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Syria’s civil war: historical forces behind regional realities

By Michael Hunt


Critics of the Obama administration’s Syrian policy have lamented its failure to take into account regional realities. With surprising speed those realities have put the brakes on US intervention. The anti-regime forces in Syria have remained deeply divided — indeed turned violently against each other — and resistant to outside guidance. Government armed forces have retained their integrity and the battlefield initiative. China and Russia have refused to sanction outside meddling. These are the obvious constraints on US activism. But there are broader forces at work that deserve attention.

A good place to start is the Islamist resurgence so important to developments in Turkey, Gaza, southern Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, and Tunisia not to mention Syria. Islamist political movements appearing in all shapes and sizes have discomfited the monarchies of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain as well as long-established modernizing regimes with a nationalist and secular agenda such as the military-dominated ones in Egypt and Algeria.

The Syrian government dominated by the Ba’ath Party and the Assad family is one of those modernizing regimes up against disruptive Islamist currents. The Ba’ath Party, headed by Hafez al-Assad from the 1970s til his death in 2000, blended nationalism with pan-Arabic sentiments. Its secular, socialist agenda put the party-state at distinct odds with the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was brutally crushed in a confrontation in 1982. As the successor to his father, Bashar al-Assad talked at first of reform but since 2011 has fought for survival against a loosely-organized, armed opposition including prominently jihadi groups. Civil war has reopened the divisive question not only of Islam’s role within Syrian political and cultural life but also of whose version of Islam should prevail. In Syria as elsewhere the answers vary depending on whether you ask in the city or the countryside or address Sunni, Shia, Christian, Alawites, Druze, or Kurd.

The questions posed by a reinvigorated Islam fit neatly under the heading of nationalist contestation. Edward Said’s caution against thinking about the region in terms of “vast abstractions” that yield “little self knowledge or informed analysis” remains particularly pertinent. Civilization and identity, he contended in The Nation in October 2001), were not “shut-down, sealed-off entities” but rather fields of on-going, multifaceted ideological conflict. Were American leaders to embrace this general truth about the modern world, they might have a better chance of reaching an “informed analysis” of Syria in particular. Outsiders, it should be clear, can try to shape nationalist debates, but they are not likely to have much of a clue about the terms of the debate and even less legitimacy.

Syrian uprise

Much like nationalism, empire casts a long shadow over the Syrian crisis and the region. The United States, Britain, and France are associated with colonialism, military intervention, and cultural imperialism. They win no points for having shored up dictators, favored Israel, and cultivated a distaste for political Islam. The United States is in a particularly compromised position. While Obama insists (as he did in his Cairo speech in 2009) that the United States was not “the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire,” the historical record argues strongly against him. From Egypt and Palestine to Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, British overlords yielded after 1945 to the primacy of a rising power with greater financial resources and military muscle. The Americans not only followed in the British footsteps but also generally continued the strategy of indirect rule reinforced by an occasional coup, a pacification campaign now and then, and an occasional dose of gunboat diplomacy. This approach kept down the costs of empire (especially important for a weakened Britain) but it also avoided the more blatantly imperial direct rule (so distinctly at odds with the American self-image).

Syria is a variant in an old story of outside interference remembered, resented, and resisted. Assad was making more than a casual observation when in an interview this year he associated empire with a “divide and conquer” strategy. “By division, I do not mean [just] redrawing national borders but rather fragmentation of identity, which is far more dangerous.” This preoccupation with the legacy of empire — economic and political as well as cultural — is region-wide and to judge from a July 2013 Pew survey of public opinion makes US policy distinctly suspect. A substantial proportion of respondents flatly declared the United States “an enemy” rather than “a partner.” This was the view of roughly a half to three quarters in Turkey, Lebanon, the Palestinian territory, and Pakistan and from a quarter to a third in Egypt and Jordan. In all these cases the percentage of “enemy” responses exceeded the “partner” responses.

Finally, Syria suggests the importance of bringing globalization into our mix of big, defining historical forces. The Syrian conflict has played out within a complex of transnational networks carrying most notably people (refugees and fighters), NGO’s offering humanitarian assistance to several million driven from Syria by the fighting, and digital information (most evident in the propaganda wars of the combatants). Perhaps most striking of all (and surprising to Washington) has been the capacity of genuinely international norms and institutions to make a difference. The international agreement on chemical weapons and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have effectively defused a crisis created by Obama’s careless “red line” declaration and demonstrated what American leaders seem to forget: the efficacy of international law and diplomacy, and the need to take seriously other powers with divergent views (not least Russia and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council) in resolving knotty problems of the sort the Syrian civil war poses.

The absence of historical perspective in the pronouncements of the Obama administration is striking but nothing new in Washington. The denizens of the foreign policy establishment as well as the media tend to lapse into the “vast abstractions” that Said decried. The prevailing version of history is dated and superficial and applied in the main to shoring up predetermined policy, offering inspirational insights on political leadership, or affirming comforting notions of national mission. Reflecting on the particular problem of Syria highlights a general and dangerous blind spot in US policy. A global power with a diminished sense of the past has few resources to illuminate the future.

Michael Hunt is the Everett H. Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of The World Transformed, 1945 to the Present. A leading specialist on international history, Hunt is the author of several prize-winning books, including The Making of a Special Relationship: The United States and China to 1914. His long-term concern with US foreign relations is reflected in several broad interpretive, historiographical, and methodological works, notably Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy and Crises in U.S. Foreign Policy: An International History Reader.

The Oxford Atlas Place of the Year 2013 is Syria. The Oxford Atlas Place of the Year is a location — from street corners to planets — around the globe (and beyond) which has attracted a great deal of interest during the year to date and judged to reflect the important discoveries, conflicts, challenges, and successes of that particular year. Learn more about Place of the Year on the OUPblog.

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Image credit: Palmyra, Syria – March, 25th 2011: A demonstration moves along the main street in the town of Palmyra in the middle of Syria. Young people stand on the roof of a moving car holding the Syrian flag. The Syrian uprising started in March 2011. © Sporthos via iStockphoto.

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