Making the Middle East Safe for What?
by Leon Hadar
Bush administration seems to be drawing the outlines of a strategy
to oust Syria's President Bashar Assad and the ruling Ba'ath party.
course, no one is considering an American-led military invasion
à la Iraq to achieve a "regime change" in Damascus. Instead,
neoconservative policy makers and analysts are urging Washington
to take advantage of the conclusions of the soon-to-be-issued United
Nations report on the assassination of the late Lebanese prime minister
experts expect that UN chief investigator Detlev Mehlis will point
at several top Syrian officials and accuse them of orchestrating
the killing that helped trigger public pressure in Lebanon on Syria
to withdraw its troops from that country. The neocons are proposing
that if and when Mr. Mehlis issues his report, the Bush administration
will then take the lead in a diplomatic effort aimed at isolating
Mr. Bashar and forcing him out of power.
not unlike the pre-Iraq-War grand schemes concocted in Washington
to get rid of Saddam and his Ba'ath allies and bring freedom to
Mesopotamia, the American plans to unseat Mr. Assad and his Ba'ath
cronies and implant a democracy in the Levant are based mostly on
is assumed that the main obstacle to the political and economic
renaissance of Syria, Iraq and the rest of the Middle East is the
lack of a viable process to conduct open and free elections. According
to the neocons' fantasy, if only the will of the Syrian (or Iraqi,
or Egyptian, or Saudi) people could be fully expressed in the voting
booths, the sky will prove to be the limit for transforming Syria
(or Iraq, or Egypt, or Saudi Arabia) into centers of progress.
that would have been the case, one would have expected that some
of the states in the Middle East and North Africa that had been
freed from imperialism after 1945, adopted western-style constitutions
and held at one time free elections should have been now in the
process of applying, like Turkey, for membership in the European
reason that Iraq, Syria, Egypt, or Algeria have not been able to
do the same as Turkey has nothing to do with their failure to hold
free elections. In fact, when Algeria was about to complete legislative
elections in 1992, the Algerian military, with the support of the
French government, moved to cancel the vote that was expected to
bring to power anti-Western Islamic political parties.
as anyone knowledgeable about the Middle East will maintain, open
and free elections in Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Syria as opposed
to the government-managed voting that takes place from time to time
in those countries will probably bring to power radical Islamic
groups whose foreign policy interests and values such as the rights
of women and minorities are antithetical to that of the United States
and the West.
main reason for that is the collapse of the secular Arab nationalist
ideology; now the only legitimate sense of identity based on which
political leaders and movements can draw genuine public support
tends to evolve around tribalism, ethnicity and religion. What has
happened in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein demonstrates this
proposition: The authoritarian Ba'ath regime that was in the hands
of the minority Sunnis had lacked any sense of political legitimacy
but was able to maintain its power over a mishmash of tribes and
ethnic and religious groups only by using brute military force and
by promoting an amorphous ideological mix of fascism, communism
and Arab and Iraqi nationalism.
what replaced Saddam and the Ba'ath is not a new leadership committed
to building the foundation of a viable Iraqi nation-state and to
securing individual political and economic rights. Instead, Iraq
is now ruled by ethnic and religious parties and militias, including
those representing clerical Shiite groups that would have never
been able to win legitimacy in the name of the identity of a unified
Iraqi nation-state because such an entity has never really existed.
Hence the best outcome for Iraq is partition or a low-key civil
possible collapse of Mr. Assad and his Ba'athists will probably
ignite a similar process of "Iraqization" in Syria. Mr.
Assad may be less brutal than Saddam, but he also is a member of
a minority ethnic group (Alawites) that has controlled the country
by force and by trying to keep alive a moribund Pan Arabist ideology.
in Iraq, the sources of legitimacy for rising political players
in Syria will be religion, that of the dominant Sunni group, and
ethnicity, including that of a small Kurdish minority. Radical Muslim
groups, like the Moslem Brotherhood will fill the political vacuum
created by the possible collapse of the Ba'ath and will try to settle
old scores with sworn enemies, the Alawites and the Ba'athists who
had massacred their members in the past. The bloodbath that could
take place in post-Assad Iraq could also spill-over to neighboring
Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Iraq, increasing the chances for a regional
that context, expect Iran to back its co-religionists in Iraq, Syria
and Lebanon against Arab-Sunnis that enjoy the support of the Saudis,
the Jordanians and the Egyptians. At the same time, Turkey and Iran
will try to suppress Kurdish nationalism, and the United States
will be drawn into all this mess and be forced to make difficult
and costly choices.
all very depressing but it reflects the reality of most of the Arab
Middle East today. The choice that most of those societies face
today is not between dictatorship and democracy, but between the
continuing status-quo in the region and the rise of governments
who will derive their legitimacy from reawakened ethnic and religious
identities and that will end-up devastating the current nation-state
much a choice. But let's not pretend that the collapse of the Saddams,
Assads, Mubaraks, and Saudis will usher a new era of enlightened
democracy in the region. Let's recognize that American-led war in
Mesopotamia is probably the first step of the "Iraqization" of the
Middle East, a process that is bound to harm America's long-term
Hadar [send him mail] is
Washington correspondent for the Business
Times of Singapore and the author of the forthcoming Sandstorm:
Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan).
© 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved. Reprinted
with permission of the author.