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Syria and the changing face of the Middle East

Things are not good in Syria - and, indeed, the Middle East is changing post the so-called Arab Spring.  But to what extent?

Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.   He writes in an op-ed piece "It's folly for the West to try to shape Syria's future" in The Age.......

"Today we are probably seeing the end of the Sykes-Picot era. Across the Middle East the artificial states created on the ruins of the post-Ottoman Middle East are coming apart as the secular, authoritarian regimes that held them together collapse. It happened first in Iraq, then in Egypt, now in Syria, and soon most probably in Jordan. 

All this tells us something important about what's happening in Syria. This is not a unified people rising up as one against their oppressor. It is a patchwork country of mutually hostile communities coming apart at the seams along communal and religious lines as the secular authoritarian regime collapses.

The best way to see what this might mean is to look at Lebanon. It is the only one of the Sykes-Picot creations that did not fall under a secular authoritarian strongman, so it was the first to come apart along communal and religious lines, back in the 1970s. It has never been put back together again in any durable way.

This explains a lot of what seems puzzling about Syria today. Bashar al-Assad has managed to hold on for so long because he is not just an isolated tyrant. He has the support of significant parts of the Syrian patchwork that align with him on communal and religious grounds. His opponents are divided among themselves along similar lines.

Moreover, the old national borders are becoming irrelevant to the struggle. All sides in Syria are supported by outsiders who share communal or religious alignments - Sunni supporting Sunni, Shiite supporting Shiite. These interconnections mean the disintegration of Syria is amplified by, and in turn amplifies, trends towards disintegration in its neighbours, especially in Lebanon and Iraq.

So, the Middle East as we have known it may well be coming part. Why is this happening now? No doubt it is partly the result of George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. But the roots ultimately go much deeper. They include the economic and social failures of the region's authoritarian regimes over many decades, and the challenge to secular conceptions of politics posed by Iran's Islamic Republic."

Iran was not part of the Ottoman Empire, and its borders were not drawn by Sykes and Picot, which makes it a more natural and cohesive country than its Middle Eastern neighbours. So it held together when the shah's secular authoritarian rule collapsed in 1979, and created a new political model based on religion, which has proved quite durable, as last week's elections confirmed. This has helped erode the legitimacy of secularism elsewhere in the region, and put Iran in a position to profit from the turmoil around it by championing the cause of Shiites throughout the region.

So the people of Syria are caught up in something much bigger and more complex than the overthrow of a dictator. They are suffering the collapse of the political order not just in their own country, but in their wider region. And there is little the rest of the world can do to help them.

Barack Obama clearly understands this. The recently announced decision to supply arms to those fighting Assad was extremely cautious and limited, and served only to underline how determined he is to avoid any serious commitment in Syria. In this he is certainly correct. There is no reason to believe that any level of US - or wider Western - involvement would offer a credible chance of establishing a stable, effective government in Syria, and any serious attempt would carry truly immense costs and risks.

The surprising thing is that after Iraq and Afghanistan so many people still assume the opposite. They take it for granted that America and its friends have the power to determine the futures of other countries and regions with little effort and cost. This is a fantasy based on a very serious misunderstanding of the nature and extent of Western power."


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