Syria’s agony has generated a variety of unproductive responses: verbal condemnation of the excesses of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime; disagreements about the wisdom of armed intervention; and all-around confusion about the possibility of finding a viable long-term solution. Worse, in this sorry state of affairs, the world may be getting a glimpse of a very ugly future.
First, let us try to disentangle some of the cat’s cradle of ironies and contradictions that are bedeviling efforts to end the violence in Syria. Whereas Syria denies political freedom to its citizens, it tolerates significantly more social freedom than many other Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, which is leading the charge to oust Assad. Governed by minority Alawites (a Shia sect), Syria harbors a kaleidoscope of distinct groups: Arabs, Armenians, Christians, Kurds, Druze, Ismailis, and Bedouin.
It is this tolerance of cultural and religious diversity that could be endangered if the Sunni-inspired revolt sweeps the country. And that is why Syria simultaneously generates revulsion at the regime’s atrocities and fear of what might follow if the regime is defeated.
In an ancient land such as Syria, there can be no examination of the problems of the present without reflecting upon the past. History, after all, is always the mother of the present, and geography the progenitor.
In his history of the Arab world in the aftermath of World War I, A Peace to End all Peace, David Fromkin suggests that the Middle East today reflects the failure of the European powers to consolidate the political systems that they imposed. Britain and its allies “destroyed the old order,” smashing Turkish rule of the Arabic-speaking Middle East. But then they “created countries, nominated rulers, delineated frontiers, a state system” that would not work.
But, in the wake of the American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the intervention in Libya, is not the same experiment being repeated almost a century later? That is the question that realistic policymakers should be asking themselves as they ponder what to do in Syria.
In August 1919, British Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour summarized the essence of the problem that is now confronting policymakers. “The unhappy truth,” he wrote, “is that France, England, and America have got themselves…so inextricably confused that no…satisfactory answer is now possible.”
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Does that not sound familiar? And is not an updated version of Syrian (and then Iraqi) King Faisal’s exhortation to Arabs – “Choose to be either slaves or masters of your own destiny” – echoed in the political pronouncements of new leaders in Egypt and elsewhere.
And let us examine the actions of the West in 1919 and the years that followed. The French, as Fromkin reminds us, “shrank Syria, so that they could control it,” rewarding their “Christian allies by swelling the borders of Mount Lebanon with the Bekaa valley, the Mediterranean ports of Tyre, Sidon, Beirut and Tripoli, and…land…north of Palestine. Thousands of Muslims belonged to a state dominated by Christians.”
So, as the Oxford historian Margaret Macmillan argues in her book The Peacemakers, Syria’s leaders, remembering these events when Westerners probably did not, “took the opportunity” presented by the Black September crisis of 1970 to send troops to their country’s lost lands.
The combination of ethnic and sectarian fears and rivalries, historical memories, and willful blindness among outside powers seems almost predestined to destabilize the entire Middle East again. Turkey is resurgent yet troubled; Iraq has been invaded and abandoned; Iran is isolated and threatened; Israel is anxious and belligerent; and Afghanistan and Pakistan are internally imbalanced and politically fragile.
Indeed, the great arc stretching from Cairo to the Hindu Kush threatens to become the locus of global disorder. Little wonder that Iranian envoy Saeed Jalili, after meeting Assad in Damascus recently, announced that “Iran will absolutely not allow the axis of resistance, of which it considers Syria to be a main pillar, to be broken in any way.”
For Turkey, Syria’s plight is a strategic nightmare, because any breakup of Syria implies the possible rise of a greater Kurdistan, which would raise claims to a great swath of Turkish territory.
Is there a solution to this grim impasse? Certainly, one will not be found in more United Nations resolutions, which is why US President Barack Obama is now believed to favor a “managed transition” in Syria that would not fatally erode the existing instruments of the Syrian state.
As Michael Ignatieff has wisely observed, Syria’s crisis has revealed that this is “the moment in which the West should see that the world has truly broken into two. A loose alliance of struggling capitalist democracies” is faced by Russia and China. Western countries’ national interests will no longer determine the moral and political impulses of today’s global community. Indeed, whatever the outcome, Syria’s agony has underscored a further irreversible weakening of the West’s dominant global role.