A scene from the crowded Za'atri refugee camp in Jordan
© UNHCR / J. Kohler
A scene from the crowded Za'atri refugee camp in Jordan
Last updated: November 12, 2013
De-constructing national identities in the Levant

"The conflict in Syria is bringing to the fore loyalties and linkages that run deeper than state borders"

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It is hard to overestimate the importance of the U.S. administration’s recent shift away from military action against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad and towards renewed diplomatic engagement. US-led airstrikes would have risked adding yet more fuel to the civil war raging in Syria, accelerating the collapse of the central state and further destabilising the Levant. Far from addressing the underlying problems of the conflict, any outside action seen as supporting one community over the other could hasten the on-going deconstruction of national identities throughout the region into their constituent parts, and the coalescing of regional non-state actors into a handful of tribal, religious and sectarian identities.

Despite this, the region’s borders are not likely to be redrawn any time soon. Given the considerable blood and treasure required to further the national aspirations of Zionist and Kurdish movements for example, we are not likely to witness the imminent emergence of a fully-fledged Alawite state or a Sunni tribal confederation with the trappings of national sovereignty.

The Sykes-Picot lines acted as a bulwark able to contain inter-communal bloodshed

However, as the nationalist glue that has previously bound the region’s heterogeneous societies dissipates, the conflict in Syria is bringing to the fore loyalties and linkages that run deeper than state borders, obscuring the Sykes-Picot lines. Should this process continue, these borders risk the same fate as Afghanistan/Pakistan’s Durand line, namely growing irrelevance for local populations.

Until a year or so ago, the most visible manifestation of this dual process of competing notions of national identity and increasing factionalism had been repeated outbreaks of sectarian violence in Lebanon and then Iraq. In both countries it has been a combination of internal/external pressure that has led to the periodic eruption of sectarian tensions, exposing the inter-communal dynamics that underpin the nation state and weakening its capacity to exercise central authority. Unlike today though, the Sykes-Picot lines acted as a bulwark able to contain inter-communal bloodshed within the confines of both countries and prevent any spillover of violence into neighbouring countries.

In Lebanon, the composition of political identities and power distribution since the creation of these colonial lines resulted in a relatively weak central government and a security apparatus vulnerable to sectarian undercurrents. Such political realities precluded the formation of a strong national identity (and consequently a strong nation state) that could override collective divisions. But it was largely the demographic impact of thousands of predominantly Sunni Palestinians and then direct interference by regional powers which pushed Lebanon into repeated cycles of communal violence between 1975 and 1990.

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Further east, sectarian differences have been stoked in Iraq through a mixture of Sunni disenfranchisement and Shiite monopolization of power. But again, it was the toppling of a strong central government and the disbandment of the Iraqi army in the wake of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that paved the way for this. There as well as in Syria the maintenance of a strong autocracy and a system of “top-down” nationalism backed by brute force had compensated for the weakness of the Sykes-Picot system and allowed their respective regimes to keep a lid on communal tensions. Moreover, both deployed a nationalistic discourse encouraging the formation of collective identities and the promotion of a sense of belonging that emphasised the place of the state within the Post-Ottoman order. Besides solidifying the nation-state project, this resulted in the displacement of tribal, religious and sectarian considerations as the main vehicle for “identity making.”

Of course this is not to say that such ties have ceased to matter. Rulers in both Syria and Iraq created a tightly-knit political and military class issued from minority communities to buttress their rule. Kinship ties also remained the most basic form of identity making on a local level, especially amongst communities straddling national borders. This has been dramatically highlighted during the on-going conflict in Syria where the transformation of a grassroots struggle for democracy into a sectarian civil war along with the outside involvement of Iraqi and Lebanese Shiite groups and Sunni militants has pushed the country into deepening communal violence.

Deeper involvement by Lebanese groups in Syria risks even greater polarization and destabilization at home

As the threads that had previously bound Syrians together have been pulled apart by rampant sectarianism, Syria’s preservation as a strong and coercive nation looks increasingly dubious. Not least as Syrian nationalism has mirrored the fracturing of Syrian society, becoming coloured by a sectarian and maximalist discourse that seeks to substantiate one side’s narrative of events while denying the national legitimacy of the “other.” As such, hardliners within rebel ranks have increasingly promoted a Syrian identity based on Sunni Islam, denying the national legitimacy of Alawite/Shiite populations. The regime’s supporters have meanwhile consistently sought to de-legitimize opposition activists and their demands by labelling them as terrorists and foreign collaborators.

As in Lebanon and Iraq, the polarization of a society between a supposed conformist minority (“us”) and a heretic majority (“them”) and the breakdown of national identity into its constituent parts (tribe, ethnicity, sect, religion, etc.) is nothing new. Nor is the balkanization of a country and a rapidly shrivelling central authority unique. But given how entwined Syria is with its neighbours and the deepening involvement of external actors, the country’s slow-motion destruction is exasperating sectarian fault-lines amongst its neighbours and acting as a catalyst for further violence.

This stands in stark contrast to Syria’s traditional role as a regional “firewall” able to contain sectarian spillover from Iraq and Lebanon. Instead, amidst a weakening of national identities and increasing state fragility in all three countries, communities previously divided by national borders are increasingly coalescing into non-state entities defined by their tribal, religious and sectarian identities.

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In Syria and Iraq the growing alienation of the Sunni population from central authorities combined with fracturing national identities has pushed closer together communities which already share strong tribal and economic ties. This process has been reinforced by the influx of predominantly Sunni Syrian refugees with close kinship ties to Iraq’s Al-Anbar province, itself a hot bed for Iraq’s Sunni insurgency and a funnel for Sunni fighters heading to Syria. Meanwhile, current levels of communal violence in Iraq, the worst in five years, continue to be compared by some to “Balkans-style ethnic cleansing.”

Across the border in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s deployment in support of the Syrian regime along with close cooperation between Sunni communities on both sides of the Syria-Lebanon border has sparked some of the worse violence since the civil war. While these incidents have remained isolated, deeper involvement by Lebanese groups in Syria risks even greater polarization and destabilization at home.

Meanwhile, should the Assad regime ultimately collapse into a power vacuum and Sunni retaliation ensue, efforts to create a mini Alawite enclave in northwestern Syria contiguous with Alawite/Shiite areas in northern Lebanon cannot be discounted.

A political process must however do more than address this regional tug-of-war

As is evident, the more the conflict in Syria is left to fester and the more competing powers use the country to play out a regional cold war, the more likely we are to see the gradual emergence of a regional geo-political landscape fractured by emerging sectarian fault lines. As the experience of Syria’s neighbours has shown, military interventionism is not a viable means of solving the underlying problems of conflicts fed as much by sectarian competition as by state-based rivalries – whether between Saudi Arabia and Iran, or the US and Russia.

A political process must however do more than address this regional tug-of-war. Concerted steps will have to be taken to ensure adequate buy-in for all of Syria’s communities in any post-Assad political order, and ultimately heal deep wounds within Syrian society. But to do so will require Syrian groups to move beyond the zero-sum calculations that are ripping apart the nation’s social fabric and recognise that only negotiated compromise is capable of saving Syria and neighbouring states from national disintegration.

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