As the United States and Russia prepare for the Geneva II Conference on Syria, some Washington and Moscow think-tanks are trying to revive the idea of carving up the war-torn nation into a number of mini-states.
The “carve-up” Syria buzz recalls a similar debate that concerned Iraq in 2003 following liberation from Ba’athist tyranny. There were even a number of books urging the US to split Iraq into Shi’ite Arab, Sunni Arab, and Kurdish mini-states. I remember a verbal clash I had on the subject with Senator Joseph Biden, now the US Vice President, on an American radio program. Biden insisted that Iraq was an artificial state and could not be sustained. My argument was that all states, including the US, are artificial because none fell from the sky fully formed.
Some pundits are now trying to use the Syrian civil war as an excuse to revive the so-called Wilson Doctrine, named after US President Woodrow Wilson under which the various millets (communities) of the defunct Ottoman Empire could be transformed into mini nation-states.
The Syrian civil war is not the only reason cited to justify the revival of the debate.
Lebanon is currently held as a political hostage by Hezbollah, unable to form a new government and hold general elections.
The sectarian “democracy” that has kept the country more or less afloat is in danger of being destroyed by Hezbollah’s determination to impose its policies at gunpoint.
There is also talk of an independent Kurdistan, a topic to be debated in a pan-Kurdish conference in Erbil in November.
One theory is that the region’s many problems are largely due to the inability of different communities or “nations” to live together in the context of a unified state. Thus, the solution could be balkanization as was the case in the now defunct Yugoslavia. With few exceptions, Egypt for example, the carve-up scenario could affect all countries of the region from North Africa to the Indian Subcontinent.
To sell the carve-up scenario in the case of Syria some pundits have published the text of a letter sent in 1936 by Suleiman al-Assad, President Bashar al-Assad’s grandfather, to French Prime Minister Leon Blum calling on him to turn the coastal strip between the mountains west of Damascus and the Mediterranean into a state for the Nusayri community. At the time, the term Alawite, now in frequent use, had not yet been adopted by the Nusayris as an identifying code word. Under the French mandate, the coastal strip, designated as the Latakia governorate in 1922 enjoyed a measure of autonomy. Blum’s government, however, had decided to create a unified Syria, including the contested strip.
Since the old Assad saw the world in terms of sectarian divisions, he tried to flatter Blum by referring to the French Prime Minister’s Jewish origins.
Claiming that Muslims were “throat-cutting Jihadist”, Suleiman Al-Assad wrote: “The good Jews have brought Arabs [the gift of] culture and peace. They have distributed wealth and prosperity in Palestine without harming anyone or taking anything by force. And, yet, Muslims have declared Jihad against them and not hesitated to cut the throats of their women and children.”
Blum, however, was a Socialist and architect of the Popular Front deal with the Communists. He saw the world in terms of class divisions, not religious sectarianism. As a result when the French mandate ended in 1946 Syria had been established as a unified state for all its different religious and ethnic communities. Over more than six decades, during which Syria has grown from a nation of 1.2 million to one of more than 20 million inhabitants, a distinct sense of Syrian-ness has emerged as the backbone of the new country’s identity.
If newness or recent-ness is a test for the validity of a nation, Syria must be regarded as one of the oldest nation-states in the world today. In 1946, the United Nations had no more than 60 members, compared to 198 today. The Syrian nation-state is older than the People’s Republic of China and India, to cite just two examples.
Turning the flash-light on the origins of any nation state could reveal points of contention about it. But what matters in almost every case is the existential reality of the nation-state in question. The point of departure in any discussion of Syria’s problems is its existence as a unified nation-state. The so-called Geneva II conference might be able to make a positive contribution only if it acknowledges the preservation of Syria’s national unity and territorial integrity as self-evident facts.
The crisis that has afflicted Syria for more than 30 months is not due to sectarianism, although there are sectarians on all sides who fight one another and kill those in the middle.
The Syrian tragedy started as a popular uprising that demanded a little bit more freedom and dignity. Initially, there was even no demand for President Assad to step aside. As force was unleashed against the uprising, segments of it were pushed towards radicalization. Assad became a symbol of repression, although it soon became clear that he was not alone in deciding the use of an iron fist. Once it had become clear that the whole system was involved in repression, a demand for Assad’s removal developed into a call for regime change. That, in turn, triggered the civil war that is threatening peace and stability throughout the Levant.
Thus, Geneva II should be about regime change in Syria. That change is inevitable. It could come through some more years of fighting or, even, foreign military intervention. But it could also come through a broad agreement among the interested powers, notably Russia and the US, to sponsor and guarantee a power-sharing scheme to turn all Syrians into stakeholders in a new reality.
The carve-up Syria chorus could only divert attention from the real causes of the current conflict. And thus make finding a solution more difficult.
Assad must go, but Syria must remain.