Mohammad Sakhnini: The root of the Syrian-Iraqi question
Painting "A Caravan Crossing the Desert" by Charles-Théodore Frère. © Commons
Mohammad Sakhnini: The root of the Syrian-Iraqi question
Last updated: November 12, 2013
Mohammad Sakhnini: The root of the Syrian-Iraqi question

"Two hundred years ago these lands were not Sunni Muslim, Shia Muslim, Jewish or Christian. Religion did not define these lands"

Banner Icon In 2003, the former silk route delivered refugees instead of commodities from Iraq to Syria. In 2013, these routes are nursing fighters, jihadists, bullets, and exclusionary ideas and beliefs rather than the commercial and cultural scenes of two and three hundred years ago, writes Mohammad Sakhnini.

Once it was called the Silk route. On this route, travellers, pilgrims, conquerors, soldiers, spices, horses, camels, caravans, commodities and ideas flowed between East and West. From China, India, Persia, Iraq into Greater Syria, the caravan route was a festival of interaction between different peoples, religions and cultures. This happened before the late nineteenth century.

The opening of the Suez Canal as well as the European invention of the nation state in Iraq and Syria weakened the economic vitality of this route. Because once the Suez Canal was opened the routes to the East Indies and China through Syria and Iraq were no longer holding important strategic, commercial weight for the global exchange of commodities between imperial Europe and imperialised Middle East.

But before this time, an amazing moment in history occurred which, if it continued until our days, I imagine, Syria and Iraq would not have experienced the tensions and conflicts which we are seeing these days: sectarianism, bloodshed, suicide bombings, dictatorship, and, most importantly, poverty and lack of hope among younger generations.

If we go back two or three hundred years, this was not the case. Between Damascus, Aleppo, Mosul, Baghdad and Basra there happened to be many interactions, encounters and hopes. The modern Arab living in Syria and Iraq will get surprised if someone like me happens to tell her that two hundred years ago the lands in which you are now living were not Sunni Muslim, Shia Muslim, Jewish or Christian. Religion did not define these lands.

I am not saying that religion was something which did not exist in these lands. Rather the people living there were not defining themselves by their religious, local or national identities. Rather they were defining themselves by the extent to which they could make profits by interacting with different people from different religions and backgrounds. Rivalries and alliances existed between those who set out to enrich themselves rather than spread their religious beliefs or impose them on other people.

Many European travellers who crossed these routes during the eighteenth century recorded their observations. They noted the extent to which the commercial caravan was one of linkage between Syria and Mesopotamia. As they mentioned in their diaries, the caravan would leave Aleppo loaded with European and Syrian commodities. The leader was an Arab Sheikh from a powerful tribe in the Syrian deserts. The merchants in the caravans were Ottoman Turks, Syrian Arabs, Christians, Jews, Europeans, and Armenians. In Basra, the caravan would set out to Aleppo loaded with Persian carpets, East India spices, and Chinese porcelains.

"In 2003, these routes delivered refugees instead of commodities from Iraq to Syria. In 2013, these routes are nursing fighters, jihadists, bullets, and exclusionary ideas and beliefs"

Before the invention of an imperial commodity called oil this area was open for a level of cross-cultural interaction and religious openness which we would never see in our days in the Iraq of Sunni-Shia death camps and the Syria of sectarian, regional and tribal feuds, massacres and chemical adventures.

France and Britain brought into Greater Syria and Iraq the Sykes-Picot agreement which later invented the nation state system in these lands. Syrians, Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese, and Iraqis have always reacted against this system. The wave of nationalism in the Arab World which the charismatic and honey words of Jamal Abdul Naser ushered in were brought to halt with the increasing consolidation of Israeli colonial projects in Palestine.

The Arabs now reacted against Sykes-Picot in a different way. Rather than imagining themselves as homogenous community living within one nation state, they began to develop religious dreams. They saw themselves living in an Islamic Umma. This Umma was sectarian: one for the Shi’a and one for the Sunnis. Christian Arabs remained on the margins, and most of them looked to the West as a refuge.

Nevertheless, before we reached this stage Sadam Hussein and Hafez Assad’s projects of Arabic unity were a second step in the run-up to what we have in Syria and Iraq these days: sectarian illness. Since Sadam Hussein and Hafez Assad established themselves the leaders of the Bathist dreams of unifying the Arab World, there has grown the awareness within Syria and Iraq that they were both having different nation states instead of one Arabic Umma, as the Bathist slogan would have it. Assad has his own Arabism. Hussein has his own Arabism.

The result was not only the parochialism and repression of the nation state that these both leaders showed in their political projects which nursed empty dreams within the Arab mind, heart and soul in Syria and Iraq. The dire consequence of separating these two lands from each other was one of economic regression in both countries.

Of course, Iraq was a rich country under Saddam since it has unstoppable reserves of Oil. Nevertheless, the Iraqis did not get the chance to enjoy the blessings of possessing such a commodities simply because of the fantastic level of corruption in that country as well as the on and off Western embargo on buying Iraqi oil.

One might also say that Syria was not a poor country under Assad. Since this country, thanks to some Soviet pride, was not seeking to depend on the West for buying commodities; rather it sought to manage with what the country could produce for itself in the sectors of food, agriculture and clothing. This is not to say that the important commodities of luxury which the rich officials as well as wealthy aristocratic families could not live without were being brought to the country via the little brother, a previous Syrian territory now called Lebanon.

What I am arguing here is that if these two leaders worked towards unlearning the new reality which Sykes-Picot aimed to create in the Arab World, the current deadlock in the Syrian-Iraqi situation would never have happened. Two hundred years ago, there was a caravan crossing these routes. Since then, we have not seen any real projects of connecting the economies of Syria and Iraq via these routes.

In 2003, these routes delivered refugees instead of commodities from Iraq to Syria. In 2013, these routes are nursing fighters, jihadists, bullets, and exclusionary ideas and beliefs rather than the commercial and cultural scenes of interaction with which I began my article.

If any hope needs to be mobilised for both countries, we shall remember one thing. In the period before European colonialism and parochial Arab nationalism and sectarianism, daily practices across commercial caravan routes between Syria and Iraq cut across religious, cultural and sectarian identities and polarities.

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