Syria and the Lessons of Iraq


Joshua Landis and Murhaf Jouejati were on the PBS Newshour a few nights ago discussing the Obama administration’s stance on Syria in the wake of its decision to withhold non-lethal aid from the Free Syrian Army. The interview is brief; I recommend watching it all.

After the PBS clip went live there was a discussion on Facebook with Murhaf, Sean Lee, Greg Gause, Nadim Shehadi, and some other Syria watchers. Josh agreed to let me publish one of his comments, which I do below.


[Landis commentary begins here]

Murhaf, it was great to discuss Syria with you. You are undoubtedly right that the only hope that liberal Syrians have of taking power or ensuring that both the regime and the radical Islamists are defeated is if the US intervenes heavily. The West is the only source of power which would support liberals. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Iran, Iraq and even Turkey have not supported liberals. In fact most of the private money flow, according to pundits and think thanks, is flowing from the Gulf to both the Islamic Front and the al-Qaida linked militias. This means that regional forces have abandoned liberals. Only the US supports them. Washington would have to outbid its allies and competitors in powering up a military that could defeat both the Iranian/Russian backed Assad and the Gulf back Islamists.

It is clear by now that Obama will not commit the US to this costly and uncertain task. It is also clear, following the September vote on striking Assad, that Americans, have no interest in getting involved in Syria, even to combat chemical weapon use by a brutal regime. Obama would have zero support for trying to fix Syria. This is a true American failing, as you point out, but clearly the US has been sapped of any conviction that it can put liberals into power in the Middle East by the Iraq and Afghan experience.

A new elite has emerged in Syria that is neither liberal nor moderate. It seems to have swept all before it, driving out Idriss and the FSA forces that remained loyal to him. Even if the US had hundreds of billions of dollars to spend on Syria, I am doubtful that it could have build a liberal alternative. It didn’t work in Iraq or Afghanistan. Of course Syria is different from both of these countries, but it doesn’t have a long or deep liberal tradition. Liberals in Egypt have a longer and richer history than do those in Syria, and even they are too weak and were forced to turn to the military to drive out the Islamists with force.

assad couch[Murhaf Jouejati and Nadim Shehadi responded by pointing out Assad’s brutality and the way in which the extremism of the Islamists has made Americans squeamish about intervening. Josh responded as follows]: 

There is no doubt that Assad is a failure, is responsible for the destruction of Syria, and has used every threat, divide-and-rule tactic, and torturous method to stay in power. We agree on that.

The questions we dispute are two:

1. What is likely to happen to Syria if the US destroys the Assad military and regime?

2. Can the US get an outcome that suits its interests at a price that is politically acceptability to American voters and politicians? We have already had a lot of grand statements, red lines, and promises from US statesmen that have gone unfulfilled. US direct donations so far are over $1 billion, but indirect costs have been much higher.

The first question is the one that interests us most. I think Iraq is the most comparable example to Syria, from which we must try to draw lessons. At the beginning of this conflict, I predicted that Syria would go the way of Iraq and Lebanon and fragment into intense sectarian and regional fighting. Most opposition people said I was wrong. But that is how it has worked out. Syria is not an exception in the region. It is an integral part of a multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian region of the Ottoman empire that is finding its way toward nationhood.

The comparisons are many between Syria and Iraq, which make it our best guide: 20% religious minorities ruling; one-party Baath rule; security state with similar mukhabarat culture; Kurdish minority that wants autonomy if not independence; Shiite-Sunni divide; Saudi-Iranian proxies; big Turkish interest, particularly in the Kurdish regions; major divide and competition between southern and northern cities; bad distribution of wealth; bad education systems that propagate illiberal values, and widespread poverty, creating class divisions which find their expression in a difficult urban-rural divide; lots of tribalism and clannishness, which makes party and national military formation very difficult and leads to intense factionalism and fragmentation, even within the same regions and religious groups.

Little has kept the Syrian rebels from uniting except themselves.If you don’t like the Iraq example, we can use the Lebanon example, which is very similar. Or we can use the Palestinian/Israeli example.

Pouring in more guns and firepower I don’t believe is the answer. It will only lead to more destruction and refugees. Trying to get a cease fire is the only logical pursuit for the US now. That means trying to talk to the Salafis and the regime. This is very difficult because they hate each other. But I don’t believe the call for the US to destroy the Assad regime will be met in Washington with any agreement. Perhaps in two and a half years, if a Republican president is elected, policy priorities will change. But even a Republican interventionist, I believe, would have a very difficult time convincing the US that producing a liberal outcome in Syria is something the US can do. The US already looks at Syria in terms of containment. This is a very sad reality. But I don’t see it changing any time soon.

[End of Landis comment]


As usual, my point of disagreement with Joshua lies in the issue of how similar Syria is to Lebanon. I think they are substantially different (look up “Landis” or “Shehadi” in the search box above to find your way to some of the better debates), and I’m uncomfortable with the insistent privileging of the sectarian lens as the most salient one to all Levantine politics. Are Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, and Iraqis really as primordially sectarian as all that? Isn’t there something to be said for the constructivist understanding of sectarianism (see the work of Ussama Makdisi and Max Weiss)? Aren’t there other factors in play?

Perhaps, but in the context of conflict, displacement, exile, and severe social stress, I feel that Joshua’s perspective is the indispensable one. In that respect, he’s a bit like the trauma surgeon who may or may not be the guy you want to advise you on the holistic factors contributing to your lousy health, poor self esteem, and troubled marriage, but he’s the person to have in the ER when you’re bleeding to death after a car accident.

I’m sure Joshua will respond to reader comments below, so don’t hold back.


44 thoughts on “Syria and the Lessons of Iraq

  1. I gotta say, I find it hard to disagree with Josh Landis on the matter of the undeniable role the “sectarian lens” is playing in the entire ME. Try as we may to wish it otherwise, at the end of the day, when you look at the big picture, it really has ended up being the main engine for all the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the almost conflicts in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, etc.
    Sectarianism and tribalism really do end up being one of the top drivers of conflict in the region (and in Africa too). The rest is mostly details.

    Posted by Bad Vilbel | December 17, 2013, 1:39 pm
  2. BV is back, and with a vengeance. 😉

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 17, 2013, 1:42 pm
  3. LOL. Only because I really don’t feel like doing any work today (at my daytime job, that is).

    Posted by Bad Vilbel | December 17, 2013, 1:59 pm
  4. QN,

    You say, “…I’m uncomfortable with the insistent privileging of the sectarian lens as the most salient one to all Levantine politics. Are Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, and Iraqis really as primordially sectarian as all that? Isn’t there something to be said for the constructivist understanding of sectarianism…?” I’m struggling with exactly how to put this, but the problem I always have with the perspective you’re articulating is the failure to realize that the fact that sectarian identity may be in large part “constructed” does not make it any less real or salient. There seems to be a belief that by exposing so-called primordial identities as an ahistorical racket we somehow obviate their importance. Quite the contrary! That just underscores what powerful mobilizing tools they are–they are constructed, used cynically, and are set on top of other dynamics and yet they still manage to be powerful mobilizing tools. Further, in order for sectarian dynamics to take hold it is not necessary that most people have a sectarian outlook. So yes, many individuals may not be sectarian, but that is no longer so relevant in an environment of violence and mistrust.

    Posted by RuknAlDawla | December 17, 2013, 2:20 pm
  5. What would you have called WWI or WWII for that matter? A war of ideology? Or were the roots to be found in nationalism?

    On the top of my head. Civil wars being nastier in the sense that it pits family and friends versus each other, there is no coherent opposite to the idea that is the Syrian regime. Of course, the regime has had time to make sure of this. In Europe it was rather clear cut that if you were German you were against Russia and the other way around. So what is an Arab? What obvious choice does he/she have? Early on, on fb, a group called the third way was created for those neither for the regime nor for the opposition which had yet to take on the ugly militant jihadist form. Already then, with an opposition more streamlined than today, were the seeds of inconclusiveness amongst those itching to have a say in the matter. For the regime? Against the regime? Let’s pick something inbetween.

    Maybe it makes more sense to go back to 17th-century Europe, to the 30-years war, a war of religion in a time when there was no unified Germany. A nasty war, brutal for civilians, and with alliances that seemingly didn’t fit the mold (protestant Sweden and catholic France on the same side!).

    The outcome might be eerily similar, a Westphalian peace of sorts. A ME version of “you stay out of my business and I stay out of yours”. The birth of states, or entities, in the ME.

    I guess that’s kinda agreeing with Mr Landis.

    Posted by Pas Cool | December 17, 2013, 2:22 pm
  6. One can only express nostalgia for the old multinational empires–Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottomans. “Democracy” and “self-determination” are ideas that have drenched Europe and the Middle East in blood.

    How long did it take Europe to sort itself out in national terms? After which it chose to subject itself to a gray Politburo in Brussels. No horses, feathers, balls, or medals. Burke was right–the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.

    Posted by Grumpy Old Man | December 17, 2013, 2:45 pm
  7. Rukn al-Dawla

    I agree with you entirely. Constructivism is not meant to explain away the authenticity of such affiliations, at least on an emotional level. I simply meant that “sectarianism” is a very blunt instrument with which to dissect the complex realities on the ground… in peacetime. All too often, it dumbs down the argument, in my view. People become agency-less pawns in a deterministic sectarian universe. But your point is very well taken.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 17, 2013, 2:55 pm
  8. So what is an Arab?

    Pas Cool,

    Wouldn’t it be someone who speaks arabic as a primary language and also considers himself/herself to be arab?

    You don’t need any more ingredients than that do you? About 422 million people?

    Again, the sectarianism, violence and wars you professors keep talking about is merely a direct consequence of the arab people being pushed out of the election process as they have no say in government led by self-appointed families, schmucks, and Kings. If there was rule-of-law (constitution), a strong judiciary, a strong army and police, freedom of speech and election processes, there would be no violence.

    The arab spring is the voice of those who want freedom and have no power, versus the usual despots and jihadist groups who are fighting back trying to prevent such unheard of notions.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | December 17, 2013, 3:19 pm
  9. Let’s start with the liberals in the Arab world, my pet peeve. They fail continuously because that can’t give the right answer to this simple question: What does a cow give you? They think the answer is milk, but in fact, cows give you shit, milk you have to take. With all their intelligence the liberals cannot figure out this obvious answer that the Islamists find trivial. Every governing system in the middle east was created through the barrel of the gun. Israel for example exists because it won the 47-48 war. The Lebanese system is the result of a civil war etc. etc. If the liberals in the Arab world are not willing to pick up a gun and fight, they will never be a force in the Arab world. How much more easy would it have been for the US to support a liberal militia in Syria? One say led by an articulate Brown professor?

    Posted by AIG | December 17, 2013, 3:20 pm
  10. Next, for anyone who thinks that the Syrian conflict is not a sectarian one, read this:

    I totally agree with Landis that the US is not going to do much in Syria. It has become a Iran-Saudi affair. If there is to be a peaceful solution or even a cease fire, Iran and Saudi are the salient players. All the rest are not committed enough to make a difference.

    Anyone who believes that the American public will support Americans dying in Syria is badly mistaken. And if all the US does is bomb, it will “own” the result which will be a completely broken country and millions of refugees and with Islamist brigades armed to the teeth. Not going to happen.

    Bottom line, if you aren’t prepared to fight yourself, don’t send others to do the job or complain when they don’t. You want US help, first get your hands dirty and go fight.

    Posted by AIG | December 17, 2013, 3:34 pm
  11. AP,

    I’m not saying sectarianism is the only lens to use, but it certainly is an important one.

    What I’m saying is that this conflict lacks the obvious nationalistic lens that WWI and WWII had. Sure, there is an element of ideology in this conflict, but it is not clear cut liberalism vs despotism as WWII was (to an extent). And I think an important element for this is the fact that Arabs are oftentimes considered one people, sharing a history and language. Like Germans. Or French. But nationalism cannot be applied in the Syrian case in the same way as in Europe. To me, this is a pre-nationalistic fight.

    The concept of the nation state is that people get to rule themselves. Sykes-Picot negligated this in the ME, and this is the shit we get.

    As for your top-down approach of implementing democracy, I am not sure it’s that easy. A stable democracy has many factors involved, and one lacking in the ME is the intrinsic development towards a liberal-democratic society. That might be starting now, but it will take generations of combined top-down and bottom-up approach. The bottom-up approach of continental Europe was followed ny the visions of able politicians that dared look decades into the future, and had the guile to pursue their ambitions. We’re reaping the fruits of Schumann and Adenauer and Churchill, not Merkel, Hollande and Cameron.

    Posted by Pas Cool | December 17, 2013, 3:42 pm
  12. In case my future tenure board is listening, the reason I decided to start a liberal militia and join the Syrian Civil War is because the Israeli lobby suggested I do so. Thanks for nothing.

    More seriously, AIG, in the 70s there were plenty of liberal militias in Lebanon. Ok, they were leftist militias. What did they bequeath us exactly?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 17, 2013, 4:04 pm
  13. QN,

    “Are Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, and Iraqis really as primordially sectarian as all that?”

    Of course not, that is a straw man. The stronger, more inclusive and more “fair” (from wealth distribution perspective) a state is, the less sectarian people are. Sectarianism is part of a positive feedback loop with state failure. The more states fail, the more sectarianism there is which leads to more failure of the state and so on. The Arabs, as well as the Jews by the way, entered nation building from a more sectarian starting point than others, but not so sectarian as to rule out a weak sectarian outcome that allows a successful modern state instead of a predominantly sectarian one and a failed state.

    Posted by AIG | December 17, 2013, 4:11 pm
  14. QN,

    What is the argument? That since a liberal militia (maybe) failed in the past, it is all right to leave the playing field to Islamist militias now? I just don’t get it.

    Posted by AIG | December 17, 2013, 4:13 pm
  15. Pas Cool,

    Yes, the despots and kings stripped the liberal arab from society by controlling every aspect of their lives. No freedom of speech to say things too taboo against the government. The state controlled media. The secret services, hauling innocent people to jail; the despots succeeded in making the liberal arab an empty, powerless shell, while brainwashing the population to hate Israel, Jews and the US.

    But Padorra’s box has been opened thedr past few years.


    Your “pet peeve” are liberal arabs? I understand. My pet peeve are just liberals. Edpecially liberal jews. At least Jews haven’t had to live for generations under murderous tyrants.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | December 17, 2013, 9:36 pm
  16. The Zionist oriented Neocons caused chaos in Iraq when they took US forces in there full force, so the whole premise of this argument is ridiculous…Besides the US does not have a history of backing liberals fir the sake go it’s so called interests, which have nothing to do with the American people’s interests, and we can see this by it’s support for Zionist and Wahabi regimes….

    Posted by Marion Mourtada | December 17, 2013, 11:33 pm
  17. “You want US help, first get your hands dirty and go fight.”

    Haven’t “Idriss and the FSA forces that remained loyal to him” been doing just that, only to find out that Washington has not been willing to “outbid its allies and competitors in powering up a military that could defeat both the Iranian/Russian backed Assad and the Gulf back Islamists”?

    Posted by Badr | December 18, 2013, 6:00 am
  18. All comparisons with Europe – whether now or in the pre-Westphalian war epoch – are moot because there is an essential difference, the elephant in the room, so to speak, which we manage to ignore even while extensively discussing it: Europe was allowed to do its own internal developing and fighting without an outside power strong enought to direct its evolution in any particular way which was not aligned with the interests of the European elite, and sometimes even with the interests of the European people in general. European countries were not wholly artificial entities created by an outside power when the whole episode of fighting and nation-forming started – they had (to some degree) evolved organically or at least been constructed by local elites who actually lived there and whose interests were also in these entities (which is why we have no borders that are straight lines drawn randomly on a map). The same goes for the democratisation process: the only outside power which had the means to maintain the medieval autocratic regimes in Europe would have been the Chinese empire – and the Chinese hardly knew Europe existed and cared less. The Middle East, on the other hand, is tied hands and feet by powerful outside actors who insist on supporting regimes here and overthroxwing them there without so much as an afterthought for the insterests of local elites, let alone the population at large. All of which doesn’t mean that there is no margin of menoeuvre for local actors at all – the US cannot impose its exact will on any country for example – but it does mean that margin is very narrow and conditioned on the cooperation of these outside powers, at least to the extent where they will not use the power they do have – which is not to install regimes but merely to cause widespread destruction and chaos… and so we have an entirely different ballgame…

    Posted by Bart | December 18, 2013, 7:44 am
  19. Badr,

    Idriss is not a liberal, he was a Baathist till July 2012.

    Posted by AIG | December 18, 2013, 10:55 am
  20. Dear AIG

    You’ve made this argument many times before, and I’m interested in hearing you develop it fully. I’m in agreement with you that people should put their money where their mouth is. I also feel that liberalism does not have much of a self-conscious constituency in the Arab world at this particular moment. De facto liberals tend to be politically quietist or apolitical, leaving the stage for Islamists and crony capitalists. These are generalizations, of course.

    But this is not the same as your core argument, which is that people need to take what they want by force. Call me wishy-washy, but violent seizure of power strikes me as inherently illiberal, or at least more attractive to the illiberally-minded. I’m having trouble coming up with examples from recent history of what you’re proposing. Maybe if you can give a few, we can discuss their relevance.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 18, 2013, 11:44 am
  21. AIG,

    So what are he and his followers now? What is your definition of an Arab liberal? In the past, haven’t you made a distinction between islamists/jihadists and other rebels, and were you not calling on Obama at some point in the conflict to arm fighters?

    Posted by Badr | December 18, 2013, 12:50 pm
  22. It was stated in the interview that religious minorities make 20% of population in Syria. Could you please explain in details how this number was established and taken as a fact? Alawites do not make more than 7%. Christian population has been decreasing during the rule of Hafez Assad and then his son Bashar, contrary to regime claims that Christians are “happy” and “prospering” under the house of Assad. The regime is aware of this fact and therefore it made it impossible to find any public information on district and villages populations.

    Posted by Bleu Skiys | December 18, 2013, 1:07 pm
  23. Basically we should all ask Marion Mourtada (post above) how to fix the ME. From her post, it is clear that if Zionism and the US go away, all will be well. Of course, the Sunnis and opposition I chat with on SC aren’t saying this now that Hezbollah and Iran find it more important to support Assad than fight the infidel Zionists.

    The influence of “moderate arabs” in the ME is almost nil.

    Why? The governments there succeeded in muting their voices.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | December 18, 2013, 1:09 pm
  24. QN,

    My argument is not that “people need to take what they want by force”. It is rather that establishing liberal democracies 99% of the time requires force or the credible threat of force. It is not illiberal to fight and defend liberal values. Let’s examine some examples.

    1) The American Revolution.
    2) The Spanish Civil war (many liberals from all over the world joined the fight against the fascists)
    3) The founding of Israel.

    The only historical counter example I can think of is the UK where democracy evolved without violence. Even the Scandinavian democracies are products of the Napoleonic Wars. Liberal democracy in Germany and Japan was installed by American force. Why should it be different in the Arab world? In any case, I think it is quite clear that seizing power by force or threat of force is not inherently illiberal. It is the way you use power afterwards that determines if you are liberal or not.

    Even if the liberals in the Arab world would not be quietist or apolitical, how would that help against the guns of the Islamists?

    Posted by AIG | December 18, 2013, 1:13 pm
  25. Badr,

    I don’t know what the FSA stands for and who is really behind it. It is a melange of Baathist defectors and Muslim Brotherhood types. You know them better, so you tell me. Maybe I am wrong and the FSA is a liberal force, but I just don’t see it.

    An Arab liberal is the same as any other liberal. For example, Hanan Ashrawi is a liberal. Mahmoud Abbas isn’t. I am not familiar enough with Syrian politicians to give you Syrian examples.

    Posted by AIG | December 18, 2013, 1:22 pm
  26. Playing catch up here, but:

    1) QN: There were plenty of liberal militias in the 70s??? I call big fat BULLSHIT on this one. Not one single militia in the 70s/80s was based on liberal ideology. Every single one of them, despite their best attempts at adopting “progressive” sounding names, were nothing but tribal armed gangs, with loyalties to a family or person (and by extension, more often than not, sect). Not a single one of them was a militia based on any kind of strong liberal ideology (ironically, the communist party was probably the closest one would get to what you would call liberal today).

    More comments to come as I continue reading.

    Posted by Bad Vilbel | December 18, 2013, 1:25 pm
  27. You forgot the French revolution…Pretty major one there.

    Posted by Bad Vilbel | December 18, 2013, 1:30 pm
  28. Interesting comment Bart.

    But a comparison is not moot as there are things to learn even from dissimilarities.

    My basic point is that people in the ME are more and more fighting for self-determination. That’s akin to nationalism, but not entirely so as in the Arabic context you don’t have a clear cut dividing line amongst Arabs. So it’s partly ethnical and partly religious with a mix of ideology (liberals of whatever religion wanting more or less the same thing).

    But your premise seems to be that because of imperialism the ME could not go the same way as Europe did?! I don’t believe that is so as there are plenty of examples to show otherwise (South Korea, Japan, USA..). Of course, the fact the Europeans drew the borders in the ME has a direct bearing on todays events, I would say, and we seem to agree on that.

    As AIG indirectly says, the UK is the cradle of democracy. The developments that lead to democracy in the UK and later spread elsewhere has no real equivalent in the ME. The reason for that is not so much imperialism, but rather religion. The historical development of Christianity differs from that of Islam. Various events that took place in Europe that had a huge impact, with time, on the historical trajectory of particularly Western Europe have no equivalent in Islam.

    Posted by Pas Cool | December 18, 2013, 2:48 pm
  29. For those interested in reading about “fighting liberals”, read the bio of Uri Avnery. Just remember, whenever a jew picks up a gun, he gets the label “hard line Likudnik”.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | December 18, 2013, 3:03 pm
  30. Dear Bart,, You argue that “All comparisons with Europe are moot because… Europe was allowed to do its own internal developing and fighting without an outside power to direct its evolution in any particular way which was not aligned with the interests of the European elite, and sometimes even with the interests of the European people in general. European countries were not wholly artificial entities created by an outside power … They evolved organically …”

    I think you are wrong on the facts here, but even more importantly, you are wrong on the basic comparison that should be drawn with European evolution during the first half of the 20th century. I believe that best European comparison is Eastern Europe, which was multi-ethnic and multi-religious. Much of it was part of dynastic empires, much like the Levant a multi-religious and ethnic part of the Ottoman Empire.

    Perhaps the single greatest outcome of WWII in Europe was the creation of nation states more ethnically homogenous than ever before. Tony Judt writes, “At the conclusion of the First World War it was borders that were invented and adjusted, while people were on the whole left in place. After 1945 what happened was rather the opposite: with one major exception boundaries stayed broadly intact and people were moved instead…. he term ‘ethnic cleansing’ did not yet exist, but the reality surely did — and it was far from arousing wholesale disapproval or embarrassment.”

    Poland was 68%Polish in 1938. By 1946 it was overwhelmingly Polish. Germany was nearly all German. Czechoslovakia, which was populated by 33% minorities, including Germans, Hungarians, Carpathian Ukrainians and Jews before the war, shed this third of its population. One can go down the line of Eastern European countries, Hungary, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania and find the same ethnic cleansing and great sorting out. 13 million Germans were expelled or transferred from the Eastern European countries between 1945 and 1947. They had lived in these countries stretching from Poland in the north to the Ukraine and Romania in the South for hundreds of years.

    Central European nation states were tidied up and their peoples rearranged according to nationality. Unlucky nationalities, such as the Jews and Gypsies that had no homeland, were in some cases exterminated.

    This is what is going on in the Levant. For example, the Jews, who used to be scattered throughout the Middle East, were driven out of their native cities (the Jews of Baghdad in 1918 were the largest religious community in the city). They have collected in Israel, from which they expelled Palestinians.

    Christians have all but disappeared from many countries of the region. Anatolia was 18% Christian in 1914. By 1922 they constituted less than 1% of Turkey’s population. In Palestine and Iraq, their populations have been decimated by nationalist foment and religious intolerance and discrimination. They same thing is happening in Syria to Christians today. I will not be shocked if by the end of troubles in Syria, the 20% religious minorities have been driven out and the 10% Kurds have joined their brethren in Iraq to form an independent nation. The Alawites today are behaving like the Germans of the Sudetenland during the first years of the war. But it is altogether imaginable that their time will come, when they will be treated like the guilty minority of Germans in Czechoslovakia.

    It is easy to push the analogies between Central Europe between the two wars and the ex-Ottoman lands of the Levant too far. But I see a very clear process of nation building in the region. It is brutal to all, but particularly to the nationalities that do not find a home in one of the “artificially” created states. The problem with multi-ethnic empires is that there are no “natural” or “organic” borders. Whatever borders are drawn to make way for nation states, they will be unjust to many.

    Because this is a “Lebanese” blog, it is only natural that I should try to fit Lebanon, where I lived 8 years of my humble existence, into this model. Lebanon has not built a better nation. Its three major ethnic groups – Shiites, Sunnis and Maronites – have not settled their national problem. Are they all Lebanese and one ethnicity, divided only by religion? Or are they three distinct ethnic groups? We don’t know yet. We hope they will compose their differences, but it is not at all sure that they will. The balance of power between the groups makes ethnic cleansing impractical. The Syrian occupation forced the Taif Accords on the waring factions, after taking their guns from them. What will the largely Sunni influx of Syrians do to the balance? Will the smaller minorities – Armenians, Alawites, Palestinians, Jews, Protestants, etc be driven out or assimilated? We must all hope that Lebanon figures it out eventually and provides a liberal model for the other Levantine states. So far it isn’t working out so well, despite the rosy predictions of some who believed that the Lebanese consociational model would catch on in Iraq and then the rest of the region.

    In sum, we are witnessing the rearrangement of populations in the region to better fit the nation states that were fixed after WWI. Some new borders are being drawn, such as those around the Kurdish regions of Iraq and perhaps Syria, but mostly, what we are seeing is the ethnic cleansing of much of the region to fit the borders.

    Posted by joshlandis | December 18, 2013, 3:22 pm
  31. And the gut wrenching process Landis is describing is going to be exacerbated by isolationism in the US. The US public and politicians have lost their interest and willingness to influence outcomes in the middle east. This is not a criticism of the US, just a fact of life we need to accept.

    Posted by AIG | December 18, 2013, 4:37 pm
  32. Very provocative comment, Joshua. I’m going to promote it to a new post, and perhaps we can continue the discussion there.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 18, 2013, 6:26 pm
  33. Finally a philosophical issue worth discussing. The historical context is the key to understanding the current identity construction in the Middle east. National or ethnic identity in the 21st century cannot be compared to similar forms of identity in the 19 or 20 centuries. Whatever is called sectarianism today needs to be informed by the global historical context: Max Weber or even Benedict Anderson are no longer the primary references but rather contemporaneous apporaches imbued by interdisiplinary theories, from Michel Maffesoli to Talal Asad, and from analyses of ethnic and religious nationalisms to studies of resistance to global capitalist values and the strife between ways of communal belonging and ways of self-subjectivization built on forces of individuation. Sectarianism today is a desire for communal belinging set in fluid conditions of identity formation in liquid cultures; the solution has to be cultural and not institutional. Let us discuss how cultural transformations can be effectuated in Syria or Lebanon to counter the dominant cultural forces of geopolitical dalliances.

    Posted by Parrhesia | December 18, 2013, 8:07 pm
  34. Elias, please delete my previous comment, it is incomplete and was posted erroneously before i finished my idea. Which will take long time to put together.

    Posted by OFF THE WALL | December 20, 2013, 11:29 pm
  35. @Pas Cool,

    Religious fundamentalists taking up arms were the primary reason why the Parliamentary forces were able to prevail over the Royalists in the English Civil War.

    After the Parliamentary victory, there still came several more generations of bitter factional strife from which a “liberal” Britain gradually emerged.

    The biggest difference between Britain’s political development and that of most other states was that Britain was free of direct foreign intervention. All factions in the English civil war had foreign supporters and foreign protectors, but thanks to geography and the overall balance of power in Europe (i.e. no hegemon), the English were able to sort out their Civil War among themselves. When they invited a foreigner to take the throne, the English did so on their own terms, and for their own convenience.

    Posted by Roland | December 21, 2013, 11:40 pm
  36. I’m a week late to this thread, but I’m going to have to agree with the idea that “liberal militias” have been a rarity in history and haven’t had any major impact in the last 50 years.

    To my knowledge, the last time an armed insurrection led to democracy was the Costa Rican Civil War of 1948. Notably, the whole conflict lasted a month and occurred in a country with a history of democracy. Of course, many countries have transitioned to democracy since then (Chile, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines, most of the Eastern Block around 1990, Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003 etc. etc.). In all of these cases, mass unarmed protests were the key, not armed rebellions.

    Probably, as QN put it, armed insurrection is inherently illiberal, especially in the modern world. A Syrian George Washington wouldn’t get very far, he would have to do things that any liberal-minded person would find abhorrent. Accordingly, liberals can only win in situations where unarmed protestors have a chance of prevailing.

    Posted by Rotsapsky | December 31, 2013, 3:24 am
  37. Since this is my pet peeve, allow me to answer that. First, the reason there is democracy in Israel is that democratic forces won the civil war in Palestine in 47-48. Second, a liberal can do things that are not “purely” liberal if the situation requires. Liberalism is not a religion or a dogma that can’t be altered. It is journey in which the ideology changes and evolves according to time and geography. The Clintons were against gay marriage in the nineties, but were still liberal. Today, if they maintained this view, they would not be considered liberal in the US but would still be considered liberal in the Arab world. As you note, Jefferson and Washington, both slave owners, were liberals. The self imposed requirement to be a “pure” liberal is a cop out to do nothing.

    Yes, in extreme conditions, liberal leaders need to sometimes do abhorrent things in order to maintain liberalism long term. But since when is fighting a war always abhorrent? It is just an excuse for cowardice and giving up. And how much do you really believe in a liberal society if you are not willing to fight for it? And even worse, if inherently liberalism is so flawed that it cannot protect itself from resolute armed groups, it is indeed a very bad ideology. Likewise, if liberalism can only win when the other side is not willing to shot at mass protesters, it is a very weak view indeed. But of course, all this is not true. You are making a caricature of liberalism in order to rationalize not doing the obvious thing which is to pick up a gun and fight for what you believe in.

    It is so easy to sit in ivory towers and criticize based on some unattainable ideal. It is much more difficult to get your hands dirty and face the harsh reality that to fight the Islamists and dictators you will need to make compromises that are hard to swallow. The only way to fight ruthless assholes, is with ruthless determination on the other side. You do your best to stick to your ideals, but the knowledge that you will sometimes fail should not lead you to the conclusion that you should surrender in advance and leave the field to the Assads and the Islamists.

    Posted by AIG | December 31, 2013, 12:12 pm
  38. The bottom line is, the Middle East, for all intents and purposes, is devoid of “liberals”. This tiny minority is either running for their lives, in prison, or living in the West.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | December 31, 2013, 1:25 pm
  39. AIG, let me clarify. Liberals can fight wars of the conventional sense, I would count America as a liberal country (as opposed to illiberal) and of course it has fought many wars. The problem is that modern insurrection is very different from conventional war. A liberal can make a good soldier or officer, but probably not a good modern insurgent.

    A liberal believes in due process. An insurgent must murder a suspected informant and make the murder widely known to scare others. A liberal believes in consensus and negotiation. An insurgent must be paranoid about personal safety and extremely suspicious of rivals. A liberal does not believe in collective punishment. An insurgent punishes a village that collaborates, even unwillingly, with government forces. It would be nice to imagine a faction of Jeffersonian gunmen overthrowing an evil regime, certainly this is a popular idea in fiction, but neither of us can find an example of this happening post-1948. Libya 2011 had a shot of uprising-to-democracy but that is looking less and less hopeful.

    Also, there’s no element of rationalization here. I’m a white American in Los Angeles with bad knees, the Rotsapsky Brigades are not going to be fighting ISIS any time soon. I am simply giving my read on modern history.

    Posted by Rotsapsky | December 31, 2013, 6:48 pm
  40. Rotsapsky,

    You’ve explained the difference between a liberal and insurgent/jihadist fighter. In any case, liberals can fight for their freedoms and do their best to follow the rules of war.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | December 31, 2013, 9:32 pm
  41. QN,

    Perhaps, but in the context of conflict, displacement, exile, and severe social stress, I feel that Joshua’s perspective is the indispensable one. In that respect,

    I have not read JL’s insights into these issues? Can you please point to a couple of references?

    Posted by SYRIAN HAMSTER | January 1, 2014, 9:02 pm
  42. “Hanan Ashrawi is a liberal.”


    Just wanted to make sure that in view of her recent comments about Netanyahu’s demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, it does not make her any less liberal in your eyes.

    Posted by Badr | January 13, 2014, 2:17 pm


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