Yesterday was the 1,000-day anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian civil war. A reminder hardly getting any attention in the Western press, and not because of the wide and justified coverage of the death of the great Madiba in South Africa. Conflicts like this seem to attract world attention mainly when they are likely to lead to a greater regional war, and in the minds of many in the West, both in the media and in governments, this is not anymore an imminent danger.
The dissolution of the Syrian arsenal of chemical weapons and the Iranian nuclear agreement cause many to be complacent about the possibility of a large-scale regional flare up. They are too optimistic and somewhat unrealistic if that is the governing thought, but surely they are guilty of moral neglect of the highest order when they turn their back to a conflict whose human dimensions are so dramatic.
The numbers have been cited in this blog quite frequently, and they are staggering, with close to 200,000 confirmed deaths, millions of refugees, and poverty and hunger which clearly are on the rise.
The conflict is beyond the point of the end of the beginning, but far from the beginning of the end. It is not too early to give an interim evaluation of all that and there are some points to be made which are not always emphasized enough, and which have implications in and beyond Syria.
First, the dissolution of the Syrian state is not a result of mistakes by rulers -- something that can be fixed by a new political arrangement, once the violence subsides. This is the result of the fundamental inability of Arab states to resolve sectarian differences, in a multi-sectarian society, by the arbitrary and brutal imposition of one group over the other. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and to a lesser extent Libya and Yemen (which has over 40% of Zaydis, a Sh'iite minority, though not Sh'iites, who adhere to the Iranian version of Sh'iism), are countries traditionally plagued by sectarian/ethnic/religious divisions, and in none of these countries were these divisions dealt with in a way that led to the establishment of legitimate regimes.
When VP Biden talked about the partition of Iraq along its ethnic/religious lines, he became a source of ridicule, but looking at the post-Saddam, post-American occupation Iraq, with its rampant and ever escalating sectarian violence, while the Kurdish-dominated north is so quiet, almost placid, it is time to reflect on Biden's statement and ponder the pros and cons of a unitary, but so violent Iraq.
On 20 July 1976, Hafiz Assad delivered a rare public speech, in which he explained the reasons for Syria's intervention in the then Lebanese civil war. In it, the self-styled Arab Nationalist declared that he could not allow Lebanon to completely disintegrate along sectarian lines, as this would be a victory to "Zionist Propaganda," yet he failed to mention that this very involvement became feasible ONLY after Syria and the "Zionist entity," agreed on zones of respective influence in Lebanon. He very vaguely referred to the need to prevent Lebanonization of Syria. Well, what the father dreaded the son has to deal with, and Syria is breaking up along sectarian and ethnic lines.
No more Arab Nationalism, no more Arab Socialism, no more Syriannism of one kind or another; just sectarianism, pure and simple.
So, that leads to another problem, the failure to have democratic institutions in such a fragmented society, such that they could bridge gaps through dialogue and elections, rather than the bullet. Every form of totalitarian regime has already been tested in Syria, and beforehand there were three relatively free rounds of elections in 1949, 1954 and 1961, all to no avail. The basic, fundamental questions of identity and co-existence between sects in a fragmented society have not been peacefully resolved, surely not for more than few years.
The most realistic hope for a Syria of the future will be the implementation of some formula of Lebanonization, though not that which was referred to by Hafiz Assad; rather, a system of government based on sectarianism. But then also Lebanon can claim only partial, limited success, as its modern history is that of civil wars; or if we are to be more lenient, history of peaceful periods interrupted by civil wars...
With that we have to address the point so often made by Arabs and their supporters in the West: it is ALL due to colonialism and its ongoing effects. Well, French colonialism definitely took advantage and exacerbated sectarian divisions in Syria and Lebanon, and the Alawites of Syria were clearly beneficiaries of the "divide and rule" French policy, but the French capitalized on an existing situation. They did not invent it. In 1806, 1811 and 1852, as well as afterwards, the Alawites revolted against Ottoman Sunni oppression, and so many times before. So, the historically-oppressed Alawites were ripe for colonial machinations. This is SURELY not to justify the current Alawite oppression of the Sunnis, simply to put it in a proper historic context.
History in the Middle East is the key to understanding current behaviors, not only in the context of the Syrian civil war, but also in the context of other regional conflicts, among them that between Israelis and Palestinians; but referring to Syria, recent and past history leads us to believe that the mayhem is far from over, and a solution is far from in sight. There may well be another 1,000 days.