As Syria Teeters, So Do Decades-Old Assumptions About the Middle East

The conflict is testing the brittle bonds of a national identity in states carved out of old Ottoman provinces at the end of World War I

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Syrian Free Army reorganizes with Liwa al-Islam and Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo, Syria, on July 20, 2012

The Italian leftist Antonio Gramsci may have been writing from inside Mussolini’s prisons in the 1930s, but he could have been describing today’s Syria when he noted that revolutionary crises are moments in which “the old is dying, and the new cannot be born” and are characterized by a “great variety of morbid symptoms.” Among Syria’s morbid symptoms, on Sunday, an eighth consecutive day of open warfare on the streets of Damascus and Aleppo. With border crossings into neighboring Turkey and Iraq frequently changing hands between rebel and loyalist forces, Syria’s very functioning as a nation-state has begun to unravel — and with it, potentially, the brittle bonds of a national identity of comparatively recent vintage.

The “old” that is dying in Syria may be more than just the 32-year-old authoritarian regime of the Assad family. Western failure to win Russian and Chinese support for a managed regime change in Syria has also laid to rest the post–Cold War geopolitical assumption that Russia and China would ultimately accede, albeit grumpily, to Western interventions in unruly hot spots. And the conflict’s sectarian breakdown has served up an uncomfortable reminder of the growing frailty of the system of nation-states — Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine/Israel — gerrymandered out of old Ottoman provinces by the victorious French and British at the end of World War I. Far from some textbook topple-the-despot-and-bring-in-the-consultants scenario, all of the Middle East’s stakeholders seem to be aware that the collapse of Syria’s regime will plunge them into uncharted, and dangerous, territory.

Despite a fever of speculation that last week’s unprecedented gains by rebel fighters had prompted Assad to flee for the coastal heartland of his Alawite sect, a more sobering picture emerged on Sunday. “The military is still loyal to Assad, despite a very big wave of defections, and he and his family are still in Damascus,” a spokesman for the Israeli military said on Sunday. Unspoken, perhaps, is a sense of relief on Israel’s part that its tenacious but predictable foe to the north hadn’t suddenly capitulated, given Israel’s fears of just who might move into the vacuum left by a precipitous departure — and more importantly, what such a scenario would mean for the fate of the Syrian regime’s extensive stockpiles of chemical weapons. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told U.S. TV interviewers on Sunday that Israel would consider a direct intervention to prevent those weapons falling into the hands of its enemies, but that’s hardly a preferred option for either Israel or the U.S. Israeli forces would have taken note too of rebel claims on Sunday of having captured the town of Rwehina on the Golan Heights, just 1,400 m away from Israeli positions. A Sunni-led insurgency of increasingly Islamist hue might prove even more insistent than Assad had been on reclaiming the Syrian territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 war.

(PHOTOS: The Syrian Arms Race)

The speculative conventional wisdom among opposition activists and diplomats has been that rather than abdicate and flee, Assad would withdraw to the Alawite heartland and carve out a substantial defensible territorial redoubt from which to fight on, producing some form of Yugoslavia-type territorial breakup. An Alawite ministate may not be viable, of course, but the collapse of the Syrian state could also mimic Lebanon’s 16-year civil war where a notional state continued to exist, but national territory — even in the capital itself — was parceled out among rival armed formations. Such a scenario may already be taking shape in Syria, with reports of violent “cleansing” campaigns by proregime militia to clear areas of Sunni residents. That too may not be sustainable in the long run — one reason for the comparative stability achieved in Lebanon even during the civil war was Syria’s heavy policing role. But it may nonetheless be a phase through which the Syrian conflict passes, with few observers expecting an end to communal bloodletting, even if Assad retreats or flees.

For now, however, Assad’s focus appears to be less on a retreat to the Alawite heartland than on a ferocious counterattack to restore maximum control in the capital, bringing to bear the regime’s overwhelming advantages in heavy weaponry to force rebel fighters to abandon their positions, even at the expense of ceding peripheral territories, particularly along the borders, to rebel control. By Sunday night, the counterattack led by Assad’s younger brother, Maher, had reportedly driven rebels from the neighborhoods seized late last week. The rebels, still heavily outgunned, had earlier warned that they would be forced to retreat; this was not a final assault on the citadel. Still, last week’s heavy fighting in the capital has clearly taken Syria’s civil war into a new phase in which the regime’s ability to control all of the country may now be broken beyond repair.

(PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)

Israel isn’t the only neighbor becoming increasingly alarmed: Jordan’s politically weak pro-Western monarchy fears destabilization by a Sunni insurgent triumph in Syria, as will Iraq’s Shi‘ite-dominated, Iran-aligned al-Maliki government. The Sunni tribes along the border region traverse the Syria-Iraq boundary and have long assisted one another’s insurgencies. A revolutionary victory in Syria would certainly embolden those same Iraqi insurgents who lost Iraq’s civil war, but have never reconciled themselves with Shi‘ite power in Baghdad. There are growing signs of the Syrian conflict spilling also into Lebanon, whose own sectarian fault lines are intimately connected with those across the border. And even Turkey, which is openly backing the armed rebellion, will be alarmed at reports that hundreds of Syrian Kurdish fighters trained by their kin in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish zone have moved back into Syria and begun supplanting regime authority in predominantly Kurdish towns with a view of establishing an autonomous entity similar to the one in Iraq.

Having failed to secure U.N. Security Council backing to force Assad to comply with a peace plan that would likely result in a soft-landing ouster for his regime, the Obama Administration has by all accounts given up, for now, on a diplomatic solution and is instead reportedly focused on helping topple Assad. The resistance of Russia and China to any international moves to oust Assad have rendered the diplomatic option moot. But that doesn’t mean the U.S. or other Western powers are about to intervene militarily in Syria, or even to openly arm a rebellion whose makeup and intentions remain opaque, and which is answerable to no single coherent political leadership despite the best efforts over more than a year by Western and Arab powers to conjure one into being.

(MORE: Can the U.S. and Russia Agree on How to End Syria’s War?)

The ability of the U.S. or any other outside power to manage the outcome of an increasingly messy war is necessarily limited. And statements like the one by an unnamed U.S. official who told the New York Times that “we need to make sure that what comes next has Alawite representation” underscore the political difficulty. Alawite “representation” might not mean much: Assad’s regime had plenty of Sunni representation without convincing the majority of Sunnis of its legitimacy. The political forces with whom Western and Arab leaders have been working — the Syrian National Council — appear to be riddled with international divisions that render it dysfunctional and remains of limited authority among those actually waging the fight. On the ground, unfortunately, many or most Syrians of all confessional identities are viewing the unfolding civil war through a sectarian lens.

Last week’s U.N. Security Council debacle over sanctions against Assad signaled a shift with ramifications far beyond Syria. Western diplomats lambasted Moscow’s and Beijing’s veto as “inexcusable and indefensible,” but there’s no consensus among world powers in which such adjectives can be anchored: as far as Russia and China are concerned, they’re simply stopping another Western attempt at regime change. Far from being the first U.N.-authorized humanitarian intervention, last year’s NATO operation in Libya — enabled by Moscow and Beijing withholding their vetoes — may well be the last for some time to come. And the combination of geopolitical rivalry, regionwide sectarian tensions and the potential for a sustained bloodbath in a Syrian civil war being waged increasingly on religious-communal lines suggests that no decisive intervention is imminent. Syria’s morbid interlude may, in fact, prove to be a protracted one.

MORE: Is Syria Facing a Yugoslavia-Style Breakup?

32 comments
G Presley
G Presley

Interesting cmments all around here. I would also not call the end of the Hassad house before it would actually show any signs of it. In spite of what I read in the mainstream medias, I do not think that we are close to it and I would even say that the FSA and other terrorists are being fought back if ever they had a small chance of winning anything. 

And the big guns have not even been showed by the Syrian army.

Heterotic
Heterotic

 Muslims killing muslims is bad?

zzz05
zzz05

Pretty much, yeah.

gltoffic
gltoffic

I again go back to the teachings of that historical author Ibn Khaldun 1132AD/732AH -- 1406AD/808AH.  He wrote extensively on political cycles and dynamic changes in the rise and fall of empires and regimes.  In his writings he spoke of the need to create a new Asabiyya or "sense of a new grouping of the common identity among the citizenry" to achieve a new type of government and loyalties.  

He also said that in every case of just dramatic upheavals that the new leaders would always first be looked upon as barbarians by the former powers that be.  

For all of the countries in the wave of the "Arab Spring", all have forgotten the primary goals of the early protesters was about jobs and social equality.  It was not about the current regimes of the time.   It was only AFTER each subsequent regime pressed back too hard did it become necessary to institute regime change.  

But after the regime changes, the primary goals of jobs and social equality have been swept to the bottom of the list of priorities.

To my way of thinking, the most dramatic way to foster economic growth and social equality is for the entire group of countries, from Tunisia to the Tigris River to merge as one, either single common country or at least a Commonwealth type system with a common currency and defense force.  

The more each former country contributes its leading talents or assets to the common good, whether it be financial expertise or energy and mineral resources, agricultural bounty or tourist destinations the more balanced and dynamic an economy can grow.

The larger a country the more it would include various minorities, Alawite,s Berber, Coptic, Druze, Kurds etc.   Thus the need to enshrine into law the protection of minority rights.  

The larger the country also the ability to transfer soldiers and civil servants from one region to another until tensions die down.  This could take many years.   Truth and Reconciliation councils are also a must to move on.  

Whether Lebanon and Sunni/Kurd Iraq join in is to be decide by them.  To what extent the Palestinians might find this a very great alternative is also hopeful.  

If the House of the Hashemites were to become the constitutional monarchy to lead such an extended and dynamic country would create an historical, religious and sense of continuity to the newly formed nation.  

I think you will find that when all is said and done the main reason why so many Arab nations were not quick to offer support to their direct neighbors in times of crisis, such as Jordan and the Palestinians, is that quite frankly they just could not afford too.  

Just as countries such as Bolivia and South Africa have multiple capitals, I would also propose that in such an extended new country that Amman remain as the Executive and Legislative Capital with a secondary capital of administrative offices in what is currently Bayda Libya.   I would also recommend that Al Quds become the Judicial capital of the newly formed combined country.

I would do one final major step and propose to the Israelis that in exchange for the parts of the West Bank they wish to keep, that they trade, land for land, Eliat Isreal and proceeding north.   This opening of the physical and mental block between the citizens of North Africa and the Middle east would be a massive psychological boost to the entire new country.

Once common currency, open borders, common language and political stability across a vast region would bring local and foreign investment flocking back.

Whether liberal or Islamic or the combination of both under a constitutional monarchy and covering such a large and diverse area would most likely ensure that neither side would gain a position from which it could not be voted against for some time to come.  

And again it needs for the entire region to refocus on the goals most important.  Jobs and social equality.  To do that the people of the region, regardless of social or economic standing, religious beliefs or current national identity must look to forming a new Asabiyya or sense of who they really are and what they really wish to become in the coming decades.

http://wadisarabia.blogspot.co... 

Consider it.  

Freedom
Freedom

The Baath regime is 50 years old.  Assad dynasty is formally 42 years old.  Assad control over Syria was established in a military coup in 1966, thus 46 years old.  Check your history otherwise you undermine your credibility. 

zzz05
zzz05

All these nations on the peninsula are creations of the British administration, driven by considerations as rational as the local governor's cryptic or not so cryptic homosexual fascination with some dashing sheikh. Historically, the entire area was just "Syria", not too historically similar to the current country of that name,  and primary allegiance was to the tribe. You don't find a lot of mentions of Saudi Arabia or the Hashemite Kingdom of TransJordan in ancient writings. 

Sid sridhar
Sid sridhar

This is another gem from Tony Karon. What is happening in Syria is exactly what he called in his previous article i.e balkanization of Syria. For all the support from Sunnis in Saudi Arabia,Qatar and Turkey, their turn may be next. Turkey will be forced to deal with its Kurdish population and Saudi Arabia, with its Shias. What the World is witnessing is the collapse of nation States, which were created by Colonial powers, but hard to sustain. Russia and China are deeply worried because a similar balkanization of their Country is a serious prospect. In 20 years, we will see a huge re-drawing of the map, showing new formations based on ethnic/cultural/religious commonality. In short, the world will see more states like Israel! We are in for a turbulent future.

zzz05
zzz05

But Libya was a widely dispersed small population; Syria is densely populated and not too amenable to hostile tribes living interspersed in urban situations. We can't even get that to work in the USA. 

Repo Mambo
Repo Mambo

Don't worry about Turkiye.  The PKK has been defeated.  If anything, the downfall of Assad's regime is bad news for the kurds.  Kurdish terrorists depened on the Alawite regime for weapons and safe haven for some time now.

formerlyjamesm
formerlyjamesm

Although Russia's motives are described as simply wanting to prevent another western regime change, most of the article seems to support Russia's position.  

Kichwa Tembo
Kichwa Tembo

Mr. Karon,

I agree with everything you say in this article. But also lets not forget Iran. All this desire to make sure Syrian people get their freedom fries isnt borne out of some genuine goodwill towards them but is borne out of  a desire to see Iran lose an ally in the region. Remove Assad, and Iran has one less ally to count on. I am willing to bet that if Assad pledged to forget about wanting Golan Heights back and not being allied to Iran, the rebels would get betrayed by the West.

zzz05
zzz05

I suspect you are correct. 

GoGate
GoGate

While stability in Syria is all but extinct, the vulnerability of stability in the surrounding region has become an even more contentious issue. The question, then, is whether or not the repercussions of regime collapse in Syria warrant swift international intervention. Thousands of displaced refugees, anarchy in the place of a stable succeeding regime, and massive amounts of highly dangerous weapons at large are just a few of the imminent byproducts of Assad's fall. See why Itamar Rabinovich, former ambassador of Israel to the U.S., says that "time is growing short" for the international community to take action: 

http://www.project-syndicate.o...

DebbieSmith1956
DebbieSmith1956

Here is an article that shows how widespread the use of torture, wrongful arrest and imprisonment without trial is in the SAR:

http://viableopposition.blogsp...

Wasn't the abuse of civilians by the Hussein regime in Iraq one of the excuses used for the 2003 invasion?

Guest
Guest

Brave New World, the past is dead, long live the future.

Jay Tsay
Jay Tsay

This is not about Alawites versus Sunni, Mr.  Tony Karon.  It is about the suppression by a government towards the majority of people who have  lived under a system that does not allow them to make progress even with abudance of education.   It is about opening the doors to more democracy. 

Kichwa Tembo
Kichwa Tembo

Yes, I hope you discuss your demand for freedom and democracy to the oil sheikhdoms, especially the Saudis and Bahrainis. I will eat crow if your do not come back neutered.

Discobug
Discobug

OH really?! for a while i began to believe what you're saying but hang on! So the other regimes pushing for 'freedom' and 'democracy' in Syria such as Saudi Arabia (Kingdom of Repression!) and Qatar (Emirate of Corruption), Let alone the US and EU (who's concern is more about ensuring Israel's security more than anything else) ...Did anyone also forget to mention that there are protests in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as we speak with both governments crushing the peaceful demonstrations (oh, hold on, we are not supposed to see this on CNN or BBC alas our Oil supplying nations will be upset!)  Let's not forget the plans for Syria's future role in the proposed Gas pipelines from Qatar to EU (to stop russian monopoly to EU)... and above all, let's not forget that a nation Called Palastine with more than 4 million people forceably exiled from their nation and a 'make-up' state of Israel is being built on their lands and homes... ALOHA DEMOCRACY!!!

Tony Karon in this article gives the most accurate scenario of what might happen to Syria whether you liked Assad or loathed him. This being a bloodbath for the next 5-10 years to come

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

Don't worry, Discobug, democracy takes time and certainly has a pecking order. Saudi Arabia will be the last to fall due to its oil and most likely will happen peacefully. Syria hopefully will have its chance at democracy by the end of 2012, thereby making 2013 the year of Iran.

As for Palestine, it's not a legitimately recognized state. Rather, it's a non-state entity according to the UN that the PLO (a terrorist organization) holds claim to. The Palestinians you mention were force-ably removed due to numerous wars started by various Arab countries surrounding The State of Israel and the Palestinians themselves.

Today, there are 22 Arab states that comprise more than 5 million square miles and more than 350 million people. Israel has just 8,000 square miles and 7.6 million people. Israel, as you well know, comprises a mere 20% of the former TransJordan. It was created during the same 30 year period that ALL of these various Arab countries were created, now imploding like dominoes. Moreover, the Jews and Palestinians lived peacefully, side by side, for thousands of years.

Given all this, why do the Palestinians lay claim to Israel? Isn't 80% of their old homeland enough, especially in light of their being 21 other Arab states, totaling 625 times more land mass and holding 1/2 of the world's known oil reserves.

I know why. Those same people appease radical Islam that takes many forms across the middle east. That's why.

zzz05
zzz05

The military inferiority of the Arab countries compared to Israel was more than compensated for by their superiority in political tactics. The Khartoum Resolutions, wherein after the 1967 war they refused to engage in the universally accepted practice of signing a treaty post hostilities to reestablish secure boundaries in their approximate pre-war positions, left the Israelis in the position of occupying the West Bank and Gaza and  sacrificed the fate of  the Palestinians to be a perpetual thorn in the Israeli side. The Israelis at the time declined to just annex the territory and its attendant problems in the assumption that a treaty would come along soon, which arguably might have settled the3 problems then instead of prolonging them indefinitely. But no matter the intent, occupying a hostile population is corrosive to any society; look at the French in Algeria, the British in India, etc. But unlike the Europeans, the Israelis don't have the luxury of withdrawing to another continent.  Then a few administrations who saw the land of the West Bank as bribes to new immigrants for votes, and we've got the current situation. 

Say, weren't we discussing the civil war in Syria? 

julis123
julis123

Don't forget that Jordan is the Palestinian state that the English handed to the Hashemites to rule. It's 80% Palestinian and 20% Bedouin.

gltoffic
gltoffic

The Hashemites were the Sharif's of Mecca for centuries as they were the direct descendants of Fatimah, the Prophets daughter.  For this they were the hereditary keepers of the holy sites of Mecca, Median and Jerusalem.   The Hashemites also ruled the  Hejaz region of current northwest Saudi Arabia and there was the base of their tribal loyalties.  

During the Second world war the British promised the Hashemites not only rule of the Hejaz but also of all of TransJordan, what was to become Syria and what was to become Iraq.  Before this time NONE of these countries existed in even close proximity to their current borders.  They had for centuries been divided as smaller provinces of the Ottoman Empire.   Indeed not ONE country currently in the region was ever in history ever within its current even approximate  borders and using the current designated name.   None.  

But Britain also promised the Israelis, the French, the politicians back home, the House of Saud each a different version.  

When the dust settled after the first World War the Hashemites lost the Hejaz to the Saudi's, but  ruled as kings in three separate kingdoms of Syria, Iraq and Jordan.  The first two were quickly lost in political intrigue.   All that remained was the Hashemite house in Amman and its duties as keepers of the holy shrines in Jerusalem.  

Even today the "Jordanian" bedouin are related to the tribes of northwest Saudi Arabia, the Sinai, and southern Syria.  These two were divided by the spoils of World War I.  

Palestinians before World War I was a designation for ALL peoples living in Palestine.  Thus all the Jewish, Christian, Druze and Islamic residence of the region were considered Palestinian.  Just as all people living in the area of Lebanon, Syria and various stretches eastward were considered People of the Levant.  

In all of that history the idea that what the British promised the Jews is somehow considered sacred and to be interpreted as the Israeli Government sees fit.   What the British Government promised the Hashemites and others is just so much lost to the whims of history.  Either it is both or neither.  Take your pick.  

JohnWV
JohnWV

Iran or Syria? Which will Netanyahu, AIPAC, and enormous amounts of Jewish

money have America do first?

JohnWV
JohnWV

Reply to zzz05: 

Criticism of Israel is not antisemitic. Criticism of American Jews who support Israel isn't either. Israel is racist and America Jews who support

Israel are legitimately suspect.

zzz05
zzz05

Criticism of Israel and especially criticism of American Jews who support Israel, as the first thing that comes to mind when the topic is the Syrian civil war is absolutely antisemitic. If you can't change your mind, and you can't change your topic, then your opinion isn't as useful to others as you think it is. 

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

Of course we're discussing the Syrian civil war, which as you well know will have direct consequences to Israel. First, some of Syria's chemical WMD could fall into the hands of Hezbollah or Al-Qaeda. And most importantly, a fall of Assad will, IMO,  push Khameini to green light testing Iran's first nuclear bomb ASAP. The Iranian regime will need the cover it can provide to stay in power.

As all of the former regimes fall  around the, Israel stand to lose a tremendous amount of security. And of course Israel chose not to annex the occupied territories. It potentially would have forced them to make all of these Palestinians Israeli citizens which would be cultural suicide. 

zzz05
zzz05

Wow, the antisemite gets the first post. 

JohnWV
JohnWV

Criticism of Israel is not antisemitic. Criticism of American Jews who support Israel isn't either. Israel is racist and America Jews who support Israel are legitimately suspect.

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

Syria will take care of its own business. Iran, however, is going to be more problematic. 11/6/2012 will give a clearer picture of what's to come for Ian.