Syria is descending deeper and deeper into a hell of torture and murder, ethnic cleansing, and the destruction of historic monuments. The future is a choice of evils: Bashar Assad may be left a pawn of Iran’s, president of a ravaged country and a nonexistent state; Syria might fragment; and neighboring countries could be dragged into a wider regional war. Greeted as the awakening of freedom from cruel regimes, the so-called Arab Spring comes down to crimes against humanity and the threatened disintegration of the Arab state system.
Diplomatic initiatives from parties supposedly interested in peacemaking — the Arab League, NATO, the European Union, the United Nations — have faded into posturing and impotence. The United States is conspicuous by its absence. President Obama seems to have taken to heart the advice of Talleyrand, admittedly one of the grand masters of foreign policy, above all to show no zeal. Pained silence would have been more honest than pretty but unfounded abstractions about red lines and game-changing moves.
Left to themselves, the warring parties of the Shiite-related Alawite minority under President Bashar Assad and the rebels from the Sunni majority are returning Syria to the old imperialist order of the past when the sword alone determined who ruled and lived, and who was ruled and died. Imperialism was the common organizing principle of the great powers of the Muslim past, the Sunni Ottomans and Shiite Persians, and it is their legacy to the Middle East. Imperialism imposes identity on conquered people, dictating their nationality and religion. Questioned about identity by a European in Ottoman times, almost any Arab all the way from the Mediterranean to Persia would have replied that he was a Muslim, either Sunni or Shiite.
Time was, of course, when the continent of Europe suffered centuries of Hobbesian all-against-all. Imperialists every one of them, monarchs were waging ceaseless wars of conquest against those of different religions and nationalities. In the 17th century much of Catholic and Protestant Europe was wrecked like Syria today. The turning point was the Treaty of Westphalia, signed in 1648 and specifying that every state has a right to its religious faith and its nationality. The treaty ought to be better known and celebrated for at last providing the juridical framework for the power-sharing between nations that stabilized Europe. Though far from perfect (think of Napoleon or Hitler), state sovereignty has been the antidote to imperialism.
Defeat in the First World War put an end to the Ottoman Empire (which Osama bin Laden perceived as the major injury to Islam that he had to correct). Victorious Britain and France tried to protect themselves from the accusation of imperialism by encouraging the creation of sovereign states on their own model out of what had been the provinces inhabited by Arabs. The individual who previously had declared that his identity was Muslim was now invited to consider himself Syrian, Iraqi, or whatever. Territorial boundaries and a passport confirmed the novel identity. Proving that their policy had succeeded, Britain and France were soon ousted from the Middle East by the very nationalism that they were responsible for introducing in the first place. No longer imperial powers, Turkey under Ataturk and Iran under the Pahlavi shahs transformed into modern secular nation-states. When military officers in Arab countries found that they were unable to co-opt those for whom Islam remained the primary identity, they imprisoned or executed them.
The coup that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979 abruptly switched Iran from a nation-state back to the organizing principle of imperialism. Whether Shiite or Sunni, Muslims in Khomeini’s traditional view constitute the ummah, a worldwide community transcending nationhood with all its differences and particularities. The distinction so dear to Westerners between Islam and Islamism was without meaning for him. He made no bones about it: Islam was the God-given solution to the ills of the world, and Muslims had the divine purpose of restoring a caliph who would reinstate sharia, the law and culture of Islam, and so be the ruler of unified mankind. Infidels would convert if they knew what was good for them. The French had boasted of their “civilizing mission” and the British of their empire on which the sun never set; Khomeini’s imperial tone was their equal. Writing to Mikhail Gorbachev, then in the Kremlin, in order to persuade him to become a Muslim, Khomeini sounded much like a viceroy encouraging Indian princes to owe allegiance to the British Crown.
#page#It was whispered during his presidency that George W. Bush should have dealt with Iran and Iraq in alphabetical order. In a recent article, Kanan Makiya, a prominent Iraqi intellectual, argues that the downfall of Saddam Hussein after the 2003 invasion of Iraq opened the way for the so-called Arab Spring, whereby all over the Arab world the younger generation tried to take their fate into their own hands. This has come to nothing because the unintended consequence has been to strengthen the old organizing principle of imperialism.
Shiites in Sunni-governed Bahrain, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia are excluded from power, and Iran has skillfully manipulated their genuine grievances in order to extend its own political reach. In a daring unilateral move, Iran colonized Lebanon by setting up Hezbollah, a Shiite militia of several thousand well-armed and well-trained volunteers who take their orders from Tehran. In a classic example of imperialist expansion, the protection of the Iranian position in Lebanon compels the colonization of Syria. Hezbollahis are fighting in Syria, and alongside them are several thousand Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister of Iraq, turns to Iran for protection in case Syrian Sunni rebels incite Iraqi Sunni rebels.
What would make Iranian imperialism ultimately invulnerable is the nuclear weapon. For a decade and more, Western politicians and diplomats have been attempting to negotiate some way around this danger. Their Iranian counterparts have carefully, even brilliantly, deflected the issue, inflicting a level of humiliation that the West has not had to suffer since the era of Hitler and Stalin.
In Days of God, a newly published and well-informed account of revolutionary Iran, James Buchan, a correspondent long familiar with the country and the language, makes the point that the regime regularly overplays its hand. Sure enough, Shiite imperialism is motivating and mobilizing an opposing Sunni imperialism. The concept of the ummah is evidently fantasy. Sunnis outnumber Shiites by a ratio of about nine to one, and have always made their sense of superiority felt. Launched in Egypt when Britain had just replaced the Ottomans as overlords, the Muslim Brotherhood has achieved for Sunnis what the regime of the Iranian ayatollahs has achieved for Shiites. Originally a group of just six friends with what seemed like the extravagant purpose of restoring the caliphate then just abolished, the Muslim Brotherhood now numbers millions and has a presence in some 60 countries. Intellectually, organizationally, and militarily, the Brothers are engaged in turning their Islamism into a universal movement. One offshoot is al-Qaeda: Ayman Zawahiri, the successor to bin Laden as leader and by origin Egyptian, professes a greater hate for Shiites than for the West or Jews. For the sake of Sunni solidarity, Saudi Arabia is financing the Syrian rebels, and makes no secret that it sees itself taking the lead in a cold war (sometimes hot) with Iran. Far from conciliating Iran while on a visit there after long years of boycotting it, Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brother now Egyptian president, harangued the ayatollahs for their policy in Syria.
The break-up or failure of so many Arab states encourages Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his sinister foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, to put in place what they call the Neo-Ottoman Empire, as if they were hoping to reverse the course of their country’s history. At first seeking alliance with Iran, they went so far as to support its nuclear program until realizing that this would freeze the situation in Syria and establish Shiite supremacy. A rapid reversal leaves Erdogan inveighing against Iran and Assad (“this butcher, this murderer”).
Sweeping through the Arab and Muslim Middle East, Islamist imperialism has already left some failed states in its wake and is putting pressure on other regimes. The question is whether state sovereignty is an anachronism or a safeguard, or to put it another way, what price a Treaty of Westphalia for the Middle East? Apparently there’s no call for anything of the kind, or if there is, nobody is listening.