Jul 30th 2013

Saving the Arab Levant

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

Anyone who cares about the Arab World has to be profoundly shaken by the unraveling that is taking place across the Levant. Reviewing events unfolding from Iraq in the East to Lebanon in the West can give one the distinct feeling that the region is on a path leading to self-destruction. What, if anything, can be done to reverse course? 

Syria is committing suicide—tearing itself asunder in a civil war that, with the support and prodding of outside forces, has increasingly become an exercise in sectarian blood-letting. American combat forces may have left Iraq, but the country has not found a way to make peace with itself. Daily terrorist bombings are killing scores of civilians, while a dysfunctional sectarian government appears to be focused more on prosecuting and persecuting its opponents, than providing for the needs of its people.

Speaking of dysfunction—Lebanon, reeling from the pressure emanating from Syria next door, is once again teetering on the brink of civil conflict. Meanwhile, the conflicts raging around Jordan are having a destabilizing impact with that country receiving yet another massive influx of refugees—its fourth in the past six decades. And poor dismembered Palestine and its dispersed people are suffering from new and old tragedies. Palestinian refugees from Syria have flooded into Lebanon's already congested and impoverished camps creating new tensions. Despite the news that another "peace process" might be underway, the Palestinians in the occupied territories see what remains of their lands being chewed up by settlement construction and a barrier wall that snakes deep into the West Bank, while Gaza continues to be strangled by a cruel blockade. 

It was back in 2002 that then British Foreign Minister Jack Straw noted that many of the "problems we [the United Kingdom] are dealing with [in the Middle East] are a consequence of our colonial past". Straw was referring to what he called his country's "not entirely honorable past"—its betrayal of the Arabs in the post-World War I period and its imposition of the Sykes-Picot Agreement on the region.

Straw was right. By denying Arab aspirations to establish a unitary state in the Levant; by carving the region up into British and French spheres of influence and imposing their colonial authority and regimes of their choosing in each of these newly created "states"; by pitting sect against sect and paving the way for the loss of Palestine—the British and French laid the groundwork for many of the problems the Levant is confronting today. 

One might be tempted to ask what the Levant might look like had US President Woodrow Wilson been able to win the day and secure the "right of self-determination" for the Arabs who had just come out from under the Ottoman yoke? And what if the world had paid heed to the findings of the Wilson-authorized King-Crane Commission survey and granted the Arabs the unitary state they so overwhelmingly desired?

We can indulge in such speculation, but, in the real world, politics is a function not of "what if" but "what is". And so despite Straw's lament, the way forward is to be found not in looking back at what might have been, but in an honest assessment of what can be done to address current realities. 

During the past century, there were many attempts by Arabs living in the Levant to redress their aggrieved history. Refusing to succumb to the efforts of outsiders who sought to exploit their religious diversity, in an effort to "divide and conquer", they developed "Arab" nationalism—fostering an identity that would transcend both religious sect and the mini-states that had been the legacy of Sykes-Picot. It remains a tragedy that this Arab identity movement was exploited by military regimes who manipulated its emotive power to support their rule. In the end, the idea of "Arabism" became discredited, not on its merits, but because of the brutal regimes that had embraced it.

Another approach was found by those who accepted the new reality of Sykes-Picot created sub-national identities. These stressed, for example, the uniqueness of being "Lebanese" or the differences between being "Palestinian" or "Jordanian". It was important to note that even within these state-based nationalisms, religious divisions were transcended. 

What I have always found to be among the most intriguing results in the polling we have done during the past decade is the persistence of an Arab identity and a sense of a common destiny among the people of the Levant. While sectarian wars raged in Iraq, or while Lebanon's political system remained grounded in a system of sect-privilege, the principal identity of most Iraqis and Lebanese remained not their sect, but being both "Arab" and "Lebanese" or "Iraqi". And when we asked the publics in all of the countries of the Levant why what happened to Palestinians, Syrians, or Iraqis was important to them, the most common response was "because they are Arabs like me".

It is for this reason that I cannot accept that it is inevitable that the Levant drown in the blood of sectarian conflict. Nor can I imagine that the people of the region desire their fate to be a checkerboard of "cleansed" sectarian cantons. It makes no sense that Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood should be driving the Levant's agenda when the region's people, despite their religious diversity, express an attachment to their common bonds born of history, culture, and blood-ties. 

Egyptians have demonstrated their rejection of religious sect-based government. Syrians are now waging an anti-sectarian rebellion within their rebellion against the regime. And polls show that Palestinians in Gaza, despite having voted for Hamas in 2006, are now rejecting this movement's divisive rule.

What the Levant needs today is a unified revolt against sectarian division and recognition of the futility of its self-destructive path. It can be done. I have seen the seeds of the way forward in the young Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian entrepreneurs—Muslim and Christian –working together to create innovative businesses in the Arab World's "Silicon Valley" of Dubai. I have seen much the same in gatherings of Arab business leaders hosted by the World Economic Forum. It is their experience, and not that of their contemporaries, inspired by hate and armed with guns, that represents the most promising future for the Levant.  The notion that this region’s people share common bonds and have a common destiny cannot be rejected because this idea had once been abused by brutal regimes. To borrow an American expression “one shouldn’t throw the baby out with the Ba’ath”.  New life needs to be breathed into this region to save it before it drowns in its own blood. It can be done. The region can be saved, but it will take leaders with vision and a determination as strong that being demonstrated by those who appear hell-bent on destroying it.

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