I put Middle Earth Journal in hiatus in May of 2008 and moved to Newshoggers.
I temporarily reopened Middle Earth Journal when Newshoggers shut it's doors but I was invited to Participate at The Moderate Voice so Middle Earth Journal is once again in hiatus.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

A Historian Looks at Syria

Look at this.
Logically, the current round of Syria’s civil war must end in one of four ways:
  1. regime victory, 
  2. opposition victory, 
  3. stalemate with no end, or 
  4. stalemate leading to a political resolution. 
The first two outcomes are the worst for all parties, and the last is the best plausible outcome. But for the better options to be plausible, both sides must believe they can actually lose the civil war. This is key. Without an acknowledgment of possible defeat, neither the regime nor the opposition will accept a grand bargain in which compromise is central.
This is a closer look at one of the Sunday Readings posted earlier, the one recommended by Josh Landis.
My undergraduate degree in history lay fallow for a few decades as my energies focused on supporting a family. But my guilty pleasures in retirement have included blogging, reading, reflection. and giving my curiosity free range. Nearly ten years ago, soon after I  retired, I came across a word that looked like a typo -- consociational. It is a real word, though seldom used, and now shows up in Web searches including a Wikipedia article.
The goals of consociationalism are governmental stability, the survival of the power-sharing arrangements, the survival of democracy, and the avoidance of violence. When consociationalism is organised along religious confessional lines, it is known as confessionalism, as is the case in Lebanon.
I didn't come across references to either of these terms in Dr. Robinson's paper but he makes a move in that direction when he mentions Lebanon.
Syria’s troubles go well beyond warring ethnic and confessional groups, to the fact that Syria as a political entity—as a nation—hardly exists. To be sure, the country’s two major cities, Damascus and Aleppo, have very long histories and strong localized identities. However, until the twentieth century, Syria was never a country unto itself. During the half millennium when it was part of the Ottoman Empire, Syria was not even constituted as a single administrative district within the empire, but was split among several districts. The invention of modern Syria following the First World War was based largely on agreements between the French and the British. Syria was not unique in this. Indeed, the modern borders of scores of countries in the developing world were based more on the interests of the colonial powers than on any historical or geographic reality.
 Syria encompasses five primary ethnoconfessional parochial identities, and many more fragmentary ones. Because a proper census has not been conducted since French colonial days, one can only estimate percentages. Roughly two-thirds of Syrians are both Arab by ethnicity and Sunni Muslim by religion. The bulk of this population appears to oppose the regime in Damascus. Alawites, Christians, and Kurds each make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population. However, significant minorities exist within each of these minorities. For example, the Christian community, split among Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholics, Roman Catholics, Armenians, and others, hardly speaks with a single voice. The Druze, about 4 percent of the population, are an offshoot Islamic sect that incorporates strong folk traditions into religious practice. 
This is the most lucid analysis of the Syrian civil war I have read. Included here are details of conflicts in that region that have yet to be discovered by the popular press..
    The daily stories from Syria since the outbreak of protests and violence have been well covered elsewhere, but several issues should be underlined. One involves the influence of hard-line Islamists and jihadists within the opposition, and whether Christians and other minorities have a reasonable fear for their future in an oppositionled Syria. The short answer is yes, but not for the reason that media accounts usually proffer, that of an influx of jihadists from other countries. Foreign jihadists have entered Syria, but their numbers are still very small, and their influence is limited.
    Syria has plenty of its own homegrown jihadists, from two primary sources. The first is Syria’s underground Muslim Brotherhood. Unlike the situation in North Africa and Jordan, where the Muslim Brotherhood has been part of the political process for decades and has been “tamed” by having to negotiate with various groups that do not share its ideology, Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood never left its militant phase. After the Syrian group was defeated militarily in 1982, a few leaders went into exile in London and Paris and reformed their goals, but the actual fighters just went home, nursing their wounds and their grudges. They and their sons have returned for round two, determined to exact revenge.
    On top of this, the US invasion of Iraq bred a new generation of Syrian jihadists who went east to help fight the Americans and their Shiite allies. From 2003 to about 2007, the Assad regime clearly encouraged these Sunnis to fight, and perhaps die, in Iraq. But those who returned to Syria had learned valuable urban warfare skills, and had likely grown even more attuned to the “heretical” nature of the Alawite regime in Damascus.
These American fingerprints can be added to the unintended consequence of the US-promoted bloody cock-fight between Iran and Iraq in 1980.
Iran is playing an equally direct role in Syria. The linchpin of Iran’s regional Arab strategy, Syria is the only Arab country that Iran can count as an ally. The alliance dates to 1980, when their mutual rival, Iraq, invaded Iran; it has withstood the test of time and runs considerably deeper than most analysts thought. Ideas of “flipping Syria” out of the Iranian orbit seem superfi- cial in hindsight. By its own admission, Iran has sent Revolutionary Guards to help the regime win the civil war, an admission prompted when the opposition captured a bus full of Iranian fighters. Outside analysts believe thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guard members are in Syria
The transitory "Sons of Iraq" phenomenon seems in retrospect to have been little more than a training ground for jihadists from Syria. As long as they were on the US payroll they were allies, but when American money dried up they were ripe for recruitment by al-Qaeda.

The closer one looks at the Syrian quagmire the more complicated it becomes. At this point there seems to be no happy outcome. The best arrangement that might be salvaged, once all parties come to terms with what will hopefully be a stalemate, is some kind of consociational agreement among the parties.
A political compromise forged among the various sides would easily be the best outcome for Syria and the region. The analogy for this scenario is Lebanon today: hardly an example of a fully functioning state, but certainly better than the plausible alternatives. Lebanon’s national pact, struck at Taif, Saudi Arabia, in 1989, maintains the politics of corporate groups, albeit in somewhat altered form. Each ethno-confessional group gets its own recognition, protection, and slice of the patronage pie. The president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the defense minister a Druze, the Speaker of Parliament a Shiite, and so on down the line. Parliament is split 50-50 between Muslims and Christians. This is a recipe for gridlock, but each group at least has some guarantees and a stake in the system. It is ironic that Hezbollah is the major voice of reform inside Lebanon, wanting to do away with corporate representation in favor of a one-person, one-vote principle. Something like Lebanon’s system would be the best transition out of civil war in Syria.


  1. Thanks.
    This McClatchy link underscores part of what he said.

    The prominence of Nusra in the rebel cause worries U.S. and other Western officials, who say its operations rely on the same people and tactics that fueled al Qaida in Iraq – an assertion that is borne out by interviews with Nusra members in Syria.

    Among Nusra fighters are many Syrians who say they fought with al Qaida in Iraq, which waged a bloody and violent campaign against the U.S. presence in that country and is still blamed for suicide and car bombings that have killed hundreds of Iraqis since the U.S. troops left a year ago.

    According to Nusra members, some of the group’s leaders, including the emir, or top ruler, in Syria’s Deir al Zour province, are Iraqis.



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