The images are apocalyptic and heartrending: Masses of people fleeing the killing in Syria making their way to foreign borders, which they often find closed. They pack into rickety boats meant to bring them to safe shores. They gather in train stations.
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Europe, which for years treated the Syrian civil war as if it were happening on the dark side of the moon, has realized that the bells are ringing there, too. Europe’s choice to keep quiet threatens to undermine its isolation.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy is characterized by powerlessness – he was all talk when he set red lines on President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons. When Obama did nothing after that line was crossed, he put the United States’ status as a superpower in question. Obama’s inaction cemented Russian President Vladimir Putin’s position as the main actor seeking a solution to the Syrian quagmire.
But humanitarian and diplomatic aspects of the conflict don’t truly address the terrible tragedy that has befallen a former leading nation of the Middle East that is rapidly deteriorating into religious and ethnic factions. Syrians are caught between Assad’s bloodthirsty regime and an extremist religious movement that uses advanced technology to spread ideology reminiscent of the Middle Ages. This is the Syrian Nakba.
This Nakba will have long-term ramifications for the nature of the Middle East, and not all the effects can be predicted. Although Egypt was always the biggest, strongest and thus most important country in the Arab world, Syria was always a loud voice in the Arab nationalist movement.
The seeds of the Arab nationalist movement were planted in Syria and Syria’s half-sister Lebanon during the late 19th century. Following the Arab revolt during World War I, it seemed likely that a pan-Arab kingdom ruled from Damascus by Faisal I would cement Arab nationalism.
Michel Aflaq, a Syrian philosopher and founder of the Baath movement, was in favor of a pan-Arabism that transcended religious and ethnic differences based on nationalism and socialist doctrines with a hint of semi-fascist ideas. And the Baathist regimes in Damascus and Baghdad, despite the antagonism that grew between them, always saw themselves as the nucleus of Arab unity.
Some Syrian intellectuals, influenced by nationalist movements in Europe, saw northern Syria as a combination of Prussia and northern Savoy, the foundations of German and Italian unity, respectively. From there it wasn’t far-fetched for followers of Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father, to see him as a Syrian Bismarck. The fact that Damascus was the seat of the Umayyad Caliphate provided historical mystique, and despite its secularism, his Baathist regime drew much of its legitimacy from the Islamic legacy. Where did all that go?
Most of the Syrian refugees now amassing in Europe appear young and middle class, based on their dress and the fact they could pay smugglers thousands of dollars for passage to Europe. Media attention naturally focuses on them, but most Syrian refugees can’t come up with the exorbitant sums necessary for travel to Europe.
The poorest are crowded into refugee camps in Turkey (roughly 2 million people), Lebanon (1.5 million according to unofficial estimates) and Jordan (about 700,000). According to data from the UN refugee agency, roughly 5 million Syrians have been uprooted and remain refugees in their own country. Almost a quarter of a million Syrians, most of them civilians, have been killed during the fighting.
The third force
These are hard statistics to swallow, but these refugees are far from the media’s eye because it’s hard to get television cameras in front of them.
The young refugees flooding into Europe are the key to understanding Syria’s terrible decline. Syria’s population before the war stood at over 17 million, so it’s easy to wonder why there are only two strong factions: Assad’s forces and the Islamic State. How could a population of 17 million fail to spawn a third powerful force, and why hasn’t the moderate opposition (which does exist) been able to recruit tens of thousands of people and pose a legitimate alternative?
Such a force could have provided an alternative to the two murderous factions fighting in Syria. But this didn’t happen because many of the people who could have comprised such a force have fled to Europe. This is the true cause of the Syrian Nakba.
No one should pass judgement on these people – many of them members of young families who opted not to fight but to find a safe haven far from their hemorrhaging homeland. But now Syria lacks the people who could have formed the basis of a democratic, liberal and relatively tolerant Syria.
The ideological vision of Syria’s identity, an integral part of the Arab world, has crumbled, and those willing to fight have done so in the framework of tribal, religious and ethnic militias. The pressure of events has shown that Syrian identity no longer exists. There are Sunnis, Alawites, Kurds, Christians, Shi’ites and Yazidis.
What has been called in Arab political jargon "the noble Syrian people" just doesn't exist anymore, and no one is willing to fight for it. Even Assad has been forced to rely on Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, and the Islamic State has been recruiting Sunni believers from all over the world. Syria, the cradle of Arab nationalism, is being torn apart by these factions.
Clear parallels can be drawn between the social dimension of the Syrian Nakba and what befell the Palestinians in 1948, as Dr. Itamar Radai has shown in his Hebrew-language book on Jaffa and Jerusalem in 1947-8.
When security in Palestine became shaky toward the end of the British mandate, the educated, well-off Palestinian bourgeoisie in Jerusalem and Jaffa (and Haifa) left, mostly to Egypt and Lebanon. Volunteers (and mercenaries) from the neighboring states did most of the fighting, and their motivation to sacrifice themselves for the cause wasn’t especially high. When the backbone of society – the educated, well-off middle class – isn’t willing to fight for the country, it can’t survive.
In his “Lectures on the Philosophy of History,” Hegel wondered what caused the end of the classical Greek polis. He believed that the polis expired after the citizens were no longer willing to go out and fight for their city. Without passing judgment on the young Syrians who prefer the welfare states of Europe to fighting for alternatives to Assad and the Islamic State, the result is the breakdown of the Syrian nation.
Russian military intervention could spark the formation of an international coalition to save Assad’s regime and guarantee Syria’s survival as a nation, perhaps with different borders and without the social foundations necessary for a proper functioning state. It’s possible that instead of the Syria that came about after the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, a new Syria may arise out of an agreement between Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rohani, with reluctant support from Obama.
What does that spell for the future of Arab nationalism in general and Syrian nationalism in particular? Let’s leave that for the historians.