Well, reviewing events in Syria this week, I guess the uni-polar world, the looming American century, and the end of history that were simultaneously announced by assorted American chauvinists and crackpots at the end of the Cold War around 1990 can be discarded for now. The continuing killings in Syria, and the energized global diplomacy that is trying to wind it down and/or evict President Bashar el-Assad and his family from power, should be seen as two distinct dynamics that converge now for a moment.
One dynamic is the imminent end of Arab police states and personalized family rule that are being rejected by Arab populations across the region in a spectacular series of uprisings and revolutions. This process includes both removing dictators and then reconfiguring governance systems along new lines to be shaped by Arab citizens themselves. In this dynamic, the Assad family enterprise is on its way out, and Syria will soon find itself resuming its historical role and development in more normal circumstances.
The second, and totally separate, dynamic is the assertion of power by a series of global and regional actors — notably Russia, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran — that is a logical correction to two recent realities, a sort of correction of history, rather than its end. First was the misuse of political and diplomatic power in the Middle East by the American-led group of Western countries that has long backed Arab dictators, acted with criminal audacity in waging war in Iraq and leaving it in shambles today, applied maximum hypocrisy in its dealings with the nuclear issue in Iran, and caved in consistently and shamelessly to Israeli colonialism. Local and global powers alike now both push back against the wreckage of American-led policies. And just as the United States and other Western powers abdicate some of their roles in the Middle East and withdraw partially and gradually, the laws of physics dictate that others will step in to redress the imbalances and fill the voids that emerge from this retreat.
So as Russia, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran step up their direct involvement in Syria-centered regional diplomacy, we are also likely to see fresh activism by other players. Notice, for example, how the Libyan and Tunisian governments formally recognized the Syrian National Council as the representative of the Syrian people, which opens the door for others to do the same and heap new pressure on the Assad regime. The energized role of the Arab League in Syria is another sign of regional players moving in quickly to fill the vacuum of power and diplomatic initiatives. Egypt will soon stabilize and also play a larger role in the region. These and other signs suggest that diplomatic configurations will continue to evolve for many years ahead, as the Arab people seek to end their nightmare of perpetual police states, colonization, and mass humiliation at the hands of Arab, Israeli and Western powers, respectively.
This kind of historic, structural change comes at a price, which often includes civil wars, chaotic domestic politics, and mass pauperization during transitions to renewed growth, foreign interference, or surges of sectarianism. Change in Syria will happen slowly, and at great cost, as we witness daily. Syria is showing that it is just like all the other Arab countries that have experienced, or will soon experience, revolutionary moments of transition from autocracy to democracy. Syrians have suffered the same combination of political authoritarianism, social deprivations, economic disparities, mass psychological humiliation, elite abuse of power, and helplessness in the regional and global arenas that afflict so many other Arab countries, and that have sparked the ongoing uprisings. Bashar el-Assad’s assertion last summer that Syria is exempt from the revolutionary impulse for change was a self-imposed hoax and delusion that has now been revealed to be just that.
Now is the moment for all rational people to pause briefly and make sure their feet are firmly on the ground and not in the clouds. Events in and around Syria have fuelled a frenzied deluge of wild analysis and prediction that tend to ignore the simple reality — the convergence of two inevitabilities — that we witness today in Syria: the collapse of Arab authoritarianism, and the resetting of the regional and global balance of power that comprises Western incompetence and retreat, the rise of assorted large and medium Asian powers like Russia, China, Turkey and Iran, and the resumption of Arab involvement in the writing of modern Arab history.
We should celebrate both, because the resumption of history in the Middle East amidst a multi-polar world strikes me as much more comforting than the criminality, callousness and carnage that have defined the last few decades in which American, European and Israeli sentiments, alongside Arab thugs-in-power, have driven developments around our formerly hapless, but now reviving, region.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Copyright © 2011 Rami G. Khouri–distributed by Agence Global.
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