Response 4 - Linda Schilcher

December 14, 2014




The present boundaries were already a problem when they were imposed from outside. The 20th century was the era of nation-building, and geopolitical realities required that the Middle East have Nations. It was never clear why non-European areas should be nations on the European model. How difficult it was to define and enforce Arabism. How expensive it has been to sustain these artificialities, especially in human terms.


But now it is the global era. National boundaries are already everywhere extremely permeated and perforated --  by the movement of people, valuables, and information. And, of course, still by the animus of hatred, and violence.


In our times new definitions would not be a surprise. It is unlikely that the rest of the world will follow the European model, nor the American, nor ex-Soviet, nor Chinese for that matter. Why should it?! Though territoriality and eminent domain over resources will still be critical to investors and governments, and the definition and enforcement of human rights important to everyone, the definition and control of these need not be linked to nations. The multi-national enterprises and multi-national organisations and NGOs of the 20th century have taught us that lesson.  For example, both Kuwaitis and Iraqis invested on international stock markets, and UNICEF and Amnesty International are vital everywhere.


The first problem is: How should these new entities of control over -- and benefit  from -- resources, as well as the new  (re-)defining of human rights and duties be conceived, achieved, and sustained? Sustainability has now become as important as security when devising political systems. Resources are not inexhaustible. People are not immortal: whether the humblest field worker or a demigod dictator, no one lives forever.  Violence might work wonders, but it is rarely sustainable.  The Germans learned that Nazism sort-of-worked, but only for a while.

And the second problem, the one being raised here: What are territorial boundaries? How are they to be defined, implemented, enforced, and sustained? Are these to be ethnically (or, even more problematic, religiously) defined? Is that sustainable given 21st century globalization?


Take the example of Israel, the first nation in the region to be both modern and defined by religious ethnicity. After only two generations, less than half of its Jewish population are happy with the results.  Is a nation sustainable with that level of internal tension? With a 10m high wall between it and its neighbors? When vast numbers of its nationals live outside the country? And settlers patrol with machine guns? With enormous subsidies from abroad and the necessity of dangerous meddling in and manipulation of world-power foreign policy? Think about it.  Alone the example of Israel seems proof enough that a religiously-based definition of control of resources and human rights is inappropriate in this region. The nation that perpetrated the Shoah had learned this lesson already  in the 16th century, but didn’t go far enough.  It reorganized itself on a dualism (Catholic and Protestant), forgetting the Jews in its midst – as, paradoxically, it now threatens to forget its Muslims --  and that was a formula for future disaster, first for the Jews, but also for Germany, a nation of shame, longing to be subsumed into something greater.


Sentiments based on existential anxieties are powerful motivators and easily instrumentalised by those who hunger for power. The WWI-staged starvation of greater Syria by the Great Powers -- and the inability of the Ottomans to counter it -- was especially catastrophic in the mountainous regions. It became the unspoken, shame-based, moral justification of politics in those regions. It is no accident that the Maronite, Druze, Alawite, Kurdish, Azeri, and Armenian guerrilla movements came out of those mountains. The venom that came with mothers’ milk was directed at the urban flesh pots. That those urban areas were usually dominated by a Sunni majority made things even easier. (It was, of course, conveniently forgotten in the ethnically-based violence that ensued that WWI starvation was also wide-spread in the Sunni urban areas.) As the ethnically-based violence in the mid-19th century was directed at the protégés of the Great Powers, the ethnically-based violence of the 20th century was directed at the protégés of the Ottoman State. In both cases it was a cheap shot, but it worked – for a while.


And is the growing dominance of the Gulf states over the region not also somehow justified in the geopolitical revenge of the desert over the sown? The beduin tribes of greater Syria were driven into oblivion by the bankrupted Ottoman state in its attempts to secure the hajj and bring in revenues from Iraq and the Hijaz. Where do the borders of the Syrian desert run? Didn’t the British capitalize on the tribal resentments against the Ottomans to win WWI? And, later in the 20th century, to counter the Arab Nationalists of the north while securing the oil of the south?  But how sustainable is the security and wealth of the Gulf states?  They benefited from the vision of a few wise leaders, but those wise men were not immortal. Can they really provide a solution for Greater Syria?


So, where does this take us when discussing the future of greater Syria? Its “borders”, externally and internally? Its definitions of humanity and citizenship? I have consciously avoided talking about the way religion and ethnicity was instrumentalised by both the Americans and the Soviets during the Cold War.  The horrors of  that mess have been written about enough elsewhere and need not be repeated here.  What I have tried to do here is explain the internal dynamics of geopolitics within Greater Syria, that nexus of civilization which is, unfortunately or fortunately, not an island. And to emphasize that history cannot be swept under the carpet, that leaders are not immortals, and that sustainability is essential, both in human and environmental terms. Are these factors not also essential parts of real




The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as in way representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews. 



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