Making the Middle East Safe for What?

The Bush administration seems to be drawing the outlines of a strategy to oust Syria’s President Bashar Assad and his ruling Ba’ath Party.

Of course, no one is considering an American-led military invasion à la Iraq to achieve “regime change” in Damascus. Instead, neoconservative policymakers and analysts are urging Washington to take advantage of the conclusions of the soon-to-be-issued United Nations report on the assassination of Lebanese former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Some 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 when Mehlis issues his report, the Bush administration should take the lead in a diplomatic effort aimed at isolating Assad and forcing him out of power.

Unfortunately, not unlike the grand schemes concocted in Washington to get rid of Saddam and his Ba’ath colleagues and bring freedom to Mesopotamia, the American plans to unseat Assad and his Ba’ath cronies and implant a democracy in the Levant are based mostly on wishful thinking.

It 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 voting booths, the sky would prove to be the limit for transforming Syria (or Iraq, or Egypt, or Saudi Arabia) into a center of progress.

If that were the case, one would think that some of the states in the Middle East and North Africa that were freed from imperialism after 1945, adopted Western-style constitutions, and held at one time free elections should now be in the process of applying, like Turkey, for membership in the European Union (EU).

The 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.

Ethnicity and Religion

Indeed, 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 – would probably bring to power radical Islamic groups whose interests and values, such as those regarding the rights of women and minorities, are antithetical to those of the United States.

The main reason for this is the collapse of the secular Arab nationalist ideology; now the only legitimate sense of identity from which political leaders and movements can draw genuine public support evolves 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 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.

But what has replaced Saddam and the Ba’ath is not a new leadership committed to building the foundation of a viable Iraqi nation-state and securing individual political and economic rights. Instead, Iraq is now ruled by ethnic and religious parties and militias, including those representing clerical Shi’ite groups that would have never been able to win legitimacy in the name 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 war.

The possible collapse of Assad and his Ba’athists will probably ignite a similar process of “Iraqization” in Syria. Assad may be less brutal than Saddam, but he is also a member of a minority Shi’ite sect (the Alawites) that has controlled the country by force and by trying to keep alive a moribund pan-Arabist ideology.

As 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, such as the Muslim 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 massacred their members in the past. The bloodbath that could take place in post-Assad Iraq could also spill over into neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, and Iraq, increasing the chances for a regional conflagration.

In that context, expect Iran to back its co-religionists in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon against Arab Sunnis who 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 forced to make difficult and costly choices.

It’s all very depressing, but it reflects the reality of most of the Arab Middle East today. The choice that most of those societies face is not between dictatorship and democracy, but between the status quo and the rise of governments who will derive their legitimacy from reawakened ethnic and religious identities and will end up devastating the current nation-state system there.

Not much of a choice. But let’s not pretend that the collapse of the Saddams, Assads, Mubaraks, and Sauds will usher in a new era of enlightened democracy in the region. Let’s recognize that the American-led war in Mesopotamia is probably the first step in the “Iraqization” of the Middle East, a process that is bound to harm America’s long-term interests.

Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.