Malik Al-Abdeh writes: How do we explain the de facto civil war unfolding in Syria today? How do we predict what course it will take? How do we come up with a viable and long-term solution?
A good starting point is to compare Syria with a country that bears a striking resemblance: Lebanon. This may seem surprising because the two countries (and two peoples) appear to be somewhat different.
Syrians regard themselves as being superior to Lebanese because their country suppresses confessional and ethnic identities in favour of a secular and all-embracing Arabism.
The Lebanese on the other hand look at the Syrians and they pity. Fortress Damascus is not a good place if you value creativity and free expression. It is the GDR of the Levant.
Broadly speaking, Syria is about unity, Lebanon is about freedom.
In reality, these differences developed recently and are superficial. What Syria and Lebanon have in common is grounded in shared experience: for centuries they were part of the Byzantine empire, they were conquered by the Muslim Arabs at the same time, both were later ruled by the Ottoman Turks for 400 years, and both fell under French mandate after the end of the First World War.
Something else they had in common were significant groups of non-Sunni Muslim minorities who chafed under Ottoman Turkish rule and vowed never to fall under Sunni overlordship again.
It was during the formative Mandate years (1920-46) that non-Sunni Muslim minorities (Christians, Alawites, Druze, Ismai’lis) began to develop survival strategies to adapt to the reality of living in newly-created nation states. It is by recognizing and analyzing these survival strategies and their long-term consequences that one can trace the historic roots of the Lebanese civil war (1975-90) and the Syrian civil war (2011-present).
The modern history of Syria and Lebanon is the story of how religious minorities turned the tables to become political masters, and how that often brought them into conflict with the Sunni Muslim majority. [Continue reading…]