Joshua Landis sent me a response to my post from a few days ago, which I publish below. I think we’re talking past each other in certain ways, but I’ll let the readership sort that out.
Please allow me to respond to your earlier post, entitled “Who is Right on Syria?. You write that I incorrectly place Syria in the larger context of minorities in the region. Let me re-iterate by original argument. The following is what will be published in an article for Middle East Policy in a week or two:
“Let us place the regime in regional perspective. The Asads stand atop the last minoritarian regime in the Levant and thus seem destined to fall in this age of popular revolt. When they do, the postcolonial era will draw to a final close.
Following World War II, minorities took control in every Levant state, thanks to colonial divide-and-rule tactics and the fragmented national community that bedeviled the states of the region. It is estimated that, due to their over-recruitment by the French Mandate authorities, Alawis already by the mid-1950s constituted some 65 percent of all noncommissioned officers in the Syrian military. Within a decade, they took control of the military leadership and, with it, Syria itself.
Unique among the Levant states was Palestine, where the Jewish minority was able to transform itself into the majority at the expense of Palestine’s Muslims. Neither the Christians of Lebanon nor the Sunnis of Iraq were so lucky or ambitious. Nevertheless, both clung to power at the price of dragging their countries into lengthy civil wars. The Lebanese war lasted 15 years; the Iraqi struggle between Shiites and Sunnis, while shorter, has yet to be entirely resolved.
The Alawis of Syria seem determined to repeat this violent plunge to the bottom. It is hard to determine whether this is due to the rapaciousness of a corrupt elite, to the bleak prospects that the Alawi community faces in a post-Asad Syria, or to the weak faith that many in the region place in democracy and power-sharing formulas. Whatever the reason, Syria’s transition away from minority rule is likely to be lengthy and violent.
Even though the Alawis make up a mere 12 percent of the total population, the regime continues to count on support from other minorities, who fear Islamists coming to power, and from important segments of the Sunni population, who fear civil war.
The Asads have been planning for this day of popular insurrection all their lives…..”
I don’t agree with his larger historical reading of why Lebanon and Iraq had sectarian civil wars in the first place. He finds the origins of those civil conflicts in the colonialist legacy. Broadly speaking, the Europeans came along and created these states that are not really states, and put certain sectarian minorities in charge of them. And the wars that eventually came about were the product of the masses revolting against those minoritarian elites.
That model fits Iraq better than it does Lebanon, whose civil war was the product of many different forces. Yes, there was a movement against Christian political superiority, but it was just one of the many factors that created and prolonged the conflict. Let’s not forget about the roles played by the Israelis, the PLO, the Syrians, Saudis, Americans, and others.
I am not sure if we really disagree. You suggest that I am blaming the sectarian strife in the region on the colonialists. I do only in part because it was the French and British who conquered the Ottoman Empire and had the thankless task of trying to turn a multi-ethnic empire into nation states. If the Russians or Germans had divided up the Ottoman Empire, I think they would have failed as well. This is because no “natural” borders and no “natural” nations existed. This process is not unique to the Middle East. European nations have emerged out of the collapse of multi-ethnic empires only after centuries of nationalist turmoil, ethnic cleansing, and compromise and integration. To a large extent, all nations have had to be constructed, as we all know.
Yes, the French and British tried to divide and rule. What other choice did they have? But the sectarian, regional, and family divisions that they exploited already existed. I do not subscribe to the argument that they were “constructed” by the colonialists. They manipulated but didn’t create them.
My intent was not to blame the present mess on the foreigners but on the difficulties of turning empires into nations, which has always been a violent process.
Of course there are many other reasons besides sectarianism for the Lebanese Civil War, as you rightly point out. There are many other reasons for the Syrian revolt than sectarianism. The regime failed to deliver enough economic growth, limit population expansion, limit corruption, etc. We could go on and on.
My point in underlining the common communal struggles of the Levant states is to argue why I disagree with the many analysts who have been predicting a short battle and early collapse of the regime. It took Lebanese Muslims 15 years to unseat Christian power and it still isn’t complete, seeing as Christians still have an undemocratic 50% of parliament preserved for them and refuse to push for a census. Sunnis in Iraq are still battling to get back power from the majority Shiites, eight years after having been flung flung power, which they so brutally abused. Palestinians are still killing Israelis to get back what they insist is theirs. I am simply underlining how difficult it has been for the various religious communities of the Levant to establish a common national political community, where they can work out their differences through compromise and consensus, rather than barbaric fighting. This is, of course, not unique to the Middle East. Americans are guilty of ethnically cleansing the Indians and stealing their land as well as oppressing black Americans.
I wish this process were “so twentieth century” but I fear it is not. I would argue that Lebanon was not so different from Syria. Yes Syria’s Baathist dictatorship resembles Iraq more than Lebanon’s lop-sided confessional arrangement before the Civil War, but I was not talking about political systems, I was talking about the difficulty in unseating the minorities, which had captured the lion’s share of political power in the Levant states. Didn’t Kamal Jumblat demand democracy and “one man, one vote” on the eve of the civil war, a demand which was not that different from those being made by Syrians today? Of course there are many differences between the two uprisings, but some similarities exist between the Levant societies that can help us understand why the present conflict seems so intractable and will probably be long and bloody. Back in May, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Riad al-Shaqfa stated that Bashar would fall “in the next few months.” The U.S. State Department has called President Asad a “dead man walking.” Israel’s defense minister insisted some time ago that Asad would fall in a matter of weeks.
I was simply trying to point out how absurd such predictions seem if compared to the time-frame for other sectarian power transfers in the Levant.
A quick comment from me (Elias/QN): I agree with a lot of what Joshua is saying here, but I think my original point still stands: We have to be careful about conflating Lebanon and Syria when it comes to the question of political sectarianism. Forty-two years of Baathist rule is a different phenomenon from the situation that prevailed in First Republic Lebanon, and sectarianism has a different salience in these two contexts.
If the presence of minorities mattered more to political dynamics than other historical factors (like the experience of authoritarianism) then one could imagine a very simplistic response to Josh’s argument: “Well, Syria is 75% Sunni, which is closer to Egypt’s 90% than Lebanon’s mix of Sunnis, Christians, and Shiites…” Obviously, that’s a naive argument, which is my point. Sectarianism, in and of itself, should not be the primary lens through which we view a post-Assad Syria. It has, and will continue to have, political salience but to read Levantine political history predominantly through this prism risks homogenizing two very different contexts.
But what the hell do I know? I’m a medievalist. The forum is open for comment.
“Sectarianism, in and of itself, should not be the primary lens through which we view a post-Assad Syria”
No, but I sure as hell expect it to be the primary lens through which we view a post-Assad Lebanon if the Saudi-backed Salafists take power. In fact before Assad falls I suspect we will start to see the Iraq-style attacks on the Shia in Lebanon because a. Its what they do and b. to draw Hizballah into a intercine open war.
No many are challenging this interpretation of events by Mr. Landis. Two posts back i had an exchange with Nadim ; actually two ; in which i stated practically the same position and in very similar words. That is not the issue that has been debated by some in the previous thread.
Yes I agree with this interpretation of the way that history has evolved in the Middle East but yet that does not address the issue of whether Mr. Landis should be judged as a person who encouraged human right abuses and closed his eyes to the suffering of the people when the record of oppression was clear all throughout. The fact that he is willing at the moment to say that the regime in Syria is on its way out does not in any way justify his previous stands of excusing it and even promoting it.
Although I am essentially in agreement of his description of what has transpired over the past sixty years or so I am in partial disagreement on the raisom d’etre for what has happened. I am convinced that the major reason for the Lebanese, Iraqi, Syrian troubles is the failure of the citizens to demand accountability and democracy. The West is not to blame in any of this. We have failed ourselves. another potential disagreement is my belief until this moment rthat Syria is not Lebanon neither is it Iraq. If there is going to be any sectarian fight it will be transitory and only because some Alawites feel threatened by a system in which they do not hold the trump cards. I do not fear major sectarianism in Syria.
Yert Mr. Landis is right. When this is behind us , and I hope very soon, then each of these three countries would have moved forward on the path of democracy, individual liberty and freedom. the road will not be smooth neither would it be without its twists and turns but the three countries; Lebanon, Iraq and Syria; have moved a long way to accept their new sovereign identities. Unfortunately that is not true of the other neighbouring countries. We will still have to witness some major transformations in Jordan, the Gulf emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Sorry about all the typos in the previous post. (Much more than I would consider acceptable) But I am a two finger typist and I was juggling three things. Sorry.
I think your comment on being a “medievalist” lays the whole thing to rest…
In the Levant power is not transferred. During periods of chaos it devolves. Each war lord and sect controls a small part of the country and is powerful there. Assad may be calling himself President for a long time, but he will be controlling less and less parts of Syria. That is the lesson of the Lebanese Civil War, Iraq, Gaza and the current rise of the Bedouins in Sinai as well as what is happening in Libya. So talking about transfer of power is simplistic.
Landis is right in depcting the post colonial inheritance as a major factor in contemporary political movements. The ethnic or sectarian composition of those in power in West Asia is obviously a remnant of those put in power by the colonial powers, and political change has been struggling with unseating the power elite or with transforming the governmental structures built by them. One important factor not discussed, however, and pointed to by QN is the ideological structures used in justifications of the first realignments of these post colonial governments: in Iraq and.Syria, the BAATH built on a pan-Arabic identity that justified the existence of the nation state. A centralized party that is primarily secular and with social reforms agendas took power in Syria and Iraq ( as it did in Egypt) prompting competing ideological frameworks that are Islamist in nature to develop as counter powers: the opposition of Islamists was more powerful in Egypt and was dealth with by Nasser and his pan Arabic ideology; Syria had two competing ideologies: the pan-Syrian identity movement to unify Lebanon, Syria, and other territories (which was contained and somewhat tolerated even though conspirational, esp. in Lebanon) and the Islamic brotherhood (which was repressed in the 80s in Syria with the decline of pan Arabic and pan Syrian drives).
Currently, the pan Syrian ideological movement is marginal, and the Islamist movement is revived in Syria. There is no alternative ideology besides the Western- based liberal or neoliberal models which function at the individuated levels and not under a major party or movement.
In Lebanon, HA built on a local Shia awareness identity and tried to function nationally with the FPM to offer a weak anti-feodal ideology that builds on a combo of Arab Islamist and Liberal democratic ideology. This trajectory is currently threatened (by the incompetence of the leadership of both HA and FPM) and the only alternative is the liberal ideology of a combo of middle class Sunni and Christian coalition interested in post Taeif status quo. A minority of Islamist sunni in the working class is expanding beyond the expiring socialist tendencies (real or imagined) of the PSP and the leftist parties. There is no real alternative here either to fill the vaccum of the lack of transnational ideology, whether a defunct pan Arabism or possible/potential new Arab Islamic ideologies.
Going back to Syria, the vacuum that will be left if and when the BAATH can no longer drive national identity can only be filled by the.Islamist or the Liberal ideologies. The first has movement and communitarian potential; the later is too individuated to drive any communitarian movement as is necessitated in non developed and non industrialized countires that do not fit in the capitalist core or in the semi peripheral capitalist nations (like Brazil or South Africa that can flourish as liberal/neoliberal states).
This is the dilemma that GK is referring to: with collapse of the nation state as a comunitarian based ideological unit in the core, what is to replace the decaying nation states in the periphery when they still need some communitarian ideological based to function if they do not want to become “territories” of richer or more powerful nations (Lebanon is de facto torn between bcoming an ideological vassal state to KSA/USA or to Syria/Iran…) Will Syria also become a vassal state to Russia or to China in the future? China has already enlisted economic vassals in various parts of Africa while Russia has been doing the same in former spheres of influence. Is a new world order emerging, as we see in Europe, based on core and leading nations (Germany, France, etc.) And impoverished territories (Greece now, Portugal and Poland later, etc.)
The region does not have semi peripheral countries besides Turkey and Israel. Rich Gulf states have the simulacrum of power without industry or ideology, and may not last long in a position of economic dominance.
These questions raised by the reflection on the future of Syria are relevant to the region as a whole.
History makes it difficult for me to have a positive outlook on the future of existing nations in the Levant. This primarily due to secterianism. JL alludes to the European experience, and it’s not a pretty one. I have difficulties picturing liberal democracies within the existing borders of Syria and neighboring states. I’m slightly pessimistic in this, I know. Countries like Syria and Lebanon are destined for autocracy.
Talking about sects, I almost never heard a word about the considerably big Druze community in Syria and their stand and action during the turmoil. Anyone?
I think you should preface every post you make with a required pre-requisite reading list.
I think the Jewish Agency should step in to help rebuild Syria.
From my limited knowledge, I believe the Druze are having existential issues in regards to the changing political environment around them. Almost all cling on to their Arab identity and Pan-Arab ideologies. However, this is being questioned especially when the main proponents of these ideologies are targeting the very people they promised to protect. Like most, the Druze chose to ignore the misgivings and faults of the Baath regime in the name of Arabism and secularism, which in effect provided them with security and identity.
Today, all that is overshadowed by the unforgivable acts of violence on display for all to see. This, they cannot tolerate, especially when their not so distant past is still etched in their conscience when they were instrumental in rebelling against injustice and oppression whether in the form of colonial domination( Egyptian,Ottoman, French) or National ( shishakli’s rule).
Still, they lack leadership in Syria. The prominent Lebanese Druze figures are having more to say than their Syrian counterparts. Wahhab and Arslan have organized shows of solidarity and support for the embattled president, but this is very obvious that it is orchestrated and reflect a tiny number. OTOH, Walid Joumblatt is warning the Druze to not take part in the State crackdown and to ” Stay home” if they can.
IMHO, The Druze are reluctant to join the protests en masse ( there have been rebellious streaks in Suweida and surrounding areas) because of the political implications, lack of consensus, minority insecurities.
Dare I say, If Joumblatt wants to throw his cards on the table and go all in, he could just well be that proverbial drop of water that overflowed the glass influencing the Druze to rise en masse.
In Lebanon, for the first time in their loyal history, the Druze are not necessarily replacing but putting aside their Pan Arab ideologies for a nationalistic/democratic drive having rejected the political maneuverings of their undisputed leader to support the liberal, pro- democratic movement in the form of M14 and except for some remnants of the SSNP/Wahhab/die hard Arabism loyalists, the Druze are silently vociferous in support of the Syrian uprising.
I have been visiting and revisiting the issue of Druze for a few years. This is an excerpt from a post that I did about what drives the apparent flip flops in Jumblatt . A central idea for the Druze is Takya:
“Takya” is sort of a self defense mechanism that the Druze developed when their very existence was in jeopardy. The Moslem majority looked down with suspicion upon these Druze upstarts and was marshalling its vastly superior power and resources to squash the religious “deviants”. That is when the Druze decided to adopt the concept of “Takya” or pretense. It was decided that the Druze could avoid the wrath of the majority if they act as if they have assimilated when in reality they can go on practicing in secret their true beliefs. This flexibility was not meant to be genuine but was to be employed only in order to deceive. “Takya” has been a success, what better proof than the 1.2 million thriving Druze community but its ethics are lamentable especially if they are to be applied in the field of politics.
Tolerance, democratic principles and diversity were not seminal principles a thousand years ago and so one can in retrospect condone the policy of “Takya” which has saved a whole community from extermination. Obviously acts of genocide and religious persecution have not been totally banished but they are opposed by most in the modern world. That is why “Takya” serves no religious purpose in the present world environment and is an egregious practice in politics.”
The Syrian Druze will join openly the uprising once they become more convinced that it will succeed. That is why Mr. Jumblatt is starting to make preparations for that eventual day. May it be soon.
Greeting from Tokyo again –
Tayyib, this is another attempt to divert the debate into a Lebanon vs Syria one and using Lebanon as a ‘bad example’ to in a way justify the situation in Syria. This is similar to the way Joshua uses Lebanon to say that Syria could descend into a civil war like Lebanon, or Iraq for that matter. I am not sure if this fulfils any purpose because we are all agreed now that the regime is in fact gone and there is no need to justify its behaviour.
But I think it is worth going back to the QN’s old theme of sectarianism, the meaning of the concept and the manner in which it is used. This demonstrates a huge gap in thinking between two modes which Joshua puts his finger on as being the process of transformation from dismantled empires to post-colonial states.
One of the most difficult questions in mathematics, economics, politics, electoral law etc… is the method of aggregating from an individual preferences to group preference. In fact the issue is not resolvable. The best illustration of that is the multitudes of electoral systems and laws which are in fact attempts to aggregate from individual to groups. This is probably the bottom line in the debate on sectarianism.
Old Empires recognized groups at the expense of individuals and modern states systems are based on individual preferences or ‘citizen’ at the expense of groups. There are in fact two Turkish models: the Ottoman one and Ataturk’s modern ‘citizenship’ or ‘laicite’ model. The latter is no less oppressive to groups than the former was for individuals. In fact the debate over the relevance of the modern Turkish model to the region ignore the impact the development of this model had on group identities in Turkey: Armenians, Greeks, Arabs, Kurds etc… etc….
The Lebanese model adapts elements of the former Ottoman model to the state, the idea is to to defuse the group representation issue and take it out of the equation in order to allow the space for individuals to act as citizen and think beyond groups towards the state. This at least was the interpretation of Michel Chiha and one can argue till kingdom come about the merits of the system and the extent to which it was either a success or a failure and why.
The main point I would like to make is that crude sectarianism does not really exist on the ground and can be more often found in the eye of the beholder. This is both apparent in the analysis on Syria and the references to Lebanon. In statements like:
‘It took Lebanese Muslims 15 years to unseat Christian power and it still isn’t complete, seeing as Christians still have an undemocratic 50% of parliament preserved for them and refuse to push for a census.’
Let us expand a bit on what this means: in pre-civilwar Lebanon the 99 member parliament was divided between 49 ‘Christians’ and 50 ‘Muslims’ both broadly defined. The post Taif parliament is 64 to 64. Is this how ‘Muslims’ unseated ‘Christian power’? and are Lebanese Muslims still trying to capture the rest of that percentage with Christians still clinging to power and refusing to have a census? Was the Lebanese ‘civil war’ between Muslims and Christians in that crude manner? Is Lebanon still ‘undemocratic’ until there is a census that fine-tunes parliamentary proportions with demographic data?
A statement like the above demonstrates the flaws in a ‘sectarian’ analysis much more than it illustrates the flaws of the power sharing system in Lebanon (and there are many). Joshua’s analysis of Syria suffers from the same flaws. The regime is not ‘Alawite’ etc.. etc… Such an analysis plays on the fears of minorities and as Joshua says manipulates them – and this is probably a good description of how the Syrian regime’s mentality sees Syria now and how it saw Lebanon.
I think a comparison between the Lebanese and Syrian models is useful for an analysis of the future of the region and how states would square the circle between individuals and groups. There is no such thing as a ‘natural’ state or a ‘cohesive’ one either in Europe or in the region and god forbid we should ever try to achieve any, this is what the great European civil war which some people call the 2nd World War was fought about.
In fact it is possible that the colonial powers (bless them), unintentionally did us a huge favour by jumping a step and creating these ‘artificial’ states rather than leaving it to us to follow their example and create them through 400 years of inter-European fighting. If the post-colonial system is being dismantled on the ground, it will probably also gradually wane as an analytical framework too.
QN you owe me a beer or two in Boston and I hope Josh can pass through sometime in April.
@Ghassam: one may or may not agree with Mr. Landis, but I think he is just a scholar not an ugly supporter of the Asads. Please don’t spoil such an interesting and moderate debate with personal attacks.
I lived in Lebanon in 2006/2007 and I was going to Syria *every* month for no other reason than to just have a break from the madhouse I was living in. We knew (because of the occupation of Lebanon) how violent and ugly this regime was, but Syria was a stable and peaceful place. To regret that the transition could not happen as “peacefully” as in Egypt and that we will now witness thousands of death and maybe years of horror is not necessarily being a supporter of the regime.
As for the argument itself, belonging to a community becomes important only when it has been pointed out as important. Talk to a Lebanese abroad and there is only one Lebanon (the best country in the world, with the best food, where you can ski and swim in the sea the same day, etc.) ; talk to him at home and suddenly Muslims and Christians cannot, obviously, live together.
Asad has played on the historical fears described by Mr. Landis while the Syrian “opposition” has been unable to deflate them (its biggest failure IMHO: even I, even though I wish I could, cannot really trust them. How could an Alawite or a Christian?).
Now, the dynamic of civil war, with its tit-for-tat killings, its militia, its lords of war and its short-sighted foreign chess games will prevail, where neither sectarianism nor previous experience of authoritarianism will be truly relevant. Experience shows that this only ends through exhaustion (Lebanon in 1990/1991) or foreign intervention (Bosnia in 1995).
So sad. I miss Syria and its gentle people so much. So sad…
I really don’t know what to make of your views. They are refreshing. On some level, one can’t argue against them.
But a little idealistic, no?
A tad harsh too, no?
Whether personal or communal, why can’t society accommodate people who may want to not “disclose” a view, an essence, whatever.
If democratic and diversity principle are not completely rooted globally, or even if they are, perhaps people always have a fear that society will backtrack. Shouldn’t they have the right to share/disclose as much as they want to? And shouldn’t they be able to do so without having their actions described as egregious?
Perhaps it is telling you listed all sort of group identities…. except of course the most important “group”.
And that is the Turkish one.
Don’t conflate whatever fascistic order existed in Turkey with a system that respects individual rights.
The way that people visiting Syria as students, archeology tourists, travelers or whatever, wrote on SC about the place made it first on my visit wish list. What a place to wander about!
سليمان: نظامنا من أرقى الانظمة في العالم إذا طبق بشكل صحيح
Is this guy for real? You cannot make these things up? Speaking about being clueless, no wonder he is an unconstitutionally elected president!!!
M. Baudier #14, Lally #17, I’m sure you would have appreciated the peace and serenity (+great food, nice people) of the 70s’ Spain. There too, many thought, and said, for a long while after the dictator’s death, “con Franco viviamos mejor”.
I don’t know if it is egregious Ghassan, but I do know it worked well. Minorities in the ME that have either dominated or ruled did so to the detriment of others. This backfired. On the other side of the spectrum, isolated communities were pushed towards the peripheries even wiped out off the map in the case of the marsh Arabs of southern Iraq. Taqqiya or assimilation sought the middle ground cleverly adapting, being relevant enough to integrate into the wider nation state and humble enough to steer away from acquiring power.
Look how the druze in Israel are diff than their Lebanese co religionists yet still retain the same spiritual yearning.
I don’t know about the ethical/moral aspect of taqiyya but out of the 3 options stated above taqiyya looks to have a more impressive track record.