The long view on Syria, past and future

Syriana – By Robert D. Kaplan | Foreign Policy

Between 1947 and 1954, Syria held three national elections that all broke down more or less according to these regional and sectarian lines. After 21 changes of government in 24 years and a failed attempt to unify with Egypt, the Alawite air force officer Hafez al-Assad took power in a 1970 coup. By ruling with utter ruthlessness, he kept the peace in Syria for three decades. To wit, when the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood rose up in Hama in 1982, he killed more than 20,000 Sunni Muslim civilians there in response, according to some estimates. Assad’s son, Bashar, who succeeded his father as Syria’s president a decade ago, has yet to make his bones in such a way. It is unclear whether the son is visionary enough to satisfy today’s protesters, or cruel enough like his father to stay in power. His regime’s survival may require stores of both attributes. A complicating factor is that to a much greater degree than his father, the son is trapped within a web of interest groups that include a corrupt business establishment and military and intelligence leaders averse to reform. So the political crisis in Syria will likely continue to build.

Syria at this moment in history constitutes a riddle. Is it, indeed, prone to civil conflict as the election results of the 1940s and 1950s indicate; or has the population quietly forged a national identity in the intervening decades, if only because of the common experience of living under an austere dictatorship? No Middle East expert can say for sure.

Were central authority in Syria to substantially weaken or even break down, the regional impact would be greater than in the case of Iraq. Iraq is bordered by the strong states of Turkey and Iran in the north and east, and is separated from Saudi Arabia in the south and Syria and Jordan to the west by immense tracts of desert. Yes, the Iraq war propelled millions of refugees to those two latter countries, but the impact of Syria becoming a Levantine Yugoslavia might be even greater. That is because of the proximity of Syria’s major population zones to Lebanon and Jordan, both of which are unstable already.

Remember that Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel are all geographically and historically part of Greater Syria, a reason that successive regimes in Damascus since 1946 never really accepted their legitimacy. The French drew Lebanon’s borders so as to bring a large population of mainly Sunni Muslims under the domination of Maronite Christians, who were allied with France, spoke French, and had a concordat with the Vatican. Were an Alawite regime in Damascus to crumble, the Syria-Lebanon border could be effectively erased as Sunnis from both sides of the border united and Lebanon’s Shiites and Syria’s Alawites formed pockets of resistance. The post-colonial era in the Middle East would truly be closed, and we would be back to the vague borders of the Ottoman Empire.

What seems fanciful today may seem inevitable in the months and years ahead. Rather than face a “steadfast” and rejectionist, albeit predictable, state as the focal point of Arab resistance, Israel would henceforth face a Sunni Arab statelet from Damascus to Hama — one likely influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood — amid congeries of other fiefdoms. The unrest in Syria brings the Middle East perhaps to a precipice. Peaceful or not, the future of the region will be one of weakened central authority.

9 comments on “The long view on Syria, past and future

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  1. This is prettysmartness.

    Most novel idea that the breakdown of a strong, ruthless central authority could break about a lack of strong central authority…..esp. good ….”congeries of other fiefdoms”….no one expected that right after the unfurling of the near-obligatory “Muslim Brotherhood” hobgoblin.

  2. @ fuster:
    Don’t see the point of your sarcasm, frog. He seems to be suggesting, with strong historical justification, that decentralization of the sort that has characterized the region since forever, that has made it prone to takeover and relatively weak, arbitrary rule from one distant empire after another, and unable to resist the implantation of a certain ethno-national-colonial project, is more the natural state of things there. (Could be more the natural state everywhere, but that’s another topic.)

    So, regardless of whether Assad holds on, Syria has probably been seriously weakened, or, the same thing, its serious weaknesses have been exposed. The same is true for Egypt. Then look at Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians. And that’s just the immediate neighbors. 60 years after Israel’s founding, and its potential adversaries are all divided internally and between each other. In fact, Israel’s main potential problem is its own sectarian divisions.

  3. Actually the Ottoman borders, have been anything less than vague, for
    about 400 years, do the Sykes/Picot lines really seem more legitimate?

  4. miguel cervantes wrote:

    Actually the Ottoman borders, have been anything less than vague, for
    about 400 years

    Not much clarity on the way up, and it was straight downhill from there – which would also have been the commencement of the colonial era. By the time of Sykes-Picot, most of that agglomeration was gone, baby, gone. And who was suggesting that any particular set of lines was legitimate?

  5. You’re leaving out the Sanjak, Villayets and other subdivision, Syria today, is Hama, Homs, Aleppo, & Damascus, provinces under the old order, now Kaplan, does seem to be coming around to Goldberg’s revised map from about 6 years ago

  6. @ miguel cervantes:
    I think Kaplan was mainly referring to the changing external borders, but those various subdivisions, and related lines of authority, also shifted, as they would have to. It’s to say the least questionable how much meaning they had to the residents, especially as against family, clan, tribe, sect, locale, etc., loyalties and identities.

    According to the Capitulations, the Western powers were able to bypass it all if they chose to. As a result, the Consuls added an entire alternative level of authority and economic power.

    You don’t attain the title of “Sick Man” without a major effort!

  7. @ CK MacLeod:

    All that I see him suggesting is that a ruthless regime is holding together a nebulous state and that the failure of the ruthless regime will result in the failure and fracturing of the state.

    Should the regime fall, it will replaced with a Sunni regime that will be nurtured and protected by the two Abdullahs and will, with the assistance and guidance of France and the US, make common cause with the oppressed Sunnis in the Lebanon to sweep the upstart Iranian puppet Shi’a out of Beirut and then link up in amity with the Turks to form a new and more stable and more liberal Middle East.

  8. @ fuster:
    Well, that’s an optimistic view. Don’t see it exactly contradicting Kaplan as much as it contradicts experience up to this point, but I’m happy to try to visualize it if you think it’ll help.

  9. It’s not at all an optimistic view. The Iranians would hate it and optimistic conservatives would figure that Turkish hegemony would be right around the corner and it would cause Russsia to invade Poland because of the Bospuros and Dardenelles were again blocked by Islamic milliners.

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