Premature Fall in the East of the Arab World

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi
Expert on Pakistan and Afghanistan Issues

The ongoing developments on the eastern side of the Arab world have faced the Arab and the Muslim countries with a vital and very important question. The question is which groups or peoples will be possible winners and losers of the sectarian strife in this region? The eastern part of the Arab world includes such countries as Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq as well as the member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC], which are diverse in terms of power structure, but have similarities when it comes to general fabric of their societies. Two important characteristics which are prominent in the east of the Arab world will probably play a major role in setting the direction of political developments in those countries:

1. Ethnic and tribal structure of those societies; and

2. Religious tendencies within Shia and Sunni frameworks.

In reality, there is no possibility for political developments to take place through peaceful means in this part of the Arab world and this is not specific to the present juncture of the history. Even past developments had been regularly marked with violence though that violence had been never as organized and durable as it is right now. Perhaps, one may conclude that it is for the first time that this region has been facing a power struggle of domestic nature which has been facilitated and intensified by foreign factors and elements. This issue has taken the violence to an unbelievably and unprecedentedly high level; has stoked ethnic, tribal, and religious differences in that region; and cast serious doubt on future outlook of peace and stability for the involved countries. It is for this reason that the Arab Spring has ushered tribal societies in the east of the Arab world into a dangerous situation where a return to the political and social order which had existed so far seems very difficult. Two realities should be taken into account in this region. Firstly, the element of ethnicity, which is now pivoting around Arab and Kurdish nationalities in two countries, namely, Iraq and Syria, is currently playing a more determining part.

Secondly, the division of population along religious lines in both countries is totally unbalanced. To make the situation worse, the mental structure of power in these countries can by no means help to make the situation better. In Syria, a Sunni majority in addition to an Alawite minority as well as other ethnic and religious minorities such as Kurds, Druze, and Christians, have entered the war due to concerns about their future. As a result, it seems that a future image of life or death shapes the developments in these countries. In Iraq, a Sunni minority is pitted against a Shia majority which has won power through elections causing the Sunni minority to act in accordance with a similar image of life or death.

Whether such an image and the subsequent approach to realities, is real or not is a different issue. The consequences of such a mental image, however, have reduced the possibility of achieving any form of reconciliation and have made the Arab societies in the region mentally apt to accept solutions as grave as disintegration of their countries along ethnic and religious lines. In other words, the regional order which had been in place since the demise of the Ottoman Empire by the victorious countries of the World War I, and had redefined political as well as ethnic and religious boundaries according to colonialistic interests of those countries, is currently changing and giving way to a new order. The problem is that the change in regional order is not going to take place through democratic and peaceful means because conflicting elements inside and outside those countries do not allow for this to happen. If a peaceful trend would have been possible, it would have already occurred in Iraq following the public elections in which Shias won the power on the strength of their majority in the Arab country. In that case neither the Kurds, nor Sunnis would have been pitted against the political leadership. But what is the reality on the ground? The differences have taken a totally ethnic and religious turn.

The case of Syria is more or less similar to what is going on in Iraq. The main difference between the two cases is that unlike Iraq, in Syria, the power structure is controlled by the minority Alawite Shias who are opposed by a Sunni majority. Another difference is that the Kurdish population in Iraq stands up to the dominant Shia current which is ruling the country. In Syria, however, the minority Kurds feel that they would be sharing the fate which is awaiting the country’s ruling Shia minority, though in terms of religious affiliations, Syrian Kurds are Sunnis. The problems plaguing the eastern part of the Arab world can be also tracked back to destructive tribal wars of Lebanon where major tribes as well as religious tendencies which served as breeding ground for the past conflicts are still in place. As for the Persian Gulf, the tumultuous Bahrain is suffering from a shaky power structure topped by the Sunni minority which is ruling a Shia majority. Even in Saudi Arabia which claims to be a driving force behind the ongoing regional developments, the Shia and Sunni population is divided along sectarian lines. The problem becomes even more complicated when a more important reality is taken into consideration which is possession of geographical realms by every one of those ethnic and religious groups in their respective countries. Take Syria as an example. There are three dominant ethnic and religious currents in that country which include the ruling Alawite minority, the Sunni Arab majority and the Kurdish minority, each with their own geographical realms. In Iraq, as another example, the situation is similar to Syria. Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs and Kurds have their own geographical realms to control. A similar state of affairs also exists in Saudi Arabia.

Having geographical realms which are controlled by these ethnic and religious groups in their respective countries has made achievement of any form of possible national reconciliation difficult, thus exposing those countries to a high risk of disintegration along ethnic and religious fault lines. Therefore, the eastern part of the Arab world is facing different conditions compared to the western part of the Arab world where developments resulting from the Arab Spring have been possible at a lower cost. Since the eastern Arab nations have failed in their contemporary nation building efforts, and are run according to ethnic and sectarian principles, they have become very vulnerable. The fact that further exacerbates their vulnerability is the mental structure of power in these countries which is clearly totalitarian. Both in ethnic and religious terms, this mental structure which has been influenced by the historical context of the Arab societies, is very powerful. Both sides of the war of governance as well as their opposition groups are mentally inclined toward a monopolistic power structure and cannot understand the sharing of power through such democratic processes as ballot boxes and free elections. Both Iraq and Syria are currently paying the price of such monopolistic Arab mentality, though it is not clear until when this trend will continue. The dominant presumption in this regard is that in the absence of any solution, a new order will replace the old order which has been there since the World War I as a result of which smaller countries will come into being on the basis of ethnic and religious affiliations.

The clear connotation of the above fact, whether we like it or not, will be ethnic and religious disintegration of Syria into three new states: a small Alawites state in addition to two small Kurdish and Sunni states. The same fate can be foretold for Iraq which is possible to break down into three distinct ethnic and religious parts: Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish. There are very serious doubts that even disintegration of the aforesaid countries in this way would easily bring stability to the eastern part of the Arab world. There are more internalized conflicts which will subsequently challenge three other theoretical and political currents. In fact, the moderate version of Islam which is advocated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the radical version of Islam as promoted by al-Qaeda, and ethnic nationalistic tendencies have enough capacities to perpetuate regional wars, though in new forms. Therefore, in a realistic approach devoid of any destructive mental prejudgment, one may claim that the eastern part of the Arab world is currently going through a fateful juncture of its history. Going through this stage will be only possible by giving up monopolistic claims to power, recognizing the rights of minorities by the majority of the population and accepting democratic mechanisms of power transfer. Both the governments and their opposition will be responsible for a possible situation which will push their countries toward disintegration. That situation will also put them on a path which will only benefit Israel as it will be only in line with the old strategy laid out by the first Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who saw survival and power of Israel to be hinged on the weakness and ethnic disintegration of Arab states.

Key Words: Eastern Arab World, Sectarian Strife, Ethnic and Tribal Structure, Shia-Sunni Frameworks, Mollazehi

More By Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi:

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*Revisiting US - Afghanistan Security Agreement:

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