Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Paradigm Shift for Syria

I am traveling through early Fall on a Boston College research grant.  I expect to be in the Middle East for at least part of my grant period.  If this pans out, I hope to revive this blog "from the Levant"--provided I have reliable internet.  In the meantime, and before I get disconnected, here's my latest on Syria, and my commentary to the doubting Thomases who've only now begun considering a "third option" (umm, partition) which I've spoken about since the very early days of the uprisings.

A version of this post (here) ran in the July 10, 2012 issue of the National Interest

Many Middle East commentators have described the Houla massacres of May 2012 as "a turning point" in Syria’s sixteen-month old uprisings.  “This is Syria's Srebrenica” clamored some, speculating sterner international pressures ranging from the imposition of more debilitating sanctions against the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad, to further isolating his government (with the prospects of enlisting Chinese and Russian help,) to possibly putting boots on the ground to lend support to the armed opposition and eventually create civilian "safe havens."  Yet the brutal killings continued, an undaunted Assad went on flouting international denunciations, and save for a quasi-universal litany of jeremiads and consternations about the regime's cruelty, precious little has changed on the ground in Syria.  If anything, Assad seemed to have raised the stakes in late June downing a Turkish military jet that had presumably breached Syrian airspace.  Yet, this too, along with news of fresh new massacres in the Damascus neighborhood of Douma, met with international mutism—and curiously enough, with Turkish resignation.

True, there was the recent ballyhooed Geneva conference, and before it the histrionic expulsions of Syria's diplomatic corps from key Western nations—with the Obama administration, true to form, demurring.  But those remained sparse, perfunctory, timorous, and largely ineffective slaps on the wrist.  For, beyond the killings, beyond the world's cacophonous indignation, and beyond the Syrian regime's continued recalcitrance, there lurked a method to Assad's madness that very few observers have deigned address or entertain: namely, that what animates Assad are communal survival concerns and Alawite group contingencies; that the international community’s and the Syrian opposition’s oratory about Syria’s unity and national integrity are the least of the regime’s preoccupations; that it might be too late at this point in the game for the Alawites to abdicate their reign and resign themselves to a subservient future in Syria; that many assumptions about the current shape of the Syrian state are broken beyond repair; and that the Alawites would rather dismantle their existing republic and retreat into a fortified autonomous entity in the Alawite mountains than share power with a brutalized Sunni-Arab majority ill-prepared to granting either democracy or clemency to its cruel erstwhile wardens.

Save for analysis published in The National Interest throughout 2011 and early 2012 (see for instance here, here, and here,) most analysts, diplomats, and policy makers invested in Syrian affairs seem still beholden to spent paradigms about the country; namely that Syria is somehow a single unitary entity that shall remain so whatever the cost and whatever the outcome of the current uprisings, to be ruled in its entirety by a single dynasty beholden to a single ideology and bound to a single political culture. Yet, if anything, the events of the past sixteen months—and more recently the Houla and Douma massacres—have demonstrated that the Alawites, not unlike other Syrian communal and ethnic groups, have yet to overcome their regional, sectarian, and subnational loyalties for the sake of some fancied uniform "Syrian nation."  Historically speaking, there was never anything resembling this vision of a homogenous Syrian entity, and there is precious little today that would justify the constitutive elements of this artificial construct remaining intact.  

The grisly massacres running riot through the Syrian countryside are not mere sectarian outbursts or spasmodic bouts of senseless killings and retaliatory counter-killings; they bear the telltale markings of what became known in Yugoslavia of the 1990's as "ethnic cleansing."  Like their twentieth century Balkan precedent, Syria’s massacres of civilian populations are deliberate, controlled, methodical, and focused, aimed at removing "from a specific territory, persons of a particular ethnic group... in order to render that area ethnically homogenous."  Ironically the parallels don’t end there.  Like the Balkans, geographic Syria—including today’s troubled Syrian Arab Republic—was once part of the Ottoman dominions.  It was and remains at once a crossroads and a rugged mountainous refuge where many linguistic families, multiple ethnic groups, and bevies or religious and sectarian communities—among them Kurds, Turks, Armenians, Arabs, Shias, Sunnis, Greek-Orthodox, Druze, Syriacs, Alawites, Maronites, Jews and others—have for centuries lead an uneasy existence and a tenuous coexistence.  The conditions that have lead to the twentieth century rending of the Balkan states into multiple ethnic formations may be different from those responsible for Syria’s travails today.  But the ingredients are hardly dissimilar: restless ethnic, religious, and linguistic mosaics forcibly brought together under the banner of a homogenizing authoritarian pan-national idea.

And so, today’s strings of wanton murders, sexual assaults, torture, arbitrary detentions, targeted bombings, and destruction of civilian neighborhoods—and what they entail in terms of displacements, deportations, and population movements—are nothing if not the groundwork of a future Alawite entity; the grafting of new facts on the ground and the drafting of new frontiers.  No longer able to rule in the name of Arab unity, and in the process preserve their own ethnic and sectarian autonomy and specificity, the Alawites deem it salutary to retreat into the Levantine highlands overlooking the Mediterranean.  The area in question is a sanctuary that the Alawites had called home for centuries, and which the French had helped them instate and protect as an autonomous “ethnic state” during the first-half of the twentieth century. 

By no means will the population of this projected state be homogenous; but its Alawite element will be an overwhelming majority that is politically, psychologically, militarily, and economically well-prepared to stand up and be counted.  What’s more, the largely Christian coastal regions of Tartous and Lattakieh have remained “neutral” throughout the uprisings—and have in effect signaled (even if tacitly) their acquiescence in an Alawite-dominated state.  Furthermore, the buffer zones of Masyaf and Cadmus to the East are home to a large Ismaili community, which has thus far remained loyal to the Alawites.  Heading northeastward, beyond the Turko-Syrian border town of Idlib, the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) seems to have already begun establishing the foundations of autonomous rule, with Alawite blessings and encouragement.  Though its industrial resources are quite limited, this projected Alawite region benefits from a well developed infrastructure, rich arable highlands, fertile coastal plains, abundant water sources, and more importantly perhaps, Syria’s only deep-water harbors—Tartous and Lattakieh—and an international airport that would make any emerging state in that particular region at once self-sufficient and supremely defensible.

The earth is flat no more when it comes to Syria, and its current shape no longer makes sense to a recently empowered group unwilling to revert back to servility.  It is high time prevalent images of "Syria" and its future—as a cultural, linguistic, historical, and ethnic monolith—also moved away from this sort of cognitive dissonance.  This is not a prescription.  This is a gentle reminder that a model for this future can be found in Syria’s Ottoman and French-Mandatory past, and that a single unitary Syria locked up in its current map is neither sacrosanct nor a law of nature.  Indeed if anything it is an historical anomaly that arose in 1936—a date prior to which conceptually, politically, and geographically speaking, Syria as we know it today was non-extant.  Policy maker, peace processors, diplomats, and those invested in Syrian affairs and the Syrian people’s wellbeing would do well exploring all possible solutions to the current Syrian crisis, not only solutions dictated by prevalent models and comforting ideological predilections.

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