Costing stability against freedom: The minority dilemma in Syria and Iraq

by Rhodri C. Williams

In a recent discussion with a member of Syria’s Christian minority here in Sweden, I found myself conceding the point that a majority of the population may still support the al Assad regime and that many of its opponents in the region clearly have a political axe to grind alongside their professed humanitarian motivations. It was easy enough to dismiss the notion that Assad had been seriously interested in reform, but my interlocutor’s most troubling argument was that the regime had been – and remained – the sole guarantee of her and her communities’ physical safety.

In a media world almost saturated with analysis of the Arab Spring, an increasingly historically oriented strain of thinking has begun to revive the arguments that had become too threadbare to save Mubarak and Ghaddafi – après moi le déluge:

U.S. policymakers must keep clearly in mind that the regime has its supporters in all walks of life and across Syria’s religious communities. Over the last 40 years, the Assad family built a reputation for safeguarding the country’s minorities and for providing a predictable (if repressed) life for Syrians. Its policies have created both resistance to change and inertia.

Robert Kaplan has taken this analysis further, comparing our time with the short-lived burst of ethnic nationalist fervor in the European revolutions of 1848, and predicting that desire for stability may not only limit the further progress of the Arab Spring but also lead to a degree of rollback in some countries:

That is the burdensome reality of the Middle East today: If conservative — even reactionary — orders are necessary for inter-communal peace, then they may survive in one form or another, or at least resurface in places such as Egypt and Iraq.

Indeed, the emerging consensus around Iraq’s impending state failure is the great cautionary tale hanging over the Arab Spring. A colleague who has worked on power-sharing issues in Iraq reported being thrown into a state of near despair when I forwarded him this article in the Guardian, which describes contemporary Iraqi state as, in essence, having decomposed into a cluster of competing ethnic and sectarian patronage systems (bad enough) that derive rent from mutual arbitrary kidnapping and brutal torture for ransom of innocent people.

This violence moreover, is not necessarily irrational. As Charles Tripp notes in OpenDemocracy, violence itself has become a visceral expression of both sovereignty and political opposition in a context in which statehood has been hollowed out into its most basic component – “the ability and the right to grant life and death.” In such contexts, political self-determination for the majority populations of the Middle East’s divided societies risks becoming a nightmare of repression for the minorities. All of which brings us back to Syria and the need, in Daniel Byman’s words, to prepare to mitigate the impending failure of a deeply fractured state:

The only thing that has matched the bravery of Syrian opposition is its lack of unity. The anti-Assad forces are divided along ethnic, sectarian, political, and geographic lines. The Syrian National Council, the most recognized opposition group, claims to speak for all Syrians, but there are groups that differ from it on such key issues as national rights for the country’s Kurdish minority. Nor does the SNC necessarily speak for the Syrians inside the country doing the dying in their protests against the regime.

One of Byman’s most important insights is the need for restraint and avoidance of ethnic retaliation, along with the affirmative development of “a vision of a future Syria that could unify people against the regime and reassure loyalists, particularly Alawis, that they will not be completely excluded from power.” This conclusion is amplified by the UN’s latest human rights findings on Libya, which indicate that failure to think beyond the divisions Ghaddafi played upon in order to rule the country may come to represent a significant obstacle to its progress.

Which brings me back to my discussion last week. Although I cannot sympathize enough with the vulnerable position of minority groups in today’s Middle East, it is none too soon for some of them to begin thinking realistically about how to mitigate the current cost of their past risk-avoidance strategies. If there is one thing we have learned from the Arab Spring, it is that even if the type of stability that can be afforded through authoritarianism is persistent and recurrent,  it does ultimately have a shelf life.

3 responses to “Costing stability against freedom: The minority dilemma in Syria and Iraq

  1. Pingback: Foreign Affairs on Syria and the Alawites | TerraNullius

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