Co-existence is the alternative to sectarian disaster

Wadah Khanfar writes: Last week – clearly and officially – the war in Syria widened to become an extraordinary regional conflict. First, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, formally acknowledged that his forces are indeed fighting alongside those of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, in Iraq the confrontation between the government of Nouri al-Maliki and demonstrators in the Sunni provinces entered its bloodiest phase. And then, as the week ended, we saw the Israeli bombing of targets inside Syria. The entire region is now undergoing the most important geopolitical shift since the political map of the Middle East was redrawn after the first world war.

We are now reaping the consequences of the international community’s hesitation over Assad’s regime. This hesitation created the space for Assad to continue to brutalise his people. While Russia and Iran continued to supply the Syrian regime with weapons, the US and EU imposed sanctions that had a negative impact on the Free Syrian Army; especially regarding anti-aircraft weapons. It was feared these weapons would fall into the wrong hands, but at that time the Syrian revolution was purely internal: jihadists had no real presence. With the increase in regime brutality and international apathy, the situation on the ground began to change in favour of jihadist groups.

Now the violence will not remain confined to Syria. Lebanon has become an extension of the Syrian theatre of war, and the announcement by the Shia Hezbollah in support of Assad’s Alawite regime raises the level of sectarian polarisation there to unprecedented levels. If the sectarian confrontation in Iraq continues to escalate, the situation will become yet more dangerous: Iraq, with its strategic position overlooking the oil-rich Gulf, Iran and Turkey, is a powder keg that could ignite the entire region.

The real danger is that sectarian conflict in the region will become entrenched. Many in Iraq are now calling for the creation of three regions on sectarian and ethnic grounds: a Shia region and a Sunni region, in addition to the Kurdish region that already enjoys substantial independence. In Syria massacres of Sunnis in the heavily populated Alawite coastal region in the past week have been carried out to terrorise the remaining Sunnis into leaving. This is an important step towards the establishment of an Alawite entity if the regime loses its control over Damascus. This would lead not to stability and prosperity, but the continuation of bloody feuds.

The borders of the Middle East states established by the Sykes-Picot agreement were illogical and impractical, and have never enjoyed any legitimacy in the minds of Arab people. They were never able to evolve into stable nation states, unlike neighbouring Iran and Turkey. In response, the pan-Arab movement emerged demanding unity, a dream which enticed the region’s people but never materialised on the ground.

It now seems the Sykes–Picot agreement will not last to see its first centenary. But we should not look for an alternative that is worse: more artificial borders would be a recipe for permanent conflict. A solution is possible through the revival of the spirit that has distinguished the Middle East throughout its history. Four peoples have coexisted in the region since ancient times – Arabs, Kurds, Turks and Iranians – in an open social and economic environment. [Continue reading…]

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