Friday, June 26, 2015

Divided we may stand - Federalism and confederalism re-enter the Arab discussion

The Middle East is caught in a situation similar to the one at the start of World War II, characterized by large-scale population movements with the intention of changing the demographic and geographical face of Europe.

At the beginning of the world war, these movements were primarily provoked by Nazi Germany, which sought to repopulate areas it had conquered with ethnic Germans, all part of an effort to expand Germany’s “living space” and ultimately establish a Greater Germanic Reich. Ultimately this plan failed, and in retaliation at war’s end some 31 million ethnic Germans were themselves expelled from Eastern Europe.

Today in the Middle East similar, albeit more intricate, population movements are taking place. In the wake of the Iraq war, Iraqi Shiites altered the demographic makeup of Baghdad by pushing out Sunnis, just as Kurds did Arabs in the north. During the Syrian conflict, Sunnis were forced out of the area of Homs, to ensure the regime maintained control over the strategic city and its environs. Syria’s Kurds are also allegedly aiming to create new demographic realities by removing Arabs from the areas they have conquered in northeastern Syria.

The list goes on. But ultimately, what will the outcome be? Logically, there are two possible paths in the present regional environment: the continued pursuit of “pure” sectarian or ethnic mini-states; or new political arrangements to manage sectarian or ethnic differences consensually in mixed states. The first option is a formula for perpetual war; the second offers a chance for non-violent solutions through mutual compromise.

As myriad examples of violent ethnic or sectarian cleansing have shown, the consequences can be dramatic and the resentments produced irreparable. Israel’s Jews, who engaged in ethnic cleansing in 1948, are still facing a Palestinian population that refuses to accept its misfortune. The fate of the ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe between 1946 and 1948, like that of Indians and Pakistanis who agreed to partition in 1947, is a further sign, if any is needed, that large-scale population transfers bring with them endless suffering and hatreds.

From the end of World War I the Western powers had to think of what to do about the Middle East’s minorities. In Syria and Lebanon, France adopted policies favoring minorities — initially creating autonomous areas for the Druze and Alawites in Syria, before later reversing this for financial reasons. In Lebanon, the French approved of the creation of Greater Lebanon in line with the demands of the Maronite Christian leadership. At the time the community was perhaps not a minority within the new Lebanese state, but it certainly was in the larger region.

In Iraq, the British favored the old Ottoman Sunni elite and the Sunni Arab community over the Shiite and Kurdish majority of the population. Indeed, after the Iraqi revolt of 1920, the British opted to bring in as monarch the Hashemite Prince Faysal to calm tensions. Yet Shiites and Kurds were uneasy about the arrival of this prominent Sunni from the Hejaz, and in many respects Iraq never recovered from its sectarian disconnects.

For a long time both Iraq and Syria were kept together by a combination of factors: Western control, followed by relatively centralized regimes, followed, after World War II, by more harshly authoritarian ideological regimes, most of them proclaiming a militant form of Arab nationalism. With the exception of Lebanon, the emerging states allowed very little latitude for minority identities, imposing a fake unity under the umbrella of Arab nationalist aspirations. Because all Arabs were purportedly as one in wanting to join a broad Arab nation, there was no room in individual states for minority dissent.

That edifice was shattered in Iraq in 2003 thanks to the American invasion, and later in Syria and Libya after the uprisings of 2011. In Syria and Iraq, particularly, what followed were efforts by the different communities to define territories that might one day become permanently theirs.

As noted earlier, the Kurds did so in contested areas of northern Iraq and the Shiites in Baghdad. In Syria, Alawites focused on maintaining open communications lines between Damascus and the coast, as well as with Shiite areas in eastern Lebanon. This required depopulating Homs and Qalamoun from their Sunni inhabitants, most of them now refugees in Lebanon. The Kurds, thanks to Western air power and under the guise of fighting ISIS, expanded their territory from Kobani to Qamishli, despite the remnants of government forces in the latter.  

What comes next in the region? The conversation in the Arab world has shifted toward the types of political arrangements that might safeguard Syria and Iraq as unified states. Hitherto a taboo subject, now Arab analysts are openly speaking of federal or confederal solutions to do so. The suffocating Arab nationalist state is dead, and encouragingly so. But what are the chances of rebuilding new states that recognize minority rights?

Only the future will tell. Sectarian or ethnic ministates may be tempting to many, but they tend to generate more conflict than prosperity — or, in the rare case of Israel, prosperity amid conflict. Moreover, states created against different sectarian or ethnic groups tend to be more illiberal than states aiming to enhance coexistence by agreeing social contracts that allow their diverse groups to manage their differences collaboratively.

Both paths are opening up before the Arab peoples. Past experience doesn’t allow us to be optimistic. But there is time, and we can only hope that talk of new social compacts, federal, confederal or other, will gain the upper hand in the future.

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