state—far from it.) The regime after all violently disallowed political space to secular, liberal and leftist tendencies in Syrian society outside of the Ba’ath itself.
The Saudi regime and Washington are fundamentally working at cross-purposes, for the Saudis’ nemesis is al-Qaeda-like groups, not the Muslim Brotherhood, which will most likely be the beneficiary of armed chaos. Washington will set in motion a process it cannot control, to the calamity of the Syrian people.
The litmus test of good intentions would be to stop its Gulf clients from arming the rebels, cooperate with the Russians in bringing all sides to the table for a negotiated solution including a transition to the kind of political system that the Syrian people choose. Despite the enormous difficulty of pinning down Syrian realities, the most principled position for a disoriented Washington, and that causes least harm, is to de-militarize the conflict and thus end the violence, sponsor a national dialogue between opposition and government, and oversee, with Russia and through the UN, a peaceful transition of power. The end of the Ba’ath regime should occur without armed violence and interference from any quarter. Any political reforms acceptable to the Syrian people should be acceptable to Washington.
Instead, the growing massacres provide the pretext for US/NATO “humanitarian” intervention, allowing unrelenting US pressure on the Russians and Chinese to play along.
Meanwhile, regime brutality and the sense of abandonment by the opposition have led to the radicalization and jihadization of the uprising. There is a bewildering variety of locally armed groups and parties, with the exiled, multi-factionalized Syrian National Council now dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, sidelining the Local Coordination Committees and along with them, their great vision for Syria. The so-called Free Syrian Army also contains a congeries of armed groups, including armed gangs. The “opposition” has now vehemently precluded a transition, much less negotiations, and calls for the regime’s fall and external intervention. Shockingly, Arabs and Muslims have aligned with those who do not have their interests in mind, and are active participants in destroying a Muslim society.