Syria has always been a larger idea than its own geography, whether in the past or in modern times. Half a century ago, Syria was called “the throbbing heart of Arabism,” and in previous centuries the word “Syria” always referred to a wider region that covered much of the Levant. Today, the fourth anniversary of the war in Syria provides a somber opportunity to grasp again the reasons for the crises, violence and occasional chaos and state collapse we witness in half a dozen Arab countries.
It will take many years to restore Syria to its pre-war condition, but in the meantime it would be useful to understand the underlying drivers of the country’s terrible plunge into inhuman warfare and suffering, so that we might avoid perpetuating them in other Arab lands. Syria reflects the consequence of several trends that are peculiar to this region and that have persisted over several generations. Reversing these factors will be essential if Syrians or other Arab people are to have any chance of enjoying a more stable and productive national trajectory than they have experienced in the past century.
We can clearly see in retrospect the key dynamics that have shaped much of the modern dysfunction of Arab states, whose high point of national incoherence and fragility we witness these days in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and other countries. The three most destructive trends during the past century have always gone hand-in-hand. They are that: 1) entire countries have been ruled by small elites, often individual families or a group of military officers, which results in 2) security agencies dominating governments and defining most aspects of people’s lives, which finally leads to situations where 3) ordinary citizens never enjoy the opportunity to shape their national and civic institutions and to define the social contract that is essential to promoting decent governance, socio-economic growth, and stability.
These three phenomena all have their origins in the manner in which so many Arab states, like Syria, were established by European colonial powers, and did not necessarily reflect the free will or natural inclinations of their indigenous people. Not surprisingly, state fragility and collapse in the last half a century often have reflected tensions and then outright warfare among ethnic, national, tribal or sectarian groups that never found comfortable identity in the new state structures that suddenly defined their lives.
Local and regional wars or long-simmering ideological confrontations among Arabs, Israelis and Iranians, most notably, and with Western powers in recent years, fatally diverted attention and resources from democratic nation-building and cemented the military’s hold on power. Military-run security states resulted in large-scale corruption, mediocrity or broad incompetence in governance. This included erratic health and education systems that doomed millions of people from birth into chronic poverty, which entrenched the cycle of human despair that in recent years has been one element in fueling the growth of terror movements.
Home-grown mismanagement and oppression have always had a symbiotic relationship with foreign military invasions, coups and other political interventions across the region. The region’s heavy reliance on direct or indirect oil and gas income, rather than productive and creative economic endeavors, also minimized the role of the private sector in creating jobs and wealth and in promoting a sense of satisfaction and security among citizens who otherwise had to rely on mostly meaningless government jobs.
Such weaknesses and vulnerabilities were camouflaged during the early decades of state development last century, but ultimately they were exposed by two factors that are very evident in Syria’s current demise — unsustainably high population growth rates and steadily worsening environmental deterioration (especially water shortages). When Arab population growth outstripped economic growth in the mid-1980s, most countries in this region started to suffer more poverty, social dislocation, and expanding hopelessness by millions of ravaged citizens. Two reactions from within heightened the inevitable stresses and some collapses we witness now: more severe security oppression by the state to maintain order, and the scramble by citizens to ensure their needs by turning to their own religious and tribal movements. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is merely the latest and most severe of many such manifestations.
With the end of the Cold War and the Anglo-American-led invasion of Iraq, weaker state authorities started to retreat from some sectors and areas of society, and the vacuums were quickly filled by tribal, religious and militant groups. Syria reminds us that we are likely to endure many years of dislocation and violence until local authorities re-establish order that is not based on the security dictates of a single family with its national army, but rather on a more credible social contract among citizens who feel they belong to a state and consensually agree on the ground rules of that state.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter at: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global