Regional players must understand the repercussions of allowing the interlopers to have say in the conflicts of the region
Syria has remained in the news worldwide constantly during the last few years and the visuals and stories from the country are very disturbing. Though the international media is divided on producing an actual scenario of the conflict and also in the recent past it has been projected as a sectarian tension between the Shias and Sunnis. The sectarian angle is a very myopic approach to understand the Syrian conflict. The country is home to multiple ethnicities and sectarian communities who have lived under the syncretic culture of Syria broadly under secularist order.
Syrian uprising was initially considered as a part of larger Arab uprising of 2010-11, which is also referred as the Arab Spring in the western media. It started as an anti-government protest in the southern city of Deraa and the dissent turned into a violent confrontation after various sections of the insurgents were armed by different regional and international actors, and the Syrian regime also used force to curtail the armed revolt. However, the conflict was took another direction when the Syrian Arab Republic was expelled from the Arab League and also the Obama administration of Washington expressed its discontent. This was followed with the sanctions imposed by the European Union along with Canada. Therefore, the dissent was de-politicization and securitization of the dissent that resulted into a violence of huge magnitude and the polarized West Asia.
Today’s conflict in Syria has a very less to do with sectarianism mainly and has its roots in domestic and the international and regional politics over the period of last one and half century. Modern Syria came into existence after the collapse of Turkish empire (Khilafath) after the territory was given to France under the mandate system of the League of Nations between 1926-46. Syria gained independence from France in 1946 and it was coincided with the Arab Awakening of 19th century that the Syrian nationalism extended to what they called Bilad al-Shaym or Greater Syria that included the Levant that is, present day Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and some parts of Turkey and Jordon. However, this nationalist dream crumbled when Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 had already plotted the boarders in the region to carve out a state for Zionists and that is, Israel.
The Syrian nationalism as the Pan-Arabism is based on the unity of the Arabs, secular, inclusive and anti-colonialist ideology and it considers Palestine as an Arab land that belongs to the Arabs only. It was overwhelming Arabism and Arabist sentiment of the Syrian nationalism that even pushed for the merger of Syria with Egypt in 1958 as United Arab Republic (UAR) but only to be seceded in 1961. The 1963 coup d’état brought Syrian military to the power and set out to govern the country in the name of Socialist Arab Resurrection or Baath Party. The Baath movement soon came under the control of towering Baathist and Arabist military general, Hafiz al-Asad in 1970.
Prior to Asad’s rise the Arab’s had already faced a humiliating defeat in 1967 war and lost East Jerusalem of Palestine, Sinai Peninsula of Egypt and Golan Heights of Syria to Israel. So the first priority of Asad was to erase the blot of 1967 defeat of the Arabs, hence he poured in the billion-dollar weaponry in the region to challenge Israel. The arms stockpile of Arabs made the survival of Israel at stake but the 1970’s shuttle diplomacy and the betrayal of the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, became reason for another defeat of the Arabs. However, this era was the beginning of the Washington brokered peace process for the Arab-Israel conflict, which to many scholars was biased towards Israel as Israel was unable to defeat united Arabs militarily.
Syria became difficult to be coopted into the peace process as the process seemed to be a façade and favoring only the Zionists. In this way Syria continued to be strong Arab threat to Israel and the Lebanese civil war of 1973 befell proxy war between the two countries. After the black September, in which the Palestinian refugees were mascaraed and forcefully expelled from Jordon, the Palestinian refugees relocated in Lebanon and the Palestinian Liberation organization too launched its resistance from Lebanese territory on the northern border of Israel. The Syrian military intervened in Lebanon during this period for defending Lebanon, the other Arab land, from Israel Defense Force (IDF) attacks and the Palestinian refugees residing inside Lebanon. Finding the mighty Arab Army so closer to IDF posts sent shivers down the nerves of Israel and it also prevented the tiny republic that is, Lebanon from succumbing before the IDF.
The main motive of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon was to force Syria and PLO out of Lebanon. Nonetheless under the pressure of international community Israel extended its hands for peace with the Arabs but the latter were disillusioned when Israel denied the return of the occupied Golan Heights to Syria. This peace process became uncomfortable for Turkey too, which at that time was the only Muslim country to have recognized Israel in 1948 and having bilateral relations. Moreover, Asad died in 2000 to be succeeded by his son Bashar al-Asad. The September of the same year is also referred as the second intifada of the Palestinians, the intifada or the Palestinian resistance was was retaliated by IDF by targeting Syria and launching the Operation Defensive Shield.
The other dimension that shaped the Syria’s role in the West Asia was the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991 and it got substantiated with the New World Order of Washington. The New World Order exhibited triumph of ideological, economic, political and diplomatic/strategic monopoly of the United States. Syria, after Iraq, became ground zero of this new phase of international politics. Damascus was at the wrong side of this new world being a Pan-Arabist, socialist and also autocratic regime and top of it in confrontation with Israel. The 9/11 was a paradigm shift in the Washington’s approach to the developing world and President Bush’s pronouncement of the new alimentation that was majorly informed with the Huntington’s thesis of ‘clash of civilizations’ pushed Damascus to look for new allies in the region and beyond.
However, the Bush administration’s madness destroyed Afghanistan initially and later started never ending war on Iraq. The Iraq invasion of 2003 proved to be a great disaster of Washington’s new approach, though it uprooted Sadam Hussain’s dictatorship but the de-baathfication of Iraq resurfaced struggle of power in the country. The Iraq’s Baaths as the Baath’s of Syria (included Sunnis and Shias) were secular and believed in the Arab unity but the sudden loss of the power paved way for radicalization and emergence of Islamic State of Iraq and Shyam (Dawlat e Islami fil Iraq wal sham). The region became new battle field of the interest of the pro US the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel, NATO member Turkey and anti US the Islamic Republic of Iran, Russia etc.
The State of affair engulfed the Syrian resistance too and what we are feed today is that Syria conflict is a sectarian problem which is not the fact. Although, there is a considerable denominational history in the region but the present day sectarianism in the West Asia is the outcome of the exploitation of the region by the US and its policies, interests clubbed with its new-orientalism and neo-colonial intentions. It is also responsibility of the regional players to understand the repercussions of allowing the interlopers to have say in the conflicts of the region. The main obligation of the regimes of these conflict ridden states is to realize that their countrymen cannot be securitized for the safety of their power and they have to address grievances of the people.
(Khairunnisa Aga is Research Scholar Centre for West Asian Studies School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi )