Robert Kaplan - Why He is Wrong about Syria
SHELDON KIRSHNER in his "War may bring Israel to talks with Syria"has written one of the best arguments for why Israel should reverse its policy toward Syria and sit down at the negotiating table. It has a lot to gain. Syria has a lot to offer. Syria also has a lot to gain and there is every reason to believe it is serious. Even Abdel Halim Khaddam, the ex-vice President who is not fighting against Asad, maintains that Syria was serious about peace in the 1990s. President Bashar has made it clear in every major speech that Peace remains Syria's strategic first choice.
He quotes Sharon's famous last remark about the Golan - "in November 2005, Sharon ruled out engagement with Syria categorically, saying that he wished to retain the Golan: “I will not negotiate with Syria because I will never leave that area.”
Sharon backed up his rejection with two arguments. One, Sharon chose to ignore Syria because it is "too weak" to sign an agreement. Has the Lebanon War changed that calculation?
Two, Sharon, in common with his predecessors, argued that the Golan is absolutely vital for Israel’s security. "But Israel’s former chief of staff, Gen. Moshe Yaalon, a hawk who may soon join the ranks of Likud, has said that Israel could defend itself without maintaining a grip on the Golan." What is more, Israel's vulnerability does not come from the Golan, but from Hizbullah and Hamas. If Israel can attenuate that vulnerability by returning the Golan, is it worth it?
Shaul Arieli in his Threatening Syria comes with price: Military threats come at expense of socioeconomic pledges," reminds Israeli politicians that opinion polls show that Israelis want guns over butter. By going to war against Syria, the government would have to scupper social programs that Israelis say are more important to them than increasing the defense budget.
These arguments for engaging Syria do not convince either Shmuel Rosner or Robert Kaplan. I will comment following the article. Here is Rosner:
How Syria Survives
Bashar Assad may be stupid, but he has a very smart survival strategy.
By Shmuel Rosner in Slate
Posted Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2006, at 1:27 PM ET
It was mid-1957 when President Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles started to worry seriously about the fate of Syria. "There is evidence in Syria of the development of a dangerous and classic pattern," Dulles wrote. Soviet aid was rolling in, and Washington got nervous about what would follow: "The country will fall under the control of international Communism and become a Soviet satellite."Rosner makes two arguments here. One is that smart Americans going back to Secretary of State Dulles have recognized that Syria is the problem. It should be at the top of US foreign policy concerns. Two, is that Bashar al-Asad is really dumb. He only seems smart because his cowardice had allowed him to hide behind Iran, Hizbullah and others, thus allowing him to dupe the smart Americans. In short, America should start with regime change in Syria; it would be easy.
A lot has changed since those days. The Assad family came to power in Syria, the Soviet Union no longer exists, and the domino theory no longer applies. But some striking similarities still pertain: Syria is a weak player in a tough neighborhood, making itself visible by aligning itself with troubling trends. Now it's the Iranians helping them, it's Lebanon and Iraq they are destabilizing (and not Jordan, as was frequently the case in the past), and its Islamist terrorism and not Communism that makes the United States worried and angry. The headache is similar, as is the failure to find the right remedy.
"By most indicators of strategic importance … Syria would seem destined to be no more than a minor player, relatively easy for greater powers … to marginalize and ignore," writes Flynt Leverett of the New America Foundation in his new book, Inheriting Syria. Nevertheless, Syrians have been able to show, again and again, that taking them lightly is a big mistake. The disruptive power they apply—by supporting terrorists in Palestine and Iraq, by trying to sabotage any attempt to achieve peace between Israel and the Arab world, by defying U.N. resolutions, by meddling in Lebanon's affairs—is something U.S. administrations, including the current one, have been unable to overcome.
For the United States, Syria is a constant reminder of the limitations of a superpower. President Bashar Assad, ridiculed by many as an imbecile—in Washington three weeks ago, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres called him "the son of a clever man"—is a constant reminder of an even more troubling phenomenon: You can be a "stupid" leader and survive. That is, if you believe Assad really is stupid.
The evidence is not as overwhelming as you might think. Assad was patient enough to make the U.N. inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri a waste of time; Syria was found guilty but didn't pay a price. He was smart enough to support Hezbollah in Lebanon, defying threats by the international community, and was able to claim victory when the outcome of the Israeli-Hezbollah war was, even by favorable accounts, uncertain.
Like an acrobat on a tightrope, Assad meticulously walks the fine line between two losing strategies: He is not enough of a nuisance to make it necessary to deal with him urgently (Iran, the much stronger country in his camp, and the Syrian circus' safety net, plays that role), but not quiet enough to make himself negligible and marginalized. Assad is a fine acrobat—a joy to watch—as long as he doesn't fall. And he understands the ways of the tumbler, knows that the only way for him to stay above the rest of the crowd is to keep moving in the same direction. One stop, even a minor hesitation, will be the end of his journey.
In the West, many think he is dumb, because he doesn't do what the international community wants him to do. But Assad has other bosses: He looks up to Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, and to the rulers of Iran. If he positions himself between these two, he is safer. The world has tried—is still trying—to defeat Hezbollah in Lebanon. And it is also struggling to deal with the mullahs in Tehran, with zero success so far. Syria is always the country we can deal with "later" or "after" the one we are really busy with.
In a January 2002 piece in the National Journal, Jonathan Rauch reported, "When I asked how high Syria would be on the Bush Administration's post-Afghanistan … agenda, [the official] replied that the Administration is still sorting out its priorities, but that Syria 'is going to be on the list, and it's not going to be at the bottom.' " Right after U.S. troops entered Baghdad in 2003, Time magazine reported, "A group of the President's top foreign-policy advisers … gathered in the White House to discuss the road ahead. Only half the meeting was devoted to developments in Iraq. The rest of the session was spent debating how to tackle a fresh target: Syria." In the July 2003 London Review of Books, Charles Glass asked, "Is Syria Next?"—a headline so tired it shouldn't even be sold in a used-book store. But there it was, popping up again in 2004, when Timothy Garton Ash asks "Next Stop Syria?" in Britain's Guardian.
Fast-forward to 2006, and Israel has decided to target Hezbollah rather than the Assad regime. Meddling behind the scenes wasn't provocative enough to justify a frontal attack, Jerusalem calculated. Some think it was the wrong decision. At the Pentagon, senior officials insisted on asking why Israel didn't take the opportunity to deal, once and for all, with Damascus. They asked, but the answer never came, and the moment has passed.
So, now, again, Syria is next in line. But first come: dealing with Iran's nuclear weapons, stabilizing Lebanon, the massacres in Darfur, the insurgency in Iraq, the opium crops in Afghanistan, and the midterm elections. If Assad keeps moving along his tightrope, he might prove that the next station is the one that never comes.
Of course Rosner conveniently forgets to explain that "smart" Dulles tried regime change in Damascus by organizing a coup in 1957. What was the result? He failed. Rather than bringing Syria into America's orbit, he pushed it into the arms of Nasser and Russia, which ultimately led to the Baathist take-over. Dulles, who Rosner uses as his example of a smart American, was actually stupid and mistaken about America's ability to change the regime in Syria. Syria's most pro-American and able politicians, who were implicated in the failed coup effort, were jailed or discredited. It was a fiasco and still colors Syrian attitudes toward the US.
Robert Kaplan, like Rosner, believes that the US should do some major surgery on Syria and is a proud neoconservative. Unlike Rosner, Kaplan is able to use history to good effect to present a sweeping understanding of the region. Just because he is smart, however, doesn't mean he is right. Here is his article - comments to follow.
Setting History in Motion
By Robert D. Kaplan
6 September 2006
The Wall Street Journal Europe
No leader since Napoleon has roiled the Middle East as has George W. Bush. By invading Iraq, President Bush set history in motion. By doing so without a strategy for governing it afterwards, he did not plan for the worst, and so the worst has happened. Iraq has become the pivot for strengthening the radical forces that the invasion should have weakened. Yet to assume history follows a straight path is fatalism; not analysis.For over a decade, Kaplan has been hammering away at his comparison between the Balkans and the Greater Syria region. There are similarities - both were Ottoman lands, both encompass fragmented populations, divided by religion and ethnicity, both suffered dictatorial regimes.
A strengthened Shiite world was not an unintended consequence of the Iraq war. Toppling a Sunni dictator in predominantly Shiite Mesopotamia had to do that, whether the invasion resulted in stable democracy, benign dictatorship or chaos. People forget that moving history forward after 9/11 required shaking up the suffocating complacency of the Sunni Arab police states from where the terrorists originated.
Back then, Iran seemed to offer an opportunity for regional change. It was among the Muslim world's most sophisticated populations, a significant portion of which was pro-American, embarrassed by their own regime. In late 2001, when the seemingly reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, was in power, a gradual political shift in Teheran without military action seemed possible, particularly if somewhat stable, somewhat pro-American governments emerged on Iran's borders in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But ideas, particularly bold ones, are hostage to the quality of their execution. There was indeed a political shift in Iran -- for the worse. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president of the Islamic Republic in June 2005, in the wake of the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, the withdrawal of Syrian troops from that country, and historic elections that saw millions of Iraqis hold up the purple finger against tyranny. In the dynamic environment that Mr. Bush had unleashed, even a flawed occupation led to encouraging developments -- however superficial -- to which Iran's radicals reacted. Iran's advantages were these: Though Iraqis had voted, they had no governing authority worth the name; likewise, the Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon could not erase the fact of Lebanon's demographically ascendant and militarized Shiite community.
Statements by the Arab League and the governments of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia initially blaming the violence in Lebanon on Hezbollah, rather than on Israel, stood as evidence that a heightened fear of Shiism had indeed shaken these states out of their complacency. Arab support proved short-lived, though, because of Israel's dragged-out and bungled operation. But while Iran is strengthened, it is not dominant: The radical Islamic universalism that it once sought to represent has been narrowed to sectarianism with no appeal beyond its own Shiite community. Iran plays the spoiler in Iraq. But Iranian politics will become gnarled by its interaction with a more pluralistic, ethnically Arab, Shiite southern Iraq. Americans are tearing their hair out over Iraq. The Iranians will be too, if there is a full-scale civil war.
What if Iran's former diplomatist president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, had won the election against Mr. Ahmadinejad? Iran's nuclear program, which Mr. Rafsanjani did so much to develop, would be quietly chugging along, without the need for chest-thumping theater or threats to annihilate Israel; so would be the continued Iranian arming of Hezbollah, without the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. Because Mr. Rafsanjani would be whispering sweet-nothings into the ears of America's European allies, Iranian power would be in full ascendance, with only the U.S. and Israel complaining.
But a strengthened Iran, ruled by a hothead, has frightened the Sunni world out of its lethargy, making it realize, potentially, the usefulness of the U.S. in adjusting the balance of power against a threat greater than Israel. Meanwhile, this hothead, having aroused both Sunni Arab and European states against him to a degree unprecedented in Iran's post-revolutionary history, has fostered certain unease at home.
Here I pause to recollect the cost of the Cold War's end. Full-scale civil wars erupted in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The breakup of Yugoslavia led to 200,000 deaths and a million refugees. Sectarian violence in the southern region of the former Soviet Union resulted in an additional 150,000 dead and 1.5 million refugees, with rivers of blood in Georgia, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh. In Tajikistan alone, 50,000 people died violently. Russia teetered on the edge of chaos. Its soaring crime rate -- the result of Mikhail Gorbachev's liberalization and the crumbling of the Soviet police state -- resulted in 100,000 additional murders, when the murder rates of the 1980s are subtracted from later ones. Applying the same formula to South Africa suggests perhaps over 100,000 extra murders and a larger number of extra rapes as the price of dismantling the apartheid system.
As for the cost of invading Iraq, the sanctions regime before the war killed at least 500,000 malnourished Iraqi children. There were, too, the deaths from Saddam's desultory bureaucracy of repression and torture. Of course, the decision to dismantle government authority in Iraq put the Bush administration under the obligation to engage in intensive planning for the post-invasion phase -- with the emphasis on worst-case scenarios.
But worst-case scenarios were considered only for the invasion itself. The problem with Ahmed Chalabi was not that we supported this secular, pro-American Shiite -- no sleazier than any other politician who has since emerged in Baghdad -- but that the U.S. trusted his opinions about how Americans would be greeted in Iraq, and what they would find (or not find) there. That was irresponsible not because Mr. Chalabi turned out to be wrong, but because he was optimistic. Military planning should never depend on optimism.
To assume things in Iraq had to turn out as they did, no matter the strategy or degree of planning, is fatalism. But that doesn't mean local conditions don't exert an influence on outcomes. Europe's recent past should warn the U.S. about the Middle East: recall the violence that ensued when authoritarian regimes unraveled in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, where populations were divided on the basis of sect and ethnicity, and kept poor by a mafia state socialism. The states closest to Central Europe, blessed by the enlightened imperial legacy of the Prussian and Habsburg empires, have enjoyed a much easier transition to democratic rule than those under the rule of the Ottoman Turks. And while the Balkans constituted among the most advanced parts of the Turkish Empire, much of the Arab world, greater Syria and Mesopotamia especially, constituted its most backward region.
The countries that lie between the Mediterranean Sea and Persia had little meaning before the 20th century. Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq were but vague geographical expressions. Jordan wasn't thought of. When we remove the official lines on the map, we find a crude finger-painting of Sunni and Shiite population clusters that contradict national borders. Inside these borders, the governing authorities in Lebanon and Iraq barely exist. The one in Syria is tyrannical but fundamentally unstable; the one in Jordan rational but under quiet siege. If there is a part of the Middle East that dimly approximates the former Yugoslavia it is the region from Lebanon to Iran. We face the unraveling of the state system that for a century was the solution to the demise of the Ottoman Empire.
Take Syria, at once a Brezhnev-style dictatorship, a land of Web logs and Islamic revivalism, of on-again off-again clampdowns, with rapidly diminishing oil reserves, and with no real history as a state, unlike Egypt or Iran. Syria's future is problematic. The broad desert reaching between the Anti-Lebanon range and the Zagros Mountains, encompassing Damascus and Baghdad, Aleppo and Mosul, Homs and Fallujah, will be a semi-chaotic meeting ground of ideas and ideologies, liberalism and terrorism, commerce and crime, where Turks, Kurds, Persians, and Sunni and Shiite Arabs engage and affect each other as never before since the late 19th century. In this most backward realm of the Ottoman Empire, the transition away from the Cold War-era Arab police states will make that in Central Europe and the Balkans away from communism seem effortless by comparison.
With its ethnic and sectarian divisions, any democracy in Syria will be a shambles. To wit, what the Lebanese, Palestinian and Iraqi governments all have in common is that they can't get anything done. But this democratic failure is happening alongside an authoritarian one. Iran appears strong, in part, because Sunni Arab dictatorships like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are in tired phases of transition. Given the leadership crisis in the Sunni world, imagine how Saddam Hussein might have dominated the Arab masses -- with rising oil prices, the $50 billion ongoing Oil for Food coverup, a leading-nowhere regimen of no-fly zones, and European and Chinese intrigues to restore his legitimacy in return for energy concessions. Saddam as the new Nasser is a plausible alternative history for Iraq.
So instead of Saddam bestriding a vast and frenzied Sunni mob, we will see a string of messy, Mexico-style scenarios (the replacement of decisive one-party states with far more chaotic multi-party ones), but without Mexico's level of institutionalization that, as low as it is, remains ahead of most countries in the Middle East. To say that George Bush has been among the greatest agents of freedom in the region is a nebulous historical statement. It avoids the harder question: Did he go about it prudently? Given that good planning is the better part of valor in any decision-making process, the provisional answer is "no."
Next year could see the beginning of a massive draw-down in Iraq, from 140,000 to 40,000-or-so troops: a number by which the military manpower strain becomes alleviated. An increase in troops above 140,000, coupled with the willingness to destroy Shiite militias, could dramatically improve the situation. But outside the universe of some policy journals there is no appetite for that. The political calculus is disturbingly inexorable: No more troops in Iraq now or ever, and the bulk out before the 2008 presidential season. Without immediate, demonstrable progress in Baghdad, the Republican Party will overtake the White House on this issue.
U.S. Marines, special operations forces and air assets will remain in a few staging posts to strike at international terrorists, to balance against Iran and Syria, and to try to prevent all-out war between what is emerging as three institutionally separate parts of the country. Gen. George Casey's assertion that the Iraqi Army will be ready to stand up in 12 to 18 months disregards the fact that there are no reliable civilian institutions for it to represent. How these soldiers perform in the field is one thing; the social pressures they face quite another. Rather than democracy, the Bush administration may have to settle for mere governance of almost any sort. Think of late medieval maps, with no bold lines, only indistinct regions of Persian influence shading Kurdistan, Mesopotamia and elsewhere.
The carnage caused by Mr. Bush's shattering of the post-Ottoman state system is minor compared to that in the former Soviet Union and its shadow zones after the Berlin Wall fell. Can he keep it that way? Can he undermine Iranian hegemony even as he reduces whatever control he has in Iraq?
The president may need to pull closer to the Saudi royals, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah. Weakened by America's response to 9/11, terrified by Israeli incompetence in defending their interests in Lebanon, these regimes still demonstrate more enlightenment than their populations. They fear Iran more than do the Europeans. Whatever America's ultimate decisions in regards to a nuclearizing Iran, it requires all the help it can get. That is what comes of bold ideas, poorly executed.
Mr. Kaplan is a national correspondent of the Atlantic Monthly and Class of 1960 distinguished visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Because of these common traits, Kaplan then argues, they must share a common fate. Like the Balkans, the Levant states will know horrible civil war and be divided up and rearranged. Its future is the Balkans. He goes so far as to say that this is what Syrians secretly yearn for, even if they don't say it in so many words or don't even know it themselves.
Here is an extract from a 2005 article of his in which he prophesizes that Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon will lead to the collapse of Syria's Alawite-led regime and division of the country.
Rather than Iraq, it could be Syria that ends up collapsing.
BY ROBERT D. KAPLAN
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Wall Street Journal
Rather than Iraq, it could be Syria that ends up collapsing. Syria's pan-Arabism was a substitute for its weak identity as a state. Greater Syria was an Ottoman era geographical expression that included present-day Lebanon, Jordan and Israel-Palestine, to which the truncated borders of the current Syrian state do great violence. Ever since France sundered Lebanon from Syria in 1920, the Syrians have been desperate to get it back. The total Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon--that President Bush is demanding--will undermine the very political foundation of the minority Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad, whose own ethnic group spills over into both countries and whose political survival depends on proving that he is a better Syrian nationalist than the majority Sunnis.We can go even farther back to 1993 and this article, in which he explains to us what Syrians yearn for:
Syria is but a Levantine version of the former Yugoslavia--without the intellectual class which that other post-Ottoman state could claim at the time of its break-up (since Hafez al-Assad's rule was so much more stultifying than Tito's). In Syria, as in the former Yugoslavia, each sect and religion has a specific geography. Aleppo in the north is a bazaar city with greater historical links to Mosul and Baghdad than to Damascus. Between Aleppo and Damascus is the increasingly Islamist Sunni heartland. Between Damascus and the Jordanian border are the Druze. Free and fair elections in 1947, 1949 and 1954 exacerbated these divisions by dividing the vote along sectarian lines. Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970 after 21 changes of government in the previous 24 years. For three decades he was the Leonid Brezhnev of the Arab world, staving off the future while failing to build a national consciousness by virtue of a suffocating and calcifying tyranny. The question is: As President Bush humiliates Assad's son-and-successor into weakness, will Syria become a larger version of Civil War-era Lebanon?
Syria: Identity Crisis
The Atlantic Monthly February 1993
Hafez-al Assad has so far prevented the Balkanization of his country, but he can't last forever...Kaplan is undoubtedly correct when he argues that most Syrians, throughout most of the last century, were unhappy with the way the French and British divided up the Ottoman lands. But that does not mean there is a better way to divide it up now or that the US would be well advised to try to turn the clock back 90 years in order to try its hand at redrawing the map of the region. Kaplan argues that American can do a better job than the French and British did back in 1918. I doubt it.
Shishakli publicly lamented in 1953 that Syria was merely "the current official name for that country which lies within the artificial frontiers drawn up by imperialism." Unfortunately for him, he was right.
Syria will not remain the same. It could become bigger or smaller, but the chance that any territorial solution will prove truly workable is slim indeed. Some Middle East specialists mutter about the possibility that a future Alawite state will be carved out of Syria. Based in mountainous Latakia, it would be a refuge for Alawites after Assad passes from the scene and Muslim fundamentalists -- Sunnis, that is -- take over the government. This state would be supported not only by Lebanese Maronites but also by the Israeli Secret Service, which would see no contradiction in aiding former members of Assad's regime against a Sunni Arab government in Damascus. Some Syrians, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, look forward to the collapse of both Israel and Jordan and their reintegration into Syria, as they waited in the 1940s for the incorporation into Syria of the autonomous states in Latakia and Jabal Druze. Should Assad's death lead to chaos in Damascus, it is not out of the question that the region of Jabal Druze would break away from Syria and amalgamate itself with Jordan. Because Lebanon's current stability rests upon Syrian military domination there, a weakening of government institutions in Syria could result in a renewal of the Lebanese civil war.
What Syria deep down yearns for -- what would assuage its insoluble contradictions -- is to duplicate the process now under way in the Balkans. That is, it wishes to repeal the political results of the twentieth century -- in Syria's case, the border arrangements made by Great Britain and France after the First World War.
His presumption and argument is that because we can see the future -- which is that there will be even great death and destruction in the Syrian lands than in the Balkans -- we should intervene now and short-circuit the process. Because the US is more clairvoyant and smarter than others, it can mitigate the death and destruction, which is inevitable, by fixing the problem sooner, rather than waiting for the big bang later. He is convinced that even with all America's bungling in Iraq, it has saved lives there compared to what "history" had in store for it. History for Kaplan is the Balkans.
One obvious error in Kaplan's logic is that he insists that more developed regions (the Balkans) kill fewer people when they go to war over national issues than do poorer and less nationally developed regions (Syria or Iraq). The opposite would seem to be true. Europe, the most developed region of the world engaged in a 30 year war from 1914-1945, motivated by dreams of expanding national borders and rearranging the map. 50 million Europeans were killed. The Balkans in the 1990s, less developed than Europe, killed fewer than either Germany or France. Why shouldn't Syria be able to sort out its national problems with even fewer deaths yet. It's backwardness is advantageous. Not only have Syrians had more incapable armies because of their poverty, but their loyalties when national borders were drawn were largely limited to clan, village and sect. Building national consciousness and solidarity is not easy in any context. Being poor and less literate does not make one more likely to kill.
The lesson of this is that we don't know what history intends. We don't know what Syrians yearn for. We don't know if America would do better than France. We cannot use historical analogies with confidence. We are almost always wrong when we do.
Kaplan, who got his training serving in the Israeli army, is right to council pessimism when trying to intervene in the Middle East, but he is too optimistic in believing that the Israeli model will work for the rest of the Middle East. Like a number of Israeli neocons, Kaplan presumes that because Jews have successfully used their religious bonds to confirm their ethnic and national identity, so should Alawites, Shiites, Maronites, Druze and the other religious groups among Arabs.
Many Alawites and Druze did dream of having their own state during the first half of the 20th century, but they have largely given up on this dream and substituted another – which is to be happily integrated into Syrian society. Neither sect wants to return to its traditional mountain villages. Sunnis also dream of a properly integrated society and have always refused to accept dividing the mountain regions from the Sunni heartland. They did not like the other regions of Greater Syria being separated from French Syria, but, by and large, they have learnt that instant unity schemes will not work and that romantic nationalism has been costly. Pan Syrian, Arab, and Islamic dreaming is not dead, but most Syrians know that such reverie will remain frustrated until some EU type unity can be built on the back of international law and deals struck by sovereign and secure Arab states. Religion remains the big barrier to national integration. But redrawing Arab borders based on religion would create more problems than it would solve and destroy more lives than it would uplift. Giving into religious prejudice for the sake of exploiting the loyalties religion can provide is not the solution to Middle Eastern problems.
The best path forward for the United States is not to presume that it can redraw the map of the Middle East, but to insist that internationally recognized borders are preserved and respected. It should not compound the mistakes of the French and British by making even more mistakes; rather, it should remain committed to seeing through the success of the borders that were agreed upon by the League of Nations and confirmed by the UN. There were no “correct” borders in 1918 or 1922. A century of history has given some legitimacy to the necessarily artificial borders and propagated hundreds of national institutions that are defined by them. To erase all this in a fit of arrogance would be foolish.
EHSANI2 said... (Wednesday, September 06, 2006)
Growing up in Syria, the country’s education system had drilled into our heads that the Sykes-picot agreement was an absolute disaster for our nation and region.Joshua Landis said... (Wednesday, September 06, 2006)
I could not help but notice how the conclusion of your article differs from the country’s education curriculum. I always thought that changing the curriculum is long due for a major overhaul anyway. Perhaps the education ministry and the Baath higher ups can use your line of thinking as a starting point.
Ehsani, Baathist schoolbooks have changed little since they were first codified in the mid 1960s at the acme of Pan-Arab dreams. They still sing the Arabist romantic nationalism line, alas.
I believe that most Arabs - even Syrian Arabs - have largely rewritten those books in their own minds. Some have substituted Pan-Islamism for Pan-Arabism, but even the Muslim Brotherhood has agreed to allow each regional branch to pursue its unique regional methods and policies, giving a bow to local national realities.
The official Baathist mind has changed even if the textbooks have not. This last year at the height of the Mehlis report anxiety, Foreign Minister Mu`alim and two other senior Syrian officials held a round table covered by al-Hayat during which they decried the prospect of a second Sykes-Picot treaty for Syria, following the lines of the US division of Iraq.
The subtext was that Syria didn't like the original Sykes-Picot treaty, but that today, all it wants is to hang on to the national borders it has.
Kaplan is right when he argues that the invasion of Iraq has caused a major shift in consciousness among Arabs. The shift is not the one that Kaplan thinks it is however. It is to make Arabs appreciate the borders they have and to fear rash adventurism. This is one of the reasons that Bashar al-Asad is eager to sign a peace agreement with Israel and to get Syria's borders nailed down for good.
Bashar has been nailing down Syria's borders one after the other. He jettisoned Syria's claims to Antochia in order to patch up relations with Turkey. He handed back the thin sliver of Jordanian land snatched in 1970 in order to gain Jordanian support. He pulled out of Lebanon in order to preserve stability in Syria. He built a wall along the Iraqi border in order to seal its troubles off from Syria. Now he is casting about for peace with Israel.
Syrians have not complained about this border clarifying because they understand that it is better for them. They are tired of adventures and have given up on getting back lost land. The Golan seems to be the one region they care about.
This all promotes some hope that Syrian borders are becoming real and may lead to an eventual consolidation of Syrian national consciousness.
Maybe the textbooks are out-dated?