That phrase passed my lips last night on “AC360 Later”, in a heated and, I thought, really interesting discussion. I was pounced on as prejudiced or misinformed or even channeling neoconservatism. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain what I mean by that.
Syria as we now know it was created by one Brit, Mark Sykes, and one Frenchman, Francois Georges-Picot in 1920. Originally, it included a chunk of Iraq (another non-country), but when oil was discovered there (in Mosul), the Brits wanted and got it. With that detail alone, you can see how valid the idea is of a Syrian “nation” is. Certainly no one living in Syria ever called the shots on the creation of the modern state. More to the point, it was precisely constructed to pit a minority group, the Shiite Alawites, against the majority, Sunni Arabs, with the Christians and the Druze and Kurds (also Sunnis) as side-shows. Exactly the same divide-and-rule principle applied to the way the Brits constructed Iraq. But there they used the Sunni minority to control the Shiite majority, with the poor Kurds as side-kicks again.
You can see why colonial powers did this. How do they get a pliant elite of the inhabitants of their constructed states to do their bidding? They appeal to the minority that is terrified of the majority. They give that minority privileges, protection and military training. That minority, in turn, controls the majority. It’s a cynical policy that still reverberates today: the use of sectarianism as a means to maintain power. Over time, the Alawites in Syria and the Sunnis in Iraq entrenched their grip on the state and, as resentment of them by the majority grew, used increasingly brutal methods of oppression to keep the whole show on the road. You can see how, over time, this elevates sectarian and ethnic loyalties over “national” ones. Worse, it gives each group an operational state apparatus to fight over.
The only time of relative long-term stability in the area we now call Syria was under the Ottoman empire which effectively devolved government to local religious authorities. The empire was the neutral ground that kept the whole thing coherent – a monopoly of external force that also gave the Shia and the Sunnis and the Christians their own little pools of self-governance.
Remove that external force and create a unitary state and you have the recipe for permanent warfare or brutal, horrifying repression. It is no accident that two of the most brutal, disgusting dictators emerged in both countries under this rubric: Saddam and Assad.
Now check out Syria’s history after it gained formal independence from the French in 1936 and operational independence after the Second World War in 1946:
There were three coups in the first ten years and with each one, the power of the military (dominated by Alawites) grew. Then in 1958 Syria merged with Egypt – to create the United Arab Republic. One test for how viable and deeply rooted Syria is as a nation? It dissolved itself as such as recently as six decades ago.
When Syria quit the merger with Egypt in 1961, yet another coup soon followed, later followed by another coup in 1970 that brought the Assad dynasty to power. The brutality of that dynasty kept the Sunnis under control, but not without a serious revolt from the 1970s on that eventually resulted in the 1982 massacre in Hama – a bloodletting of unimaginable proportions. Assad killed up to 40,000 Syrians in that bloody rout.
The point I’m making is a simple one. The reason we have such a brutal civil war right now is the same reason we still have a brutal civil war still going on in Iraq. The decades’ long, brutal oppression of a majority group has finally broken with the Arab Spring. All the tensions and hatreds and suspicions that built up in that long period of division and destruction are suddenly finding expression. Inevitably, this will mean much more sectarian bloodletting in the short, medium, and long run. It may mean an endless cycle of violence. The idea that these parties can reach a political agreement to end the civil war in the foreseeable future is as plausible in Syria as it was in Iraq. It still hasn’t happened in Iraq – after over 100,000 sectarian murders and an exhausting civil conflict – and after we occupied it for a decade and poured trillions of dollars down the drain.
Any political solution to Syria is more than a heavy lift. It’s an impossible one. Only the parties involved can make it happen and none of them is anywhere close to that right now. For the US to take responsibility for this mess, to take on the task of finding a negotiated settlement, would be as quixotic as it would be bankrupting – of both money and human resources. By luck or design, Obama has now handed that responsibility to Putin. He’s welcome to it.
America, the anti-imperial nation, has no business trying to make British colonial experiments endure into the 21st Century. No business at all. It’s a mug’s game – and no one in the region will ever, ever give the US credit or any tangible benefits for the Sisyphean task. We will be blamed for trying and blamed for not trying. We will be blamed for succeeding and blamed for failing.
Which is why, absent the threat to the US of the chemical weapons stockpiled in that “country”, the United States must resist any inclination to get involved or take responsibility. That’s why the CIA’s arming of the rebels is so self-destructive to this nation. Once you arm and train a foreign force, you are responsible in part for its fate. And that kind of responsibility – for a bankrupt America, with enormous challenges at home – is one we should pass to others. Which we have. What we need to do now is grasp the Russian offer with both hands and slap the CIA down. No responsibility doesn’t just mean no war. It also means no covert war.
Is that something the president truly grasps? I sure hope so.
(Illustration: Map of Sykes–Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. Signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, 8 May 1916.)