Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A social contract is the way to end minorities issue

Reports that the Syrian regime is seeking to recruit Alawites to a new Coastal Shield brigade shows how much President Bashar Al Assad has lost in recent months. Syrian rebels have advanced in Idlib province, just east of the centre of Alawite power along the Mediterranean coast and its surrounding mountains.

The formation of the brigade could be designed to rally young Alawites at a time when tens of thousands of them have avoided mandatory military service. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the figure may be as high as 70,000.

The effort is a sign of desperation, an example of a minority circling the wagons as its wager on maintaining power fails. It offers a general lesson about minorities in the Middle East. In countries such as Syria and Iraq, where minorities have dominated a majority usually through repression, the outcomes have generally been catastrophic.

Even before the First World War, the question of the region’s minorities in the region preoccupied foreign powers. In 1860, a civil war in Lebanon led to the massacre of Christians by another minority, the Druze. This was followed by the massacre of the Christians of Damascus with the approval of local Ottoman officials. French military intervention ensued, followed by international agreement with the Ottomans over a new administrative arrangement in Mount Lebanon known as the Mutassarifiyya. It held that the Ottomans would appoint a Christian governor of Mount Lebanon, assisted by an administrative committee made up of all its religious communities.

In the aftermath of the First World War and the imposition of French and British control over Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, France and Britain again favoured minorities. In Iraq, the British worked principally through the minority Sunni elite that had risen under the Ottoman Empire. The Sunnis would dominate until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

In Syria and Lebanon, the French were also partial to minorities, such as the Maronite Christians and Alawites. This favour went against the political aspirations of Sunnis, who wanted both countries to become part of an Arab nation. While Maronites were not a minority in the new Lebanon, they were in the Middle East.

This ambiguity over minorities only highlights an essential aspect of the region: somewhere, all communities are a minority. The Sunnis in Iraq; Shia in Lebanon and Syria; Druze in Lebanon, Syria and Israel and all Christian denominations in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Palestine. In other words, dreams of supremacy by minorities are bound to crash sooner or later. What is needed is a social contract that binds the interests of all communities, allowing each to be represented in the political system. The academic word for this is consociationalism, but other than in Lebanon and formally, but not effectively, in Iraq after 2003, sectarian power-sharing has been rejected in the region.

This is because Arab regimes, especially the Baathist ones in Syria and Iraq, concealed their societies’ sectarian divisions under an ersatz covering of Arab nationalist unity. This was partly to hide the fact that they were dominated by a minority that suppressed a majority.

Ironically, Lebanon has managed to weather the sectarian tremors in the region partly because its power-sharing system has generated reflexes of compromise. Whether this can last is another matter, but for now, it is an achievement. That wasn’t always the case. In 1975, the country descended into a terrible 15-year conflict, one that taught another valuable lesson: all regional minorities have an interest in arriving at a modus vivendi with the Sunni majority in the Middle East.

Lebanon’s Maronites learnt this lesson at their own expense, as the Alawites are doing today. While the Maronites were not opposed solely by Sunnis, they challenged a major “Sunni” cause when they took up arms against the Palestinian militant groups in Lebanon. And they transgressed another regional red line when they allied themselves with Israel.

Ultimately, the Lebanon war ended when a new power-sharing arrangement was agreed in 1989. The Taif Accord, as it was called, transferred executive power from the Maronite president to a council of ministers led by a Sunni prime minister.

The Sunni uprising against Mr Al Assad has become a sectarian confrontation because the Syrian regime transformed it into one. Now the Alawites are opposed by most Sunni states and are losing. Similarly, even Iraq’s Shia majority will never truly stabilise the country unless it reconciles with Sunnis.

The Middle East is at a parting of the road. Increasingly, states are disintegrating into unstable sectarian or ethnic mini-states. Yet the region can only thrive by devising and implementing social contracts based on sectarian cooperation and compromise.

We are very far from that objective, amid a regional power struggle that is making conciliation all but impossible. The question of the unsettled minorities will continue to define the region’s future.

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