x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Syria's complexity defies pat answers on post-Assad era

The belief that post-Assad Syria will inevitably degenerate into sectarian bloodshed is based on a misperception.

The Assad regime continues to pummel Syria's largest city of Aleppo, and the world wonders what will follow President Bashar Al Assad even as his army fights for his survival. An observation is in order: when the United States prepared to invade Iraq in 2003, media were full of positive pronouncements about how swift the victory would be, and how Iraqis would welcome the invasion. Now, as the world watches from Syria's sidelines, the assumption is that what comes next will surely be bad, and quite probably brutal.

Alarmist predictions have become commonplace, typified by an article last week by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who argued that Syria represents an almost identical situation to Iraq's. Absent a well-armed US "midwife" to manage a transition, Friedman said, Syria after the Assads would fall into a war of all against all.

There were some unintentionally amusing asides in Friedman's article (his assertion that every Iraqi "both fears and trusts" the US will come as a shock to many), but the real flaws are at the heart of the argument. Friedman mistakes the nature of Iraq and Syria, and misunderstands the consequences of foreign intervention.

Syria's conflict, rather obviously, is riddled with a complexity that is all its own. But even the Iraq of Friedman's imagination is not the real Iraq, and the reasons why point to a hopeful possibility in Syria's long-running uprising.

The first problem is the reading of Iraqis and Syrians as defined by religious sects. Both countries are vibrant, multi-confessional societies, where religion is less important than is often reported. Until Iraq was shattered in 2003, and the subsequent internecine conflicts "cleansed" neighbourhoods, Iraq was not sectarian in the same way. Sunnis, Shiites and Christians intermarried and lived and worked beside each other. It wasn't a happy, salad-bowl-of-faiths Utopia - no society can be - but nor was it a cauldron of simmering sectarian hatred.

Today's Syria is in a similar position. The shorthand description of a majority Sunni state ruled by a distant Alawite minority ignores Syrians' lived reality. Alawites - and other minorities, such as the Druze, Armenians and Assyrians - tend to marry within their communities, but that is the case among minorities everywhere. To imagine a rigid sectarian divide is to oversimplify a complex society: Christians marry Muslims, Sunnis marry Alawites.

The belief that post-Assad Syria will inevitably degenerate into sectarian bloodshed is based on that misperception. Syrians are not defined by religion or history; the situation in their country is being written every day by a thousand small decisions. There is no inevitability to Syria's future.

That's not to say the future is assured. Already killing is targeted on sectarian lines. An extended conflict, a ready flow of weapons, bad decisions, bad policies and bad people (or good people with misguided intentions): all of these are shaping outcomes that are indeed worrisome. But while western politics are often viewed as a mix of intentions and events, actions and reactions, politics in the Middle East are reduced to one inevitability of personality or ethnicity or faith.

Indeed, to believe that Iraq degenerated into sectarian killing because of some inherent hatred long contained in society - and to imagine that Syria will ineluctably follow - is to ignore US policy and actions after the invasion.

This goes to the second problem with Friedman's reading of what happened in Iraq over the past decade. Just as he misunderstands Iraq as a country, he mistakes the US role.

Friedman imagines America's actions in the country as enabling, passive rather than active. The "midwife" metaphor culminates in giving birth to a new nation, epitomised in a careless metaphor by former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice that bloodshed in the region was the "birth pangs of a new Middle East".

This feeds into the narrative, which Friedman and other commentators espouse, that the destruction of Iraq's government and rule of law unleashed tensions buried below the surface.

But the US role was not passive. Day-to-day policies, starting with the decision to bomb Baghdad mercilessly in the first few weeks, changed the country - and its future. One can argue about the wisdom of those policies, but not their effects.

The history of the US invasion is not a linear progression, from mistaken premise to ignominious retreat. It is a winding narrative of policies and events and stupid, vain, clever and idealistic people.

The same process is at work in Syria today. There will be good decisions that go nowhere, and bad decisions that spiral out of control. When Friedman writes that Syria will need a "surprise" to avoid sectarian violence, he means a foreign intervention.

In reality, there could be any number of surprises. The revolution is already a surprise: a surprise that it started; a surprise that it continues; and a surprise that, in the face of tanks and helicopters, Syrians still call for change. The uprising is being written as we speak.



On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai