The area now comprising Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan has been a site of ongoing problems as long as it has hosted its rich variety of cultures. Cultural, national, religious and sectarian diversity have been the sources of chronic problems which have accumulated in the region for more than a century. As time passed these dilemmas were not solved. On the contrary, they were aggravated by politics and by the emergence of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as the the Kurdish, Christian and Armenian issues — not to mention the most recent Shiite and Alawite conflict.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s most recent statements, in which he expressed his concerns about the establishment of Sunni rule were the Assad regime to fall, seem like a bad omen. His statements brought to mind the period during the late nineteenth century when Czarist Russia wanted to play the role of Orthodox protector in the East against European colonial forces. It seems that we have returned to an era of preoccupation with protecting minorities, a task which can only be accomplished through security guarantees granted by the great powers.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk managed to gather the remnants of the collapsed Ottoman Empire and establish the Turkish nation-state. He purged his republic of Greeks, Jews, Assyrians and Armenians. He also attempted to Turkify the Kurds and the remaining Arabs. Meanwhile, the Kurdish and Alawite problems were exacerbated in the secular-Sunni republic that he created. Despite all of his coercive measures, Ataturk failed to Turkify the Kurds, Sunnify the Alawites or secularize the Turks.
Today, Iraq, which is steadily moving toward more centrifugal tendencies, is witnessing major tension between the Iranian-backed dictator Nouri al-Maliki and the country’s Sunni and Kurdish factions. Perhaps the case of Tareq al-Hashemi, who took shelter in the Federal Region of Kurdistan, can be compared to the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which was the immediate cause of the balkanization of the Balkans themselves following World War I. Massoud Barzani’s most recent statements demonstrate a defiant warning against the Iranian hegemony that has prevailed in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
In Lebanon, a simple political solution to the issue of Hezbollah seems out of sight. The Shiite party, whose situation has become far more complicated than that of the Lebanese Maronite isolationists in the 1970s, is heavily armed and represents a direct extension of Iran onto the Mediterranean coast north of the State of Israel. The Sunni-Shiite tension which characterized the past decade in Lebanon represented a microcosm of the strained relations between Iran and the Gulf since the Iranian Islamic Revolution in the late 1970s. The nightmare of the Shiite minorities in the Gulf has been inflamed by the Islamic Republic’s interventionist policies.
It seems that these oil-rich Arab countries dug their own graves when they participated in getting rid of Saddam Hussein’s regime, which was replaced by unprecedented Iranian influence.
The fall of the Syrian regime is expected to cause shifts in the balance of power throughout the entire region. Iran, whose influence extends to Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen, would lose its most vital ally in the region. The fate of Hezbollah would be on the precipice. However, the Syrian crisis, which has been dragging out for over a year, is likely to give birth to a new problem: the "Alawite issue,” whose impact may extend to Turkey and the north of Lebanon.
Syrian political pundits and academics have avoided raising the question of the Syrian Alawite minority for fear of being accused of holding a sectarian mindset. Recently, many attempts have been made to distance the dynastic system created by Hafez al-Assad 42 years ago from this minority. Assad’s regime has tried to cover its Alawite identity by promoting national unity and affiliating itself with the most radical Islamist groups. Unlike its brother, the Ba’athist regime in Iraq, Assad’s regime was keen to consolidate relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. However, these relations have been strained since the assassination of Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.
The Syrian regime has managed to link the fate of this religious minority to its own. Although some Alawite activists have joined the ranks of the revolution, the majority have stood by the staggering regime. What’s more, some members of this minority have gone so far as to participate in the violent, bloody crackdown on Syrian civilians in the enflamed areas. The shabiha (thug) militias have assigned the Alawites the filthiest missions to foment civil strife. However, the regime’s attempts to divide Syrians have failed in view of the great level of national awareness among the rebels. Nevertheless, nothing is guaranteed. The ongoing bloodshed makes it clear that Syria has the potential to slide into a very dangerous situation.
The regime is dragging three million people into a deep national rift. The Syrian government is playing the Alawite card in an attempt to divide the country, as happened before in the 1920s with the establishment of the Syrian entity. The events in Homs following the fall of Baba Amr and the massacre of Karm al-Zaytoun are further proof of this. This is not to mention the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) military presence in the northern regions at the behest of the regime. The Syrian authorities have also given Kurds the green light to establish their own “autonomous” institutions in these regions — an idea put forth by PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to preserve the Kurdish identity in certain areas in Turkey. Recently, the PKK has threatened to wage war against Turkey should it intervene militarily in Syria — a response to Erdogan’s statements on the buffer zone.
Finally, in order to complete our illustration of the Middle Eastern landscape, we must mention the Israeli entity, which has failed to integrate into the fabric of this region half a century after its establishment. Israel continues to suffer from its existential crisis and seek to establish a “Jewish State.”
The Syrian revolution has done nothing but shed light on the deep rift among Orientalists. Perhaps, we should seek the secret behind the Western indifference to the atrocities committed by the Assad regime against the Syrian people. Perhaps the West is simply letting things play out before it turns the tables on the regime. This is not the solution. The regime must fall and then the tables must be turned.