If the Arab Spring, and its subsequent seasons have revealed anything to the international community, it is that the status of the Israel-Palestine peace deal is not the sole obstacle to stability in the Middle East. Whatever comes of John Kerry’s reboot of the peace-process, it is clear that the religious, ethnic, and political divisions which have simmered just below surface of the Arab World for decades are now beginning to spill over. In Syria’s seemingly unsolvable civil war, sectarian violence threatens to wrench the country apart. Across the region, the Sunni-Shia conflict has once again reached record levels and minority groups are locked in dangerous and highly factionalized struggles. How will centuries old ethnic, linguistic, and religious affiliations affect the model of state-based nationalism in the new Arab World?
To understand the present, we need to look at the sandy foundation upon which the modern Middle East was constructed. An eternal melting pot, the Middle East encompasses countless peoples, faiths, and histories. One of the longest-running political entities in the region, the Ottoman Empire, collapsed in the early twentieth century after many years of hemorrhaging territory and influence. In its wake, the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement was used by the European powers to carve out new states and spheres of influence. The new European mandates sought to implement all the characteristics of modern, pluralistic states in their domains. In doing so, the Europeans tried unsuccessfully to apply modern solutions to centuries old divisions of religion and ethnicity.
Syria’s Civil War
Today, the reverberations of the Arab Spring are threatening to set the Middle East into flux once again. In Syria, sectarian violence has produced atrocious abuses of human rights which neither side will soon forget, should the fighting eventually cease. To date, the Syrian Civil War has claimed more than 100 000 casualties and has created more than a million refugees. The repeated shelling of civilians and suspected use of chemical weapons highlights the brutality of this conflict. The truth is, it may no longer be possible to weld Syria together once the fighting stops.
For its part, the Assad regime may have already accepted the possibility of a fractured, decentralized Syria in the future. Frederic Hofof the US NATO Council’s Rafik Hariri Middle East Center explains that “The manner in which the regime has responded to its opponents strongly suggests that it considers the bulk of the Syrian population and territory not even worth governing,”. The coastal plain in western Syria has traditionally been home to the Alawite sect from which the Assad family comes, and this area would certainly form the core of any future Alawite state if reconciliation proves insurmountable. Moreover, the Alawite sect is often regarded as heretical and even un-Islamic by Syria’s Sunni majority.
The Kurdish Perspective
Adding to the complexity, the sizable population of Kurds in northern Syria has already responded to the power vacuum created by the Syrian civil war. According to a recent Times of Israel report, Kurds in northern Syria have “created their own police forces, issued their own license plates and have thrown off restrictions on their language and culture.”
Syrian Kurds have tried their best to remain outside of the sectarian conflict that has overtaken their country. However, the Syrian civil war has thrown them into a precarious and extremely dangerous predicament. Whichever faction is successful in ending the civil war will likely blame Syria’s many minority groups for supporting their enemies. Syrian Kurds constitute only approximately 9% of Syria’s 23 million citizens but across the border, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) enjoys significant autonomy and has eagerly assisted the Syrian Kurds in recent years. The Kurds are the world’s largest stateless nation, numbering well over 30 million spread across four countries, and Turkey, along with its neighbours, would almost certainly oppose even the slightest suggestion of an independent Kurdistan. Despite the enormous obstacles facing the Kurds, the persecuted minority has seen small glimmer of hope amidst the dark of the Syrian Civil War.
Writing in Haaretz, Avraham Burg recently argued that the political geography of the Middle East is no longer static but that ethnic and religious groups that transcend twentieth century borders will be much more influential than notions of nationalism in the Middle East. In recent history, both Egypt and Syria have witnessed several of their leaders attempt to rekindle strong, nationalist movements, but none of these efforts have been particularly lasting. Today the state-based nationalism of the past in the Middle East appears to be fading from the forefront of consciousness altogether. The Arab world is not losing its identity though; on the contrary, more local, communal forms of individualism, this time along religious and ethnic lines, are being invoked.
Washington, and much of the West, continue to regard Syria as a contiguous state, but reality may no longer reflect this position. Ancient divisions that were artificially brought together by colonial borders, and then subdued by repeated attempts to foster nationalism may now be breaking through the seams. Moving forward, it will be difficult for either Sunni Muslims or Alawites in Syria to quickly forgive the atrocious and merciless actions taken by both sides. But should either faction prove successful in toppling the other, NATO and the rest of the international community must be vigilant in monitoring for further indications of genocide. While the breaking apart of larger states, and the creation of smaller enclaves may not be an attractive or expedient option, there is a greater danger if NATO and the international community do not acknowledge the right of self-determination and the dissolution of state-based nationalism that is underway in Syria.