Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Farewell Syria?

At the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011, few were the experts who pondered the disintegration of the Levantine map that the French and British forced into its current shape after World War I.   

Now every other article is pronouncing on the certainty that the modern Fertile Crescent is on the brink of collapse and very likely to bring down with it the entire postcolonial regional setup. Most of the speculation is neither sensationalist nor baseless--nor new. The whispers in fact started soon after the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003 and the country began to dance to the jarring tunes of its discordant pieces. But to have both Syria and Iraq—the two jewels in our Levantine crown—tottering thus is all but killing the logic of containment.

It’s a fool’s errand, predicting the shifting geopolitics of the region. By the week, the picture keeps changing. A few of the supposed constants remain, but, as the past two years have taught us, those can hardly anchor the moment anymore than they can predict the horizon. How well could we have foreseen Recep Tayyep Erdogan’s volte-face with Bashar Assad? How well could we have forecasted the soft coup in Egypt that retired Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and Chief of staff Sami Annan, announcing the new accommodation between the Muslim Brothers and the SCAF?  How much dare we depend on the constancy of Saudi Arabia’s aversion to the Brotherhood as it watches the emerging Turkish-Qatari-Egyptian alliance drawing strength from it?

And what of this dizzying prospect? The demise of the Assads and the rise of Sunni Jihadism in the Levant transpire. Similarly alarmed, Iran, Hezbollah and Israel, today’s three nemeses, find themselves forming (by sheer providence if not by design) a stealth front against—you guessed it—the new Sunni Crescent. Wild, you think? Welcome to the neighborhood!

Still, not all is a shadow in this fog of politics.

Let’s concede the easy ones, first. That we Arabs have never really stopped conjecturing about the longevity of the map is one measure of the failure of postcolonial regimes in finessing the utter crudeness and fundamental illegitimacy of the original British-French scheme. That our successive leaders would always condemn this particular western conspiracy all while pounding their chests in defense of its progeny only served to show up the dubiousness of what colonialism begat.  

Mind you, the hypocrisy also has been ours as a people. Without even suspecting a hint of irony, we continue to pine for Arabhood, sing for country and swear by tribe and family, happy to swing between our parallel worlds and their parallel identities.

The truth is, however attached or accepting we became of our newfound countries and passports, something about this whole trip never really rang true. If the Levant has, say, since 1920, been the stuff of bad fiction, then ours, as Levantines, has been the lousiest pretense. Given the choice, most of us would probably opt out, even 100 years on--but for this paradox: even those among us who vilify Sykes-Picot and all that derived from it find ourselves rooting for a Syrian solution that respects the very legacy we so detest. Because as arrogant and irresponsible as the initial carve up was, tampering with it would be just as devastating to human life.

Let’s also concede that, in the Middle East, volatility is unusually susceptible to miscalculation or even political lethargy. Ignore a flashpoint or sit on it, and soon enough it might engulf you. More poignantly, spilt blood is the drink of beasts. And Syria today is a river of blood. So, although I have argued here and here that there is no regional or international intent to redraw--or just let it all hang in--this part of the East Mediterranean, we don’t need such like connivance to find ourselves…hanging. Many fault lines—sectarian, ethno-religious, geopolitical…-- crisscross the Syrian war, each a fuse to a powder keg.

Leaving the heartbreaking human toll aside, because it clearly is not figuring in the calculus of any political party, already the struggle for Syria has broken the country’s back. Already Jabhat al Nusra, a Jihadi militia that self-consciously places itself outside the revolution’s umbrella has overtaken the armed rebellion. Already the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon is teasing its precarious sectarian politics, while the turbulence is dangerously enfeebling its economy. Already the inrush of Syrians into Jordan is straining the resources of an overburdened monarchy and galvanizing extremists of Jordanian origin. Already the Sunnis of Iraq are feeling emboldened by the possible fall of “Alawite” Syria and challenging their dysfunctional Shi’ite led polity.

Add to these furious elements the restless Kurdish question in Syria, Iraq and, of course, Turkey, polarization between southern and northern Yemen, simmering Shi’ite discontent in Bahrain, Islamist muscle flexing in Kuwait and rumblings in Saudi Arabia’s oil rich (and very Shi’ite) Eastern province and you will have gathered enough of the building blocs of mayhem that could, through any number of plausible scenarios, overthrow the regional postcolonial order.

But it makes little sense to go down that road. There are too many variables you could play any which way you like. It’s more than enough that it is finally in sight. What matters more at this juncture is where Syria, at present, stands.

Two years into the uprising, many ambiguities rule: the actual resilience of the ruling clan, the very private conversations between President Assad and the Russians, the very private messages between him and the Arabs, the degree to which Jihadis could incapacitate post-Assad Syria… But the most elusive dynamic has been that between the Russians and the Americans--not because the two are so far apart, but because, on the substance, they’re so close.

When, in contemporary times, have we seen the US visibly less enthusiastic about supposed allies as it has been about the Syrian opposition? When have we seen it, in the Middle East, this opposed to a regime and yet this sensitive to the costs of removing it? More tellingly, when was the last time the US was happy to give a competitor such political leverage over a critical file? When have we seen it put such palpable pressure on Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to toe the line on an issue this close to their heart and desist from arming and funding the Islamist rebels, especially Jabhat al Nusra?

The bottom line is this: without Russia’s cover, Bashar Assad’s chances drop to near nil; and without the US’s indulgence, however conditional, the opposition is all but mince meat. Hezbollah and Iran can help the Syrian President sabotage their enemies’ plans, but they cannot, on their own, shore him up over the long run. And while the opposition might like to believe that Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey can deliver Syria, the fact is they can’t.

Here’s another bottom line worth keeping in mind: The US, Israel, Turkey and the Arab Sunni countries cannot hope now for a clean victory over Assad. For, oh, so many reasons, not least among them the frightening failure of the opposition to coalesce into a political and military force that is cohesive, sound and reassuring to the many skeptics inside and out, Assad has succeeded in denying his adversaries the pleasure of a relatively tidy and expeditious end to the crisis.

 It’s either a US-Russian settlement on a very complicated and delicate political transition, or unbearable strain on Syria, as Assad finally retreats to a now much cleansed Alawite enclave and the war distills into a Sunni-Shiite conflict that inflames the whole area.

A very reliable rumor has it that the Americans and Russians have agreed to wait until Assad’s term ends in 2014 to kick start the transitional process. Bad idea! This is the right time for the two to come to a formal understanding. Doubtless Syria cannot for much longer bear more high stakes haggling over its head. Doubtless as well that these two powers have milked the debacle for all that it is worth. While Assad, technically, still counts, the US can with considerable gratification declare that a neutered Syria is in hand. But while the country is lost to the Assads, it is not the opposition’s for the taking.

Whether it intended this “win-win” equation, the seeming Russian and American impasse could easily take credit for making it happen. So, whatever Putin dearly wants that Obama is not willing to cede—and clearly the list transcends Syria, reaching perhaps as far as Europe’s oil and gas pipelines—the time is now to make a deal. Because from here on, especially for the US and its Middle Eastern allies, Syria’s anguish may well become their own.

As I was writing this post, I recalled this precious snippet of history:

On December 1, 1918, two years after the Sykes-Picot agreement, the British and French prime ministers got together for a chat at the French Embassy in London.  According to the note taker, the conversation went something like this:

Clemenceau opens: "What do you want to talk about?"
Lloyd George declares: ‘Mesopotamia and Palestine.’
Clemenceau: ‘Tell me what you want?’
Lloyd George: ‘I want Mosul [in Iraq].’
Clemenceau: ‘You shall have it. Anything else?’
Lloyd George: Yes, I want Jerusalem too.’
Clemenceau: 'You Shall have it.'[1]

Afterward, we are told, Lloyd George was heard muttering to himself, "Mosul has oil. Palestine is Holy Land; Syria, what is Syria?"[2]

Lloyd George has his answer now.

[1] Jeremy Wilson’s Lawrence of Arabia, p. 589.
[2] Zeine Zeine’s The Struggle for Arab Independence, p. 57. Footnote no 38.