The dramatic expansion of the territory controlled by the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq in the last few months has generated a historic moment of reckoning in several arenas in those two countries, which mirror similar trends across the entire region. These relate to statehood and nationhood, governance, and foreign military inavolvement in Arab lands, and in all three arenas we still dwell in ambiguous territory for the most part.
I will touch here only on the most important big picture issue that touches on the fate of many Arab countries, which is the nature of statehood and nationhood in the Arab region, and whether some Arab countries will collapse soon, or slowly over time. Some Arab countries that have existed for nearly a century today appear to face the risk of collapse or fragmentation into smaller units; many of them already witness ethnic cleansing, rapid demographic polarization, and the reversal of the tradition of pluralism among different groups that had lived together for centuries or even millennia.
Iraq and Syria are prime examples of this, as both comprise a mosaic of different ethnic, religious and national groups living alongside a dominant majority (Sunni Arabs in Syria, and Shiite Arabs in Iraq). They were both ruled for decades by military men who put state power largely in the hands of their own minority, i.e., Saddam Hussein and Baath Party Iraqi Sunnis who ruled with an iron fist over the majority of Shiites, Kurds and others; and, Hafez and Bashar Assad and Syrian Alawite/Shiite compatriots who have maintained their style of autocratic rule for nearly 45 years now. Once their absolute control of their state and people was shattered by foreign invasion (2003 in Iraq) or domestic rebellions (2011 in Syria), the previous unity of the country was weakened and society started to fray and fragment.
Nobody knows whether Iraq and Syria will hold together as centrally dominated or loosely federated states, or collapse into smaller units. The main reason for this uncertainty is that we have no clear evidence for the actual wishes of their populations — the only exception being the evident desire of Iraqi Kurds to move towards independence, which might prod their Syrian Kurdish compatriots to join them. Yet even this is riddled with some new uncertainties, for during the current battles in northern Iraq to push back the IS forces there the Iraqi Kurds clearly needed the support of the Iraqi armed forces, American air power and Kurdish troops from Turkey to simply hold onto their territory, let alone roll back IS units.
Kurdish officials have also asked the new Iraqi prime minister to deliver to them the withheld billions of dollars of oil revenues that the Kurds see as their fair share of Iraqi oil income. This suggests that the Kurds’ understandable and legitimate quest for independence is likely now to be tempered by their obvious benefits from remaining within the Iraqi state.
We simply have no idea if the majority of Alawites, Druze, Shiites, Assyrians, Christians, Sunnis and other distinct demographic groups in these two countries genuinely seek independence or feel more secure within a larger state of Syria or Iraq. The personalized security state rule of the last half century or so never allowed any citizens in these countries to express their views on this pivotal element of statehood, e.g., how do citizens feel about their relationship to their state and government? Does religion or ethnicity equate in their minds with statehood?
This is a challenge that many Arab lands face, including Libya, Yemen, Lebanon, Morocco, Sudan and others to lesser extents, as evidenced by recent history. Iraq, Yemen and Sudan in the 1990s offered perhaps the earliest signals of how thin was the glue of unified statehood that held together diverse population groups. Yemen split up, fought wars, and reunited several times, Sudan similarly saw its southern district secede peacefully, while other regional wars continued, and several Iraqi regional rebellions in the north and south against the central government in Baghdad were brutally put down.
The advent of the IS and apparent adherence to it by some Sunni tribes in Syria and Iraq is the latest attestation of the fickle and thin nature of citizen allegiance to the contemporary centralized Arab state. It reaffirms the basic recurring principle in all these cases: Citizens will rebel against their central state if they do not feel that their needs are being met equitably, or that they are being mistreated by the government and its military forces. The antidote to this remains decent governance and equitable development policies, which Arab citizens have long sought but never fully enjoyed.
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. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global
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