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Syria: War reshaping the Mideast map


In the early 20th century, Syria was part of a region redrawn by outside forces. Today the 3-year-old uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad is generating the outlines of zones of control that could result in the partitioning of the country.

In the early 20th century, Syria was part of a region redrawn by outside forces. Today the 3-year-old uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad is generating the outlines of zones of control that could result in the partitioning of the country.

By Liz Sly

AL-QASR, Lebanon — That half of his farm lies in Syria and half in Lebanon is a source of mystery and inconvenience for Mohammed al-Jamal, whose family owned the property long before Europeans turned up and drew the lines that created the borders of the modern Middle East.

Jamal has mostly ignored the invisible frontier that runs a few yards from his house — and so did the Syrian civil war when it erupted nearby. Relatives were kidnapped, neighbors volunteered to fight and shells came crashing in, killing some of his cows, injuring three workers and underlining just how meaningless the border is.

“I blame Sykes-Picot for all of it,” said Jamal, referring to the secret 1916 accord between Britain and France to divide up the remnants of the collapsing Ottoman Empire. The result was the creation of nation-states where none had existed before, cutting across family and community ties and laying the foundations for much of the instability that plagues the region to this day.

Less than a century after they were drawn, the durability of those borders — and the nations they formed — is being tested as never before. The war in Syria is spilling into Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Israel, sucking in places that for centuries belonged to a single entity and people whose history, faith and livelihoods transcend the nations in which they were born.

Sunnis from across the region are pouring into Syria to fight alongside the rebels, many in pursuit of extremist ideals aimed at restoring Sunni dominion. Shiites from the same countries are flocking to defend President Bashar al-Assad’s Shiite-affiliated regime, compounding the sectarian dimension of a war that no longer is just about Syria.

Civilians are fleeing in the opposite direction, 2.3 million of them to date, transforming communities lying outside Syria in ways that may be irreversible.

“From Iran to Lebanon, there are no borders anymore,” said Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s minority Druze community. “Officially, they are still there, but will they be a few years from now? If there is more dislocation, the whole of the Middle East will crumble.”

Nobody seriously expects existing borders to be formally redrawn as a result of the ongoing upheaval. But as world powers prepare to gather in Switzerland next month for talks aimed at ending the Syrian conflict, this is a moment every bit as profound as the one that followed World War I when the region’s nations were born, said Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics.

Already the chaos of Syria’s civil war has muddled the map, creating new frontiers that more closely coincide with the communities they contain. Four flags now fly over the territory known as Syria, representing the competing visions of sect, identity and allegiance that the war has exposed — and the pieces into which it might break.

The outcome could be further fragmentation of the existing states, or perhaps a longer-term consolidation that blurs the borders dividing them, Gerges said.

“Everything is in question now, and it is all very difficult to predict,” he said. “But what we are realizing is that the Middle East state system set up after World War I is coming apart.”

‘Sectarian borders are real’

The modern map of the Middle East was created by Europeans less than a century ago. Today, the conflict in Syria is calling into question the viability of those borders, which were frequently drawn with little regard for local communities. Existing frontiers are being eroded and new ones are starting to emerge in ways that challenge the very existence of the region’s states.

The modern map of the Middle East was created by Europeans less than a century ago. Today, the conflict in Syria is calling into question the viability of those borders, which were frequently drawn with little regard for local communities. Existing frontiers are being eroded and new ones are starting to emerge in ways that challenge the very existence of the region’s states.

The Middle East that eventually emerged from World War I bore little resemblance to the one laid out in the Sykes-Picot agreement, named for the British and French diplomats who bisected the region from east to west at a meeting in London.

But the line-drawing endeavor set the tone for the exercise in nation-making that came next. To this day, it is Sykes-Picot that is recalled and condemned by those living in the shadow of its consequences.

Plans for an independent Arab homeland were dropped. Instead, the British assumed full control over the territory corresponding to Iraq, Jordan, Palestine and later Israel. The French took Syria and carved from it Lebanon as a sanctuary for Christians, a loss that Syria has never formally accepted.

One of the borders they drew cut through al-Qasr, among numerous small farming villages dotting the lush fertile land fed by the streams of Mount Hermel in the remote northeastern corner of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

The overwhelmingly Shiite community proclaims its allegiances with portraits of Syria’s Assad and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, strung alongside those of the only Lebanese figure featured — Hasan Nasrallah, leader of the Hezbollah militant group. Shop windows are plastered with photographs of the men of the village who have died fighting in Syria for Hezbollah, whose contribution has proved key to a string of recent victories by Assad’s government.

“We never had borders between us. We consider ourselves one territory,” said Mohammed Shamas, 22, whose shop adjoins the border. “But a long time ago, the French came and drew these lines.”

More real for the residents here is the unmarked boundary that divides the Shiite villages in the foothills of Mount Hermel from the closest Sunni town, Arsal, which has been transformed by the revolt in Syria into a hub for the opposition. Tucked high in stony mountains 25 miles away, its streets teem with Syrian refugees, Syrian rebels, ambulances ferrying wounded Syrian fighters from the front lines and taxis plying the route to the nearest Syrian town, Yabroud.

Few people here travel the opposite direction, toward Lebanese towns, fearful after a spate of abductions and killings between the Lebanese Shiite and Sunni communities fueled in part by the Syrian war.

“We consider this place more Syrian than Lebanese,” said Abu Omar, an Arsal resident who runs a small clinic helping wounded fighters and did not want his real name to be used because he fears trouble from Lebanese authorities over his activities. He takes his family shopping to rebel-­held Yabroud, notwithstanding shelling and airstrikes, because he would not dare move deeper into Lebanon. “The sectarian borders are real,” he said.

Jamal, the Shiite farmer whose property straddles the Syrian border, does all of his shopping in the Syrian town of Homs, not because he fears the journey to other Shiite towns but because Homs is cheaper and more convenient. “I would never go to Arsal. There they are all takfiris,” he said, referring to Sunni extremists.

“They made sure when those borders were drawn to maintain trouble between us forever,” he added. “It was on purpose.”

Reshaping the map

Similar undrawn boundaries are starting to take shape all over the region as the civil war enters its third year.

In the desert lands between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers — the Mesopotamia of ancient history — the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is extending its reach into Syria and Iraq, flying the al-
Qaeda flag on both sides of the border. Its aim of restoring the Sunni Muslim caliphate has drawn Sunni volunteers from across the region.

In Syria’s far northeast, Kurds have declared autonomy in areas, raising the Kurdish flag and stirring hopes of independence for a community that lost out when the post-World War I map was made.

Assad loyalists, bolstered by the influx of Shiite volunteers from Lebanon and Iraq, are consolidating their hold on a spine of territory stretching from Damascus, the capital, to the coast, where most of the Shiite-
affiliated Alawite minority lives, sustaining the reach of the two-starred Syrian flag of the four-
decade-old Baathist regime.

In each location, massacres and persecutions of sects that find themselves on the wrong side of the lines are corroding the diversity that historically characterized Syria. Christians and Alawites are fleeing rebel-held areas, Sunnis who sympathize with the rebels are escaping government-controlled ones, swarming into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq with little indication that they will be able to go home anytime soon.

And over each dominion, foreign powers hold sway, sponsoring their proteges with money and weapons to further their own advantage. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other states of the Persian Gulf back the Islamist rebels; Iran and Russia support the government, echoing the big-power rivalry that shaped the map a century ago.

The United States and Europe stand behind the fourth flag flying over Syria, the three-starred one adopted by the original, more-moderate proponents of the revolt, who sought to replace Assad’s dictatorship with a democracy. But without much in the way of funding or arms, theirs is the flag whose space is shrinking the fastest.

What is the solution?

Yet partition, which is where the dislocation inevitably seems to be heading, is an outcome that few people say they are willing to countenance, aside from the Kurds, who have long coveted a state of their own.

Although rulers have failed to translate nation-states into viable entities, most people have embraced the identities of the countries in which they live, said Malik Abdeh, a Syrian opposition writer based in London.

“It is the failure of political elites to offer any kind of vision that transcends sects that sustains sectarianism,” he said. “Notions of the nation-state are still very strong, even if the reality doesn’t correlate with prevailing ideals.”

Even the war’s brutality speaks to the intent of all the factions to win the conflict outright, with government forces routinely bombarding the rebel-held areas of the north from which their troops were ejected long ago, and rebels sustaining their pressure on Damascus with new offensives.

At a Hezbollah office in Hermel, the Shiite town that administers al-Qasr, an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the news media denounced the fragmenting landscape as an American plot to split the Arab world into weak, divided statelets to affirm Israel as the region’s most powerful country.

It is not what he or other Shiites want.

“If sectarian enclaves were allowed to happen, Christians would be a minority; Shiites and Alawites would be a minority in a sea of Sunnis,” the official said.

Sunnis suspect a similar plot but blame the British, a throwback to the betrayal of their hopes for independence after British army officer T.E. Lawrence, a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia, helped lead the Arab revolt against the Turks. They, too, fear the consequences of a new divide that would confine them to the region’s desert heart.

“If Syria is partitioned, there will be war for 100 years to come,” said Abu Zeid, 37, a Syrian refugee from Damascus who runs a restaurant in Arsal. “The Alawites will have the coast, the Kurds will have the oil, and the Sunnis will be in the middle with nothing. The only solution is to share everything.”

The challenge in the Geneva peace talks between the Syrian opposition and the regime will be to produce an agreement on a new form of governance that will end the fighting. If it fails, further fragmentation seems inevitable, said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.

Over time, however, greater decentralization, in which local communities have more say over their affairs, may produce fairer and more stable societies, he said, describing “a sort of umbrella of nations where different groups enjoy their own culture and way of life.”

For the region’s borders to disappear “would be like utopia,” said Issam Bleibeh, the deputy mayor of Hermel, as he sat mulling ways the war might end with a group of friends at his home in the little town, whose streets, like those of nearby al-Qasr, are lined with photographs of the dead.

They failed to think of one.

“The wars will change, but there will always be wars,” Bleibeh said. “One day it could be Muslim-Christian, then Shiite-Sunni, then Sunni-Sunni. The only certainty is that there will always be wars.”


First published in the Washington Post


Butterflies in Damascus

By (about the author)

DURING THE Spanish civil war of 1936, a news story reported the deaths of 82 Moroccans, 53 Italians, 48 Russians, 34 Germans, 17 Englishmen, 13 Americans and 8 Frenchmen. Also 1 Spaniard.


“Serves him right,” people in Madrid commented, “Why did he interfere?”


Similar things could now be said about the civil war in Syria. Shiites from all over the Muslim world stream into Syria to help Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship to survive, while Sunnis from many countries hasten there to support the rebels.


The implications of this go well beyond the bloody Syrian struggle. It is a historic revolution, region-wide and perhaps world-wide.


AFTER WORD WAR I, the victorious colonial empires carved up the territories of the vanquished Ottoman Empire among themselves. Since colonialism was out and self-determination was in, their new colonies were dressed up as independent nations (like Iraq) or as nations-to-be (like Syria).


European-style nationalism took hold of the new Arab nations. The ancient idea of the pan-Muslim “Umma” was pushed away. The idea of a pan-Arab super-state, propagated by the Baath party and Egypt’s Gamal Abd-al-Nasser, was tried and failed. Syrian nationalism, Iraqi nationalism, Egyptian nationalism and, of course, Palestinian nationalism won.


It was a doubtful victory. A typical Syrian nationalist in Damascus was also a part of the Arab region, of the Muslim world and of the Sunni community — and the order of these diverse loyalties was never quite sorted out.


This was different in Europe, where the national loyalty was unchallenged. A modern German could also be a Bavarian and a Catholic, but he was first and foremost a German.


During the last decades, the victory of local nationalism in the Arab world seemed assured. After the short-lived United Arab Republic broke up in 1961 and Syrians proudly displayed their new Syrian passports, the future of the Arab nation-states looked rosy.


Not any more.


TO UNDERSTAND the immense significance of the present upheaval one has to go back in history.


Two thousand years ago, the modern idea of “nation” was unthinkable. The prevalent collective structure was the ethnic-religious community. One belonged to a community that was not territorially defined. A Jewish man in Alexandria could marry a Jewess in Babylon, but not the Hellenic or Christian woman next door.


Under Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman emperors, all these dozens of sects enjoyed a wide autonomy, ruled by imams, priests and rabbis. This is still partly the case in most former Ottoman territories, including Israel. The Turks called these self-governing sects “millets.”


The German historian Oswald Spengler, in his monumental “The Decline of the West,” asserted that great cultures were like human beings — they are born, grow up and die of old age within a thousand years. Middle-Eastern culture, according to him, was born around 500 BC and died with the decay of the Muslim Caliphate. Judaism, which was born in the Babylonian exile around 500 BC, was just one sect among many.


Arnold Toynbee, the British historian who espoused a similar theory, claimed that today’s Jews were a “fossil” of this obsolete culture.


What happened later was that European societies went through many stages, the latest being that of the “nation.” In Europe, the Jews were a sinister and hated anomaly because they clung to their former existence as a homeland-less, dispersed ethno-religious sect. This was done quite consciously: the rabbis erected a “fence around the Torah,” separating Jews from everybody else, making it impossible for them to eat with non-Jews or marry them. Jews originally congregated in ghettos because of their need for a Synagogue they could walk to on the Sabbath, public bath (Mikvah), etc.

When the situation of the nation-less Jews in nationalist Europe became increasingly difficult, Zionism was born. By a sleight-of-hand it postulated that Jews were not only an ethno-religious community, but at the same time also a “nation like other nations.” This was a necessary fiction, until Zionism succeeded in creating a real nation — the Israelis.


With the founding of the Israeli state, the Zionist doctrine lost its purpose and should have been dismantled, like the scaffolding of a finished building. Everybody expected this to happen in due course — Hebrew Israelis would be a “normal” nation, and their connection with the Jewish world would become secondary.


TODAY WE are witnessing a kind of Jewish counter-revolution. In Israel there is a comeback of the world-Jewish connection, while separate Israeli nationhood is denied. It is a reversal of Zionism.


The events in Syria indicate a similar process. Throughout the region the ethno-religious community is coming back, the European-style nation-state is disintegrating.


The colonial powers created “artificial” states with no consideration to ethno-religious realities. In Iraq, Arab Sunnis and Shiites and non-Arab Kurds were arbitrarily put together. In Syria, Sunnis, Shiites, Alawis (an offshoot of the Shia), Druze (another offshoot), Kurds and diverse Christian sects were put into one “national” pot and left to stew. In Lebanon the same was done, with even worse results. In Morocco and Algeria, Arabs and Berbers are put together.


Now the ethno-religious sects are uniting — against each other. The Syrian civil war has united the Shiites — from Lebanon to Iran — in defense of the Alawite semi-Shia regime. The Sunnis from all over the place rally to the cause of the majority Sunnis. The Syrian Kurds have already created a de facto joint state with the Kurds in Iraq. The Druze, more dispersed and customarily more cautious, are awaiting their turn.


IN THE Western world, the obsolescent nation-state is being superseded by supra-national regional confederations, like the EU. In our region, we may be reverting to the ethno-religious sects.


It is difficult to foresee how this will work out. The Ottoman millet system could function because there was the overall imperial rule of the Sultan. But how could Shiite Iran combine with the majority Shiites in Iraq, the Shiite community in south Lebanon and other Shiite communities in a joint entity? What about the dozen Christian sects dispersed across many countries?


Some people believe that the only viable solution for Syria proper is the disintegration of the country into several sect-dominated states — a central Sunni state, an Alawite state, a Kurd state, a Druze state, etc.


Lebanon was also a part of Syria, until the French tore them apart in order to set up a Christian state. The French created several such little states, in order to break the back of Syrian nationalism. It did not work.


The difficulty of such a “solution” is illustrated by the situation of the Druze, who live in two unconnected territories — in South Lebanon and in the “Druze mountain” area in Southern Syria. A smaller Druze community lives in Israel. (As a defensive strategy, the Druze in every country — including Israel — are patriots of that country.)


The disintegration of the existing states may be accompanied by wholesale massacres and ethnic cleansing, as happened when India broke apart and when Palestine was partitioned. It is not a happy prospect.


Toynbee, by the way, did not only consider the Jews as a fossil of the past, but also as the harbinger of the future. In an interview he granted my magazine, Haolam Hazeh, he expressed the hope that the nation-state would be superseded by world-wide ideological communities, like the Jewish diaspora. He may have been thinking of the communists, who at the time seemed to be turning into a world-wide supra-national community. That experiment failed, too.


AT PRESENT, a war is raging among Israeli historians. Prof. Shlomo Sand is maintaining that the Jewish nation was invented (like all nations, only more so), and that the concept of Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel) is a Zionist invention as well. Now he also asserts that he is not a Jew, but an Israeli.


Against these heresies, a whole phalanx of Zionist professors is in full cry.


Since I never even finished elementary school, I wouldn’t dare to stick my head out and get caught up in the battle of the professors. I will, however, remark that I, too, object to sliding back into a world-wide Jewish sect and advocate the recognition of the new Israeli nation in Israel.

YES, WE are an Israeli nation, a nation whose existence is bound to the fate of the State of Israel.

This does not mean that those of us who are Jews have to disown our Jewish past, its traditions and values, and our connections with the world-wide ethno-religious Jewish community. But we have reached a new stage in our development.

So, perhaps, have the Arab and other Muslim peoples around us. New forms are in the making.

History shows that human societies are changing all the time, much as a butterfly develops from an egg into a caterpillar, from there to a chrysalis and from there to the beautifully colored adult.

For the butterfly, that is the end. For us, I hope, this is a new beginning.

Al Qaeda in Iraq Caught Plotting Nerve Gas Attack in the United States


mission accomplished

mission accomplished


Well that withdrawal from Iraq worked out well. Now Al Qaeda is on the path to defeat and can never threaten us again. Obama said so.

But in the real world, Iraqi authorities busted an Al Qaeda cell plotting to carry out a chemical weapons attack using drones. This is really bad news as it combines WMDs and technological sophistication.

Authorities in Iraq say they have uncovered an al-Qaeda plot to use chemical weapons, as well as to smuggle them to Europe and North America.

Defence ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said five men had been arrested after military intelligence monitored their activities for three months.

Three workshops for manufacturing the chemical agents, including sarin and mustard gas, were uncovered, he added.

Remote-controlled toy planes were also seized at the workshops. Mr Askari said they were to have been used to release the chemical agents over the target from a “safe” distance of 1.5km (1 mile)

Troublingly, Turkey busted an Al-Nusra Front cell (Al Qaeda in Syria) that also had  stockpiles of chemical weapons.

On May 30, the Turkish media reported that 12 individuals from the al Qaeda-linked Al Nusrah Front had been captured in antiterror operations in Adana, along with a total of two kilos (4,5 lb) of sarin gas. Five of the 12 suspects were later released; the interrogation of the other seven is ongoing.

While Adana mayor Hüseyin Avni Cos denied that the suspects were captured with sarin gas and warned against labeling them as part of any terror organization, the Turkish mainstream dailies Sabah and Milliyet are reporting today that the suspects were in fact members of the al Qaeda-linked Al Nusrah Front and were captured with sarin gas.

Turkish authorities are denying the nerve gas part of the story, which they have every reason to do as the Islamist regime is deep in bed with Syrian Sunni terrorists.

The Iraqi claim alone might have been written off as propaganda from a Shiite regime, but the addition of the Turkish story tells us we’re dealing with a much bigger problem.

It would appear that Al Qaeda elements in three countries have gotten their hands on chemical weapons out of Syria. The weapons are probably in the pipeline now.

Iraq credited foreign intelligence agencies with alerting them to the problem. That probably means the United States. It’s about the only country that could coordinate busts with Iraq and Turkey. Iraq is obviously jumping on the propaganda opportunities. Turkey, just as obviously, is lying about it. But it’s hard to believe that busting two cells takes all the WMDs out of Al Qaeda’s hands.

We may be headed for a much bigger problem. Yet the eagerness of Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria to focus on using chemical weapons to kill Shiites may buy us some time.