Syria is history repeating itself

Syria’s woes point to an irreversible weakening of Western supremacy, writes Jaswant Singh

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, 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 harbours a kaleidoscope of distinct groups: Arabs, Armenians, Christians, Kurds, Druze, Ismailis, and Bedouin.

It is this tolerance of 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 it is defeated.

In his history of the Arab world in the aftermath of the First World War, 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, [and introduced] a state system” that would not work. 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 Aug 1919, British foreign minister Arthur Balfour summarised 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”.

Does that not sound familiar? And is it 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 [suddenly] belonged to a state dominated by Christians”.

The combination of ethnic and sectarian fears and rivalries, historical memories, and willful blindness among outside powers seems almost predestined to destabilise the entire Middle East again. Indeed, the great arc stretching from Cairo to the Hindu Kush threatens to become the locus of global disorder. 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 impasse? Certainly, one will not be found in more UN resolutions, which is why US President Barack Obama is believed to favour a “managed transition” in Syria that would not fatally erode the existing instruments of the Syrian state.

As Michael Ignatieff has 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. Whatever the outcome, Syria’s agony has underscored a further irreversible weakening of the West’s dominant global role.

* Jaswant Singh is a former Indian finance and foreign minister. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012


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