As Mideast splinters, beware of small states
It is often difficult to recall that the 20th century was characterised by massive population transfers, usually accompanied by great suffering. The problem of minorities and their protection was a principal concern of those who met at the Versailles Conference to end the first world war.
While minority protection was the preferred solution, gradually this was discredited in the inter-war period as international law, on which such protection was based, was undermined by states, particularly in Europe. Emerging from the maelstrom was another idea: that minorities were best served by becoming part of entities in which they were a majority.
The mechanism was population transfer. This was the rationale behind the massive exchange of populations between India and Pakistan in 1947. It served to justify the immigration of Jews to Palestine both before and after the second world war. And in a more barbaric form, it underpinned Nazi Germany’s efforts to engage in brutal population transfers, the ultimate aim being to settle ethnic Germans in occupied countries and satisfy the Nazi objective of a Greater Germanic Reich.
The Middle East is passing through a similar trauma. In Syria and Iraq, sectarian and ethnic cleansing has become the norm as Sunnis, Shias, Alawites, Kurds and armed groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) carve out territories for themselves, forcibly displacing or murdering those who do not fit into their vision for the areas they intend to create.
In Syria, for instance, the Alawite-dominated regime, assisted by Iran and its proxies, has been engaged since 2011 in laying the groundwork for an Alawite-controlled statelet that includes the Syrian coast, Damascus and the communication lines in between, including the cities of Homs and Hama. This statelet is to be linked to Shia-majority areas in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, giving Iran strategic depth in the event of war between Hezbollah and Israel.
To make the scheme demographically viable, large numbers of Sunnis have been pushed out of Homs province and the Qalamoun region along Lebanon’s border, the majority of them refugees in Lebanon. For Bashar Assad, such an entity would allow him to retain power. For Iran, it protects Hezbollah and allows Tehran to remain relevant in the Levant.
In Iraq, the situation is similar. Starting after the US invasion in 2003, the Shias expelled Sunnis from large areas of Baghdad. In northern Iraq, a similar trend took place as Kurds turned on Sunni Arabs in contested areas (a trend visible in northern Syria, where Kurds have recently expelled Sunnis). With the arrival of ISIS, minorities, mainly Kurds, Yazidis and Christians, were forced to leave or were allowed to remain in majority Sunni areas but under draconian conditions.
The irony is that as Arab states break down, ethno-sectarian entities gain in credibility as coexistence no longer appears to be a viable option. Yet the attractions of such entities also ensure that multi-sectarian and multi-ethnic states are far more difficult to achieve in the first place, because societies have no impetus to agree over consensual social contracts.
A rare exception to this rule is Lebanon, once held up as an example of the failure of multi-sectarian states. Yet in 1943 Lebanon, unlike most other Arab countries, implicitly acknowledged that, in sectarian terms, it was a divided society and put in place a social contract, called the National Pact, setting general principles to manage relations between the sects.
While the National Pact was far from perfect, for example failing to adapt to growing Muslim population numbers in the 1960s, it has held, and may be one reason why Lebanon has not dissolved into sectarian war, despite tensions in the country. The reflexes of compromise and coexistence are well ingrained in the society and have, so far, contained violence.
In judging the desirability of pure sectarian or ethnic states, it is important to realise that the backlash is rarely smooth. Those expelled from their land will strive for generations to regain what they lost. The Palestinians are a case in point.
And at the end of the second world war, Nazi hubris backfired as some 31 million ethnic Germans were driven out of Eastern Europe.
Between sectarian, ethnic and nationalist yearnings, little room has been left for the ideal of mixed societies and coexistence.
It is easy to idealise such entities, as they are often more conflictual than is immediately visible.
However, the Ottoman Empire was an enthralling creation nonetheless, one in which a large number of very diverse communities lived side by side for centuries.
The push for pure sectarian and ethnic entities may succeed in some places and may fail in others. However, it will not create a more stable Middle East.
Religious and ethnic diversity is a feature of the region and finding ways to circumvent this makes little sense. But the push for pure entities will go on despite all, and the misery will rise. In our region it always does.