x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Levant must reject sectarian divisions and reclaim unity

The notion that the people of the Levant share common bonds and have a common destiny cannot be rejected because this idea had once been abused by brutal regimes.

Anyone who cares about the Arab world has to be profoundly shaken by the unravelling that is taking place across the Levant. Events in these countries can give one the distinct feeling the region is on a path to self-destruction. What, if anything, can be done to reverse course?

Syria is committing suicide -tearing itself asunder in a civil war that has increasingly become an exercise in sectarian bloodletting. Lebanon, reeling from the pressure emanating from Syria, is once again teetering on the brink of civil conflict. Meanwhile, the conflicts raging around Jordan are having a destabilising effect, with that country receiving yet another massive influx of refugees. And poor dismembered Palestine and its dispersed people are suffering from new and old tragedies.

Palestinian refugees from Syria have flooded into Lebanon's already congested and impoverished camps creating new tensions. Despite the news that another "peace process" might be underway, the Palestinians in the occupied territories see what remains of their lands being chewed up by settlement construction and a barrier wall that snakes deep into the West Bank, while Gaza continues to be strangled by a cruel blockade.

It was back in 2002 that then British foreign minister Jack Straw noted that many of the "problems we [the United Kingdom] are dealing with [in the Middle East] are a consequence of our colonial past". Mr Straw was referring to what he called his country's "not entirely honourable past"- its betrayal of the Arabs after the First World War and its imposition of the Sykes-Picot Agreement on the region.

Mr Straw was right. By denying Arab aspirations to establish a unitary state in the Levant, by carving the region into British and French spheres of influence and imposing regimes of their choosing in each of these newly created "states", by pitting sect against sect and paving the way for the loss of Palestine, the British and French laid the groundwork for many of the problems the Levant is facing today.

We can indulge in speculation about how that could have been avoided but politics is a function not of "what if" but "what is". And despite Mr Straw's lament, the way forward is to be found not in looking back at what might have been but in an honest assessment of what can be done.

There have been many attempts by Arabs in the Levant to redress their aggrieved history. Refusing to succumb to the efforts of outsiders who sought to exploit their religious diversity in an effort to "divide and conquer", they developed "Arab" nationalism that would transcend both religious sects and the mini-states that had been the legacy of Sykes-Picot. It remains a tragedy that this Arab identity movement was exploited by military regimes that manipulated its emotive power to support their rule. In the end, the idea of "Arabism" became discredited, not on its merits but because of the brutal regimes that had embraced it.

Another approach was found by those who accepted the new reality of Sykes-Picot's sub-national identities. These stressed, for example, the uniqueness of being "Lebanese" or the differences between being "Palestinian" or "Jordanian". It was important to note that even within this state-based nationalism, religious divisions were transcended.

What I have always found to be among the most intriguing results in the polling we have done during the past decade is the persistence of an Arab identity and a sense of a common destiny among the people of the Levant. While sectarian wars raged in Syria and while Lebanon's political system remained grounded in a system of sect-privilege, the principal identity of most Syrians and Lebanese remained not their sect but being both "Arab" and "Lebanese" or "Syrian". And when we asked the public why what happened to Palestinians or Syrians was important to them, the most common response was "because they are Arabs like me".

That is why I cannot accept that it is inevitable the Levant will drown in the blood of sectarian conflict. Nor can I imagine the people of the region desire their fate to be a chequerboard of "cleansed" sectarian cantons. It makes no sense that Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood drive the Levant's agenda when the region's people, despite their religious diversity, express an attachment to their common bonds born of history, culture and blood-ties.

Syrians are now waging an anti-sectarian rebellion within their rebellion against the regime. And polls show that Palestinians in Gaza, despite having voted for Hamas in 2006, are now rejecting this movement's divisive rule.

The Levant needs a unified revolt against sectarian division and to recognise the futility of its self-destructive path. I have seen the seeds of the way forward in the young Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian entrepreneurs - Muslim and Christian - working together to create innovative businesses in the Arab world's "Silicon Valley" of Dubai. I have seen much the same in gatherings of Arab business leaders hosted by the World Economic Forum. It is their experience, and not that of their contemporaries who are inspired by hate and armed with guns, that represents the most promising future for the Levant.

The notion that this region's people share common bonds and have a common destiny cannot be rejected because this idea had once been abused by brutal regimes. To borrow an English expression, one shouldn't throw the baby out with the Baath.

New life needs to be breathed into this region to save it before it drowns in its own blood. The region can be saved but it will take leaders with vision and a determination as strong as that being demonstrated by those who appear hellbent on destroying it.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute