x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The rise of sectarian conflicts will not fragment the Levant

The theory that the wars in Syria and Iraq will lead to a handful of ethnic statelets across the Middle East is deeply flawed

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

 

There's an old conspiracy theory in Lebanon that emerged during the civil war and never went away. It suggests that there is a secret plan to divide the entire Middle East into ethnic and sectarian states, legitimising in the process the nature of Israel as a Jewish state among Christian, Sunni, Shiite, Alawite and Kurdish states.

This theory originated with the late Lebanese politician Raymond Eddé, who accused Henry Kissinger of hatching a plan to divide Lebanon along such lines. Since then, it has re-emerged frequently as a way to explain sectarian conflict in the region.

Were Eddé, who died in 2000, still alive, he would find quite an audience for his theory. Following the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, Sunni-Shiite rivalry, which had hitherto been muted, has emerged as a major dividing line within the country. Lebanon has veered from one crisis to the next ever since, as the dream of a sovereign and independent state has all but disappeared.

In Iraq, the vicious sectarian conflict that followed the 2003 invasion has not been universally recognised as a civil war, but it's hard to think of it in other terms. In Syria, the uprising against the Assad regime turned into a civil war in which sectarian divisions are becoming increasingly evident.

The fragmentation of Syria would mean that the "fertile crescent" stretching from Iraq to Lebanon would become an area of sectarian and ethnic divisions and conflicts. So is this "sectarian crescent" now becoming an unavoidable reality?

There is no doubt that the region is at a crucial and dangerous juncture in its history. To pretend otherwise and downplay the effect of the sectarian and ethnic divisions would be extremely naive. Yet the political fragmentation of the Levant remains unlikely. There are very good reasons to believe that this is more likely to be a transitional phase rather than an unchecked spiral towards ever-increasing fragmentation.

There are three factors to consider. The first is that there are no movements for "sectarian" secession. Aside from the Kurdish quest for independence, which long preceded the current sectarian turmoil, there are no demands for secession in any of the three countries. There are no parties arguing for a Sunni or Shiite state in Iraq, for example. Unlike the Kurdish drive for autonomy, which has legitimate underpinnings, it is inconceivable that today any such idea could even be a starter.

The link between the rise of sectarianism and political fragmentation is a tenuous extrapolation based more on apprehension than real indications. In fact, whenever such scenarios are discussed, they appear to be more of a projection of their authors' assumptions about the fragility of Levantine countries than a result of serious analysis.

For example, there has been much talk recently of a potential Alawite state in Syria. The case for this scenario is flimsy, but that didn't prevent it gaining credence in some quarters. Those arguing for such a scenario blatantly ignored important factual considerations, such as the absence of any tangible steps that the Syrian regime took to prepare for an Alawite state. That would seem like an important oversight if an Alawite state was on the cards.

All this doesn't rule out de facto divisions as a result of military stalemates, but there's little chance that such entities might turn into permanent political units. Aside from the Kurdish areas in Syria and Iraq, where federal autonomy is justified and workable, there are no viable "sectarian entities" that could have viable geographies.

The second point to note is that sectarian conflicts actually represent internal power struggles. In broad terms, competing sectarian agendas in the three Levant countries represent power struggles within national boundaries and not, as I hope I illustrated, demands for secession. While sectarianism puts immense stress on social cohesion, its political manifestations don't represent a threat to national entities. In fact, the opposite is true in certain instances, where sectarian politics is concerned simultaneously with extracting concessions from the state but retaining it as an entity.

This doesn't alter the bloody nature of the sectarian conflicts in the region, but it denotes that their resolution will ultimately depend on concessions, not political fragmentation. Civil wars unfortunately take a long time to be resolved politically, but it's far from certain that the disintegration of the Levant countries is a serious prospect.

There's no denying that national identities in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are going through serious crises, but we should bear in mind that the contests over those identities aren't being fought exclusively along sectarian lines. Both in Lebanon and Iraq, cross-sectarian alliances indicate a more complex picture in which politics mixes with communalist considerations. Crucially, blatant sectarian rhetoric remains confined to the margins and most leaders have to couch their positions in the language of national interest.

This is not merely a form of hypocrisy, but nor is it principled - it is primarily a pragmatic position. In the absence of secessionist impulses, the nation state represents an expedient order through which communalist demands could be expressed in a political from. Lebanon is at one extreme in formalising this confessional model of politics, and it is now plausible that both Syria and Iraq will move in that direction.

While this model of politics has serious shortcomings, it appears to be the logical alternative to open sectarian warfare. The future of the Levant is headed towards this confessional model rather than political disintegration, as becomes apparent when we consider the third and last factor, confessional politics as an alternative to sectarian warfare.

What we are witnessing in the Levant now is the crystallisation of sectarian identities into a political form. Tendencies that were always present within society are now becoming more apparent, partially because of the collapse of unifying ideas such as pan-Arabism and the turmoil of the past decade or so. In Syria and Iraq those identities were repressed for a long time under Ba'ath rule and denied expression, but they were always present in one form or another.

The extreme manifestations that we are seeing are a product of the abrupt collapse of the repressive mechanisms. This unfortunately is leading to many acts of revenge and bloodshed, but as hard as it is to imagine today, they are symptoms of this transitional period rather than constant features. Sectarian conflicts are ultimately unwinnable, and in time this contestation will be transported to the political arena.

The experience of Lebanon, as dysfunctional as its political system appears to be, gives an indication of the type of political relationships that will emerge. Lebanon's confessional system was reconfigured after the end of the civil war to distribute power more equally among its different sects, and one of the outcomes of this process was that everyone had an interest in preserving the state because they had more to gain from it. The relationship may be parasitical sometimes, but in a curious way it has made the Lebanese nation-state more durable.

The paradox of sectarian-political identities is that they require a suitable political platform in which they can find their expression. The confessional system provides this as a means to negotiate communalist demands and aspirations.

Nobody knows for certain what the future holds for Syria and Iraq, but there are strong indications to suggest that their politics will grow to resemble that of Lebanon. In the transition away from single-party rule, confessionalism will represent a form of political pluralism that blends the national and communalist identities together.

Unfortunately, sectarian identities will be on the rise for a while in the Levant, but the assumption that this will lead to political fragmentation doesn't seem to stand up to scrutiny. The challenge for secularists will be to create alternatives to confessional politics that cut across sects and ethnic groups and create a more open sense of national identity.

 

Karl Sharro is an architect and Middle East commentator based in London. He blogs at www.karlremarks.com.

On Twitter: @KarlreMarks