In 1958, Syria merged with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic. Quickly followed by other inter-Arab unionist experiments, it seemed so momentous an event at the time that, in his book Arab Unity, Palestinian political thinker Fayez Sayegh wrote: “for the first time in centuries, the Arabs have now emerged as the makers of their own history, their leadership asserted itself as the principal actor on the stage of Arab life, no longer content with reciting a script written by someone else.” There had been nothing like it, he said, since the ‘cataclysm’ of the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
It was out of that cataclysm that the modern Middle East, and the states of which it is still composed, arose. But the Arabs themselves had not shaped it. They had entered the war on Britain’s side on the strength of its pledge that, after their liberation from the Turks, it would support a free, independent and potentially united Arab state encompassing all, or the vast bulk of, the territories they claimed as their own. Britain – betraying that pledge –and France were the ‘someone else’ who wrote the script. In accordance with the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, they divided up what, under the Ottomans, had been a more or less single political unit into a crazy patchwork of artificial polities, a full 10 of them at one point, directly or indirectly ruled by themselves. With the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Britain went further, laying the basis for an alien state destined not merely to rule over a former Ottoman province, Palestine, but to dispossess its people in favor of another, the Jews. The historic Arab capital, Damascus, lay at the heart of the political and military processes by which the two imperial powers, competing even as they collaborated with each other, imposed this deeply resented new order.
Only after the Second World War, with Europe in retreat from empire, could the Arabs set about undoing its imperial legacy. Pan-Arab union, via the dismantling of Sykes-Picot, became a supreme goal, to be striven for, wrote Sayegh, ‘as the feeble long for strength, the sick for health, the maimed for wholeness.’ It was also seen as vital for the prosecution of what, with Israel’s creation, had now become that even more sacred cause: restoring Palestine to the Palestinians. Nowhere was the unionist impulse stronger than in Syria, at once the most ‘Arab’ of Arab countries and the most cruelly dismembered. And no-one exemplified it like the Syrian Ba’ath party. Unity – along with Freedom and Socialism – was the foremost of its three famous slogans, which President Nasser, the great Arab champion of the time, adopted in his turn. It was the Ba’ath, not yet in power, who chiefly engineered the Syrian-Egyptian union.
Those were stirring times, full of revolutionary ferment and surging expectations, inducing even a judicious scholar like Sayegh to read so much into what he saw as a great leap forward in the renaissance of the ‘Arab nation.’
But it was a false dawn. The union collapsed in 1962. Seizing power soon thereafter, the Ba’athists not only failed to join Syria with anyone else, even their fellow-Ba’athists in Iraq, they became, in their own country, the embodiment of what their secular-nationalist credo officially abhorred; via their military wing, they surreptitiously built and perpetuated their nearly fifty-year rule around the tribalistic solidarity of a small sectarian minority, the ‘Alawites, further fracturing a state and society that was already the fragment of a larger whole. As for Freedom, they betrayed that with a despotism only rivaled in its brutality by their Iraqi counterparts; their Socialism, with its vast corruption, bore ever more heavily down on the ‘toiling masses’ to whom they had originally pitched their revolutionary appeal. As for Palestine, its ‘liberation’ was massively set back by Israel’s smashing victory in the Six-Day war of 1967.
Sayegh would have had to wait another 53 years for a drama which, this time, could truly be likened, in its vast and tumultuous scale, to those birth pangs of the modern Middle East, wherein the Arabs truly became ‘the makers of their own history’ and the people, as opposed to their leaders, truly ‘wrote the script.’ For such, in its great initial thrust at least, was the Arab Spring. Yet he would in due course have grown more and more disappointed with this too, the clearer it became that the script it followed was written not just in Arabic, but in ‘Islamic’, Kurdish, and even – given Iran’s deep involvement in Arab affairs – Farsi as well.
To be sure, the Arab Spring instantaneously established itself as a pan-Arab phenomenon, in itself an impressive measure of at least the moral or affective oneness of Arab world. But in contrast with the Maghreb – and its historically homogenous nation-states like Tunisia and Egypt – where it began, in the Mashrek it became anything but a politically unifying one. There, Sykes-Picot may indeed be falling apart, but replacing it is not union, it is even greater disunion. ‘Here we now are,’ wrote Talal Salman, editor of Beirut’s nationalist-minded al-Safir, ‘with our highest ambition just to salvage those very entities, spawned by imperialism, which our forebears struggled, and died, to prevent.’
And Syria’s uprising did begin, like elsewhere, as a peaceful popular protest. But thanks, ultimately, to the artificiality of the Syrian state, the divisiveness of its society and the nature of its regime, it steadily degenerated into an outright civil war in which the primary struggle, for democracy, was overridden by the secondary ones it had also engendered. These, mainly ethnic and sectarian, not merely threaten to tear Syria itself apart, they are crossing – in effect erasing – its colonially created borders to nourish and be nourished by their counterparts elsewhere.
So, like nearly a century ago, Syria is cataclysm’s hub once more, and central battleground of forces of disintegration which imperil the political and territorial integrity of states wherever they spread; and spread they might, not just to immediate neighbors such as Iraq and Lebanon, but even to areas, the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, which fell outside the original Sykes-Picot carve-up, but are far from lacking fault-lines of their own.
ARAB SPRING BEGINS IN IRAQ
Actually, it was not Syria, but Iraq, where, well before the Arab Spring, it all really began. There, after the US-led invasion of 2003, a sectarian tyranny, Saddam Husain’s and his Sunni minority, was replaced by a kind of ethno-sectarian democracy, under which the three distinct components of Iraqi society, Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds, were supposed to get their fair and representative share of authority. But it just has not worked. The coalition government to which, with immense difficulty, it gave birth lurches from crisis to ever greater internal crisis. Kurds and Sunnis tax Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki with steadily amassing Saddam-like dictatorial powers through, and on behalf of, the Shi’ite majority he heads. Inter-communal tensions – and horrendous terror exploits – are on the increase again. In growing dispute over various issues with the central government, Kurdish leader Masoud Barazani recently threatened full and formal secession, while some Sunnis agitate for greater self-rule. The specter of renewed civil war looms – or outright, three-way partition.
Nothing would encourage that like the disintegration of Syria. Trans-frontier convergence is now clearest-cut in the case of the Kurds. Those of north Iraq moved swiftly to support their Syrian brethren when, last month, these suddenly found themselves before an historic opportunity to achieve at least the same kind of quasi-independence within Syria as they themselves have long enjoyed in Iraq. Any amalgamation of these two ‘Arab’ portions of a ‘Greater Kurdistan’ couldn’t but revive pan-Kurdish ambitions for the eventual adhesion of its ‘Turkish’ and ‘Iranian’ portions too – and the formation of that independent Kurdish state which Sykes-Picot had originally promised, but failed to deliver.
That is an ethnic affair. But, if less clear-cut, of greater moment in the long run is the sectarian one: the conflict that now pits Sunni against Shi’a Islam throughout the Middle East. This is the regional context in which the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria now increasingly converge at the expense of the always fragile national identity and cohesion of both. A majority in Syria, they are the mainspring of the armed uprising, bent not only on democracy but on restoring the political dominance they lost to the ‘Alawites fifty years ago. A minority in Iraq, not merely do they stand no chance of regaining their lost dominance, they cannot secure even that much diminished fraction of power to which, post-Saddam, they are constitutionally entitled. They make common cause against two regimes, Asad’s and Maliki’s, which, for them, are but two arms of the common, Iranian-backed, Shi’ite adversary. They aid and abet each other, with fighters and weapons, across an increasingly porous border. Herein lie the makings of one of those new polities which, as old ones splinter, could arise in their place, with the disempowered Sunnis of Iraq finding salvation in the embrace of the re-empowered ones of Syria – the country of which, but for a last-minute, Lloyd-George/ Clemenceau tweak to Sykes-Picot, many of them would have been citizens anyway.
With the Iraqi Kurds going their own way too, all that would then be left of British-created Iraq would be a Shi’ite rump – and outright Iranian satellite which that would inevitably become. But might that vestigial entity even have its counterpart in Syria too, in an echo of the separate statehood which the ‘Alawites once enjoyed under the French? There is no evidence that the Ba’athists ever actually planned for such a contingency, just a widespread expectation, and a concrete indication or two, that they might, in extremis, resort to it. In the now paranoid ‘Alawite mind, all boils down to a matter of survival, not merely for the regime, but for a whole community which has so closely identified with it, so extensively participated in both its long misrule and – through the Shabiha militias – the ever-growing brutality of its repressive war. There could indeed be terrible retribution should the regime collapse. And collapse, if it continues on its current course, it very well might. Vastly superior though its military resources might be, they are, after all, finite, and they are gradually eroding in the face of a nation-wide resistance that seems to grow inexorably in scale, intensity and resolve. A time might very well come when it feels it has to make a fateful choice: between continuing to squander them on an ultimately unsustainable struggle to re-assert its mastery over the whole country, or withdrawing and concentrating them within a last redoubt and more readily defensible segment of it, the ancestral ‘Alawite highlands in the coastal region between Lebanon and southern Turkey.
Any such ‘Alawite fiefdom would seek alliances among other minorities which, whatever they felt about Ba’athist rule, also worry about the rise of an overwhelmingly Sunni, very possibly Islamist, one in its place. And it would encourage any separatist tendencies akin to its own; it was after all Asad himself who, in a sudden, astonishing reversal of decades-long Ba’athist hostility to any kind of non-Arab minority rights, voluntarily ceded control over the Syrian Kurds, a tactic designed to wean them away from the rest of the Syrian opposition, thereby strengthening his own hand against it.
It would also seek alliances in neighboring Lebanon, that haven and archipelago of minorities that was once an integral part of Syria itself. Some observers discern a pattern to massacres and population displacements in and around the central town of Homs; they are intended, they suspect, to create a Sunni-free corridor between the ‘Alawite heartlands and those, running from the northern Beqa’ valley to the deep south, of Lebanon’s largest and most powerful community, the Shi’ites, who, under Iran-backed Hizbollah’s auspices, are already staunch Asad allies anyway.
Far-reaching though they already are, the geopolitical ramifications of what began in Dera’a eighteen months ago have still far from run their course; their ultimate implications for the tottering edifice of Sykes-Picot are still only to be guessed at. And so they are for that other, everlasting, ever toxic legacy of European rule, the Palestine problem – though here, perhaps, two fairly concrete prognostications can safely be made. One is that the greater the disintegration of states, the greater will be the growth of non-state actors to be added to the already existing ones, Hizbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad – or something called ‘the Soldiers of Jerusalem’ [my translation of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis] that has just cropped up in the lawless wastes of Sinai. The other is that if and when, out of the raging matrix, a stable new order does eventually emerge, the regimes that compose it, likely – like Egypt and Tunisia’s – to be Islamist-led, will be no less hostile to Israel than any Ba’athist or Nasserite was at the height of the nationalist era.
*Mr Hirst is an author, freelance journalist, and former Middle East correspondent of The Guardian. This article was published simultaneously in the October issue of MEES sister publication Energy & Geopolitical Risk (see www.mees.com).