Sunday, August 5, 2012

Virtues of Alawistan?

It is not clear how events in Syria will play out.  One item that keeps coming up is the possibility that Bashar and Co. will retreat to the hills and establish an Alawistan.  There are many arguments for and against this happening.  Long-timeSyria watcher Josh Landis says that none of the political or physical infrastructure is in place.  Another analyst points out that an Alawi state would quickly become a rogue state andwould inspire other separatist movements in the region – of which there are a great many.

But maybe an Alawistan has something to recommend it.  The critiques are mostly about a state, and on that basis yes, it is a problematic idea.  But what are the prospects for a less formally designated Alawistan?  Beyond preventing a massacre of the Alawites, it could be the spearhead of a profound change in the region.

The always-insightful Martin Kramer, in a lecture entitled When Minorities Rule explains that majority rule is a Western idea.  Minority rule is SOP in the Middle East and can often be more benign then majority rule.  It is difficult to see the Alawi regime of Syria as benign of course, although it has been forced to build coalitions with other minority groups to rule.  But let’s toss out the idea of an a formal Alawi state and note Kramer’s insightful observation here:
The problem in the Arab world is not a lack of democracy. It is a lack of self-determination. Here I do not mean national self-determination; I mean latitude for ethnic, religious, and kinship groups to exercise the maximum autonomous control over their collective lives. This is what has been eroded by the cancerous growth of the state over the past fifty years, exemplified by Iraq. The problem is the overbearing state, which has achieved efficiency in one thing only: depriving the Middle Easterner of the freedom he most cherishes, which is to be left alone to practice his faith, speak his language, and enjoy the traditions of his sub-national community.
What if Alawistan exists as a semi-autonomous region within Syria, similar to the status of the Kurds in Iraq?  As Kramer notes, the coercive power of the modern nation-state, combined with technology and bureaucracy has brought tremendous misery to the region.  Could weaker states be an answer?  An Alawistan would probably give rise to a Druzistan, maybe a Syrian Kurdistan, and create a precedent for some diversity among Syria’s Sunni majority.  It is unlikely al-Qaeda will take over Syria – but it would not be sensible to bet against the Muslim Brotherhood doing so.  They are organized and in life, success goes to the organized.  It would be nice if the international community could derive a formula that would endow Syria with a democratic government, tolerant of human rights, and ready to reform.

But if that can’t be achieved in neighboring Iraq with 200,000 troops on the ground doing it in Syria with far less resources is unlikely.  But if the Alawis can pull back into their mountains with enough of the army to protect themselves could a scenario for a weaker, but far less bloody, repressive, and meddlesome Syria be possible?

These notes do not give details on the exact mechanics of how this would happen – although hopefully the loathsome Assad family would not be part of the equation - but if the idea has merit, the means to make it come about should be explored.

Is is good for the Jews?
This blogger is an unabashed supporter of Israel and how events affect the strategic interests of Israel and the United States is always a central consideration.  Syria is the last bastion of pan-Arabism (outside of university faculties of course) and a weak Syria of semi-autonomous regions would probably not be as capable of confronting Israel.  Further, Syria’s Druse might find acting as go-betweens with their Israeli brethren (who are well integrated into Israel’s society) to be extremely profitable.  They might continue to mouth anti-Israel rhetoric but their priorities would be elsewhere.

One of the reasons the Assads strongly embraced the Baathist ideology was to legitimate their minority rule.  With the need for that justification removed, and a more fractious state wrestling with internal problems, the conflict with Israel can go on the backburner.

This scenario is not a yellow-brick road to peace and prosperity.  There will be a lot more moving parts in the Levant and thus more opportunities to spark conflict.  But hopefully the most vicious oppression can be mitigated and Kramer’s modest sub-national self-determination can become the modus vivendi.

Is it good for the Arabs?
Naturally analysts of the pan-Arab bent will view this as a cunning conspiracy to weaken the Arabs so that they can’t confront Israel.  Well, sure.

But the present system has been awful for the Arabs.

The Middle East is dominated by repressive regime after repressive regime.  The post-World War II era has been a disaster in terms of freedom, human development, and economic prosperity for most of the Arab world.  The modern nation-state system has not served the Arabs well at all.

As for confronting Israel, here again, where are the successes that justify a system that has failed in every other regard?

Weak states, with sub-national groups with substantial autonomy may be a system that allows the Arab world to break out of the development cul-de-sac that has plagued it for the past century.

For the past forty years the Alawites have been a central player in preserving the old Middle East.  One outcome of the rebellion against them is that they could play a central role in shaping a new, more prosperous and free Middle East.

No comments: