Friday, March 9, 2012
Making Sense of the Arab Spring 7: Syria and the "Shiite Crescent"
Of all the countries engulfed by the Arab Spring, Syria is the most difficult to predict as to who will win the current struggle between the regime of Bashar al-Asad and its opponents. A number of Western commentators have begun to question the viability of opposition efforts to bring a democratic system to Syria. Their uncertainty stems in large measure from the sectarian overtones of the current struggle. As talk of sectarianism has increasingly taken center stage, these commentators have trotted out the old canard of the "Shiite Crescent." But is there realy as "Shiite Crescent" and is it valid to analyze Syria through the prism of this concept?
To begin with, there is no Shiite crescent (al-hilal al-shi'i), but rather a Shiite parabola (al-mu'tarij al-shi'i). If we follow the purported confluence of the so-called crescent and move from Iran to Lebanon, we actually see that the line moves south from Iran into southern Iraq before moving north into Syria and then south again into Lebanon.
More to the point, there is no congruity of Shi'a populations in the countries which supposedly comprise the Shiite crescent since moving north from southern Iraq in north-western Iraq and eastern Syria we pass through Sunni Arab populations. In Syria itself, the Alawites populate different regions but especially the north west of the country. In the south of Syria, we find a majority Sunni population. And when the crescent moves into Lebanon, it passes through many different ethnic and religious communities before it reaches the main concentration of Shi'a who live in the south of the country.
The Shiite Crescent's origins date to a 2004 warning by Jordan's King Abdallah. Despite his subsequent assertion that his remark referred to political alignments and not sectarian identities, the term has come to provide a convenient platitude with which to analyze the politics of the Arab Mashriq.
No one would deny the salience of sectarian identities in Arab politics, as a recent collection of essays which I edited makes clear. Nevertheless, this type of analysis once again diverts the political discourse of the Arab Spring away from the desire of large segments of the citizenry of the Arab world and the larger Middle East for democracy.
It is true that the Ba'thist regime in Syria is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiism, which is a legacy of French colonial rule. But many Alawite officials are horrified by the violence of the al-Asad regime and would leave their posts if it were not for the pervasive security apparatus and fear of the repercussions for their families. While it is difficult to specify exact numbers, the opposition forces include many Alawites who are not part of the privileged elites surrounding the al-Asad family.
Weeed remeber that the most powerful social base of the al-Asad regime is int he Syrian busienss community, whcih is domiated bu Sunni Arabs and to a lesser extent Christians. This social basse refelctes the liberalziation policies which the al-Aad regime has been following since the 190s and the conscious decision to create stronger ties between the regime and the Sunni Arab merchant class in Damascus and Aleppo.
Many Syrians are resentful of the presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guard units in Syria. Indeed, some Iranians have been captured by opposition forces. Similar to Iraq, where all Iraqis, including members of the Shi'a community, have expressed their rejection of Iranian interference in their internal affairs, so too do Syrians - Alawites, Sunni Arabs, Christians and Kurds - likewise reject allowing Iran to acquire significant control over their military, security service and political affairs.
The concern that Westerners have about the sectarian dimensions of the Syrian conflict stem a number of developments, including comments by al-Qa'ida affiliated groups, such as the Islamic State in Iraq, that they are joining the effort to overthrow the al-Asad regime. But why should the self-aggrandizing comments of a group such as al-Qa'ida which has been weakened by Usama Bin Ladin's death, and the Islamic State of Iraq, which has already been overwhelmingly rejected by Iraqis and which can only assert itself through sporadic bombings, give pause to Arab and Western supporters of Syria's Arab Spring.
While there have been reports of sectarian killings among opposition forces in Syria, we do not know the extent of these killings, or whether they were sponsored by the al-Asad. Certainly, the al-Asad regime has played the sectarian card in an effort to discredit the opposition and to stir up fear among members of the Alawite, Christian and Kurdish minorities that a Sunni dominated government would marginalize them all, thus offering a worse outcome than the al-Asad regime remaining in power.
The focus non all those who seek to bring democracy and social justice to Syria needs to be on creating representative political institutions, an independent judiciary, and free and fair elections, ending corruption and tacklling Syria's massive economic problems, especially unemployment.
Sectarianism is not genetically inscribed in the Syrian people. Give them economic opportunity and a government which cares about their well-being, and all references to the Shiite Crescent will disappear into thin air.
A consistent theme among Western journalists and academics when reform movement appear is whether they will: a) be taken over by anti-Western Islamist forces; or b) whether the movement in question will degenerate into sectarian or tribal conflict, thereby producing instability which is likewise antithetical to Western interests in the Middle East. Inevitably, the response is to call for a powerful leader sympathetic to the West to intervene to reimpose order.
After a period of more than 50 years, when the Middle East is at its most unstable point ever, it is time to resist the temptation to find a new dictator who will supposedly control the Islamists and impose stability at the force of a gun. When will the West learn the lesson that there is no other answer to the Middle East's problems than a transition to democracy, a democracy which focuses not just on procedural elements but one which offers social justice to the peoples of the region.
The road to democracy in the Middle East will be extermely difficult, but it trumps all the alternatives.