How to Prevent Ethnic Cleansing in Syria

I was fine at Srebrenica, at first. We visited the graveyard, surrounded by row after row of white markers, counting out well over 7,000 dead. A beautifully spare prayer hall with a pitched roof but no walls was rimmed by engraved lists of the massacred, sorted by last names. Some families took up whole panels, so complete was their annihilation. But it was not until after we watched a film about the survivors and who they lost that I felt myself slipping out of control. Coming to terms with genocide may well be impossible.

When the lights went up, our group was silent, lost in dark thoughts; shaking, I was torn between rage and desolation, and afraid of where either emotion would take me. So I left. Without a word to anyone, I walked out, past the abandoned buildings nearby and into the graveyard across the street, washed myself in fountains amid apparently endless graves, and went to the prayer hall. There, in the shade I began to pray, because I could think of no other response to such evil than to submit myself to something higher. God and the world are incomprehensible; sometimes there is solace in this. The overwhelming sense of despair, anger, and even humiliation stayed with me throughout the day, and was only inflamed when, by nightfall, we returned to Sarajevo.

To see Sarajevo today is to suspect that the war might have happened in another era, or to another place; the old city is thronged with tourists, and the young were dressed so liberally, and even outrageously, it seemed every night was an endless party. Alcohol flowed freely; live bands played at perfect little cafes. Kuwaiti tourists had mounted a half-hearted invasion of the city, arriving as they do every summer to escape the Gulf’s scorching temperatures. The Sarajevo Film Festival was in full swing, and we’d just missed Angelina Jolie at our hotel. I imagine some of this is Sarajevans making up for lost time, seizing on life because they know how quickly it can be snatched away. But some of Sarajevo’s allure lies elsewhere.

Once, Europe had truly multinational states and empires; increasingly, these are a memory. While the European Union as a whole is stunningly diverse, each individual country tries to package itself as the realization of one people’s sovereignty. Estonia is for Estonians, and Austria is for Austrians. Most of the exceptions have been undone; Czechoslovakia is a thing of the past, and Yugoslavia’s implosion underlines the case. Belgium is destined to go down this road. Even the awkward and ultimately unsustainable political compromise that is today’s Bosnia suggests how hard it is to realize democracy and multiculturalism. But in Sarajevo, which has become overwhelmingly Muslim since the war, still you see, along with numerous mosques, Orthodox and Catholic churches.

Sarajevo is the kind of city that doesn’t exist anymore in much of Europe, an echo of a messier patchwork of peoples and faiths that was once characteristic of many Muslim societies, too. Bosnians hang on to this—they are deservingly proud of their country’s overlapping peoples, no matter the pain these divisions have cost them. But while they struggle to hold on to their heritage, it’s being undone elsewhere in the Muslim world, as histories of imperial pluralism collide with the realities of democracy and sovereignty. This process, happening before our eyes, is far more interesting and alarming than the battle lines we’ve imposed on the Middle East—of secularists versus Islamists, of free-thinking liberals versus religious autocrats, and so on.

That view misses the bigger and potentially bloodier point.

Democracy’s Dark Side

In America, we’re accustomed to believing democracy and diversity go hand in hand—we are obviously pluralistic. But that’s because we assimilate different individuals to a single national identity. Canada’s challenge with Quebecois separatism is closer to what Bosnia is threatened by; had we bothered to not expel, exterminate, or exclude American Indians, perhaps we’d know something of the challenge of balancing different peoples with distinct and longstanding identities. Which may explain why we’re so eager to force the Middle East into binaries, despite the evidence.

In Europe, the solution to the mess of collective sovereignty and individual freedom was ethnic sorting; nations were gradually cleansed, frequently through blood and fire, while in South Asia, mere talk of new boundaries in the 1940s precipitated horrific violence. That process has begun in the Arab world, or at least threatens to, and we would do well to pay closer attention. There are, I would argue, three regions the Arab world can be loosely divided into. Across the northwest, we have the “Maghreb,” made up of large, overwhelmingly Muslim, sparsely populated countries, whose primary cleavage is between Amazigh (who we’d have once called Berbers) and Arabs.

In the Gulf region, we have wealthy monarchies, again sparsely populated, and with high numbers of foreign workers, from lower-end service and construction jobs to higher-end management and finance professionals. And then we have the region from the Sinai to Iran’s western border, including Israel and the Occupied Territories, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and possibly even largely non-Arab Turkey; this region may well be the Arab world’s Balkans, and its recent conflicts suggest the dark side of democratization: When peoples want sovereignty, they don’t look kindly on other peoples who might physically be in their way. Tellingly, this region was, like the Balkans, part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries.

Frequently, the conflict in Syria has been compared to the conflict in Bosnia—it wasn’t a comparison I would have made, but recently the spectre of ethnic cleansing threatens to consume Syria as it did its neighbor in Iraq, and maybe makes that comparison more poignant. Already, rumors circulate of a plan among Syria’s minority Alawi population (the sect to which President Bashar al-Assad, like his father before him, belongs) to give up on ruling all the country, and instead retreat to a defensible state in areas where they are a majority (largely along the Mediterranean coastline and some of the inland plains). Meanwhile, as in Iraq, Syria’s Kurds have wrested more sovereignty for themselves, meaning their relationship to Turkey will remain vexing. Syria’s majority Sunnis may be left with what’s in between. Syria would go three ways, like Iraq essentially has.

To Intervene or Not Intervene

One of the most persuasive arguments against Western intervention in Syria was that neighboring states would want to press their own ideal outcomes for Syria on Syria; considering Turkey’s Kurdish population, Iraq’s sectarian conflicts, Lebanon’s divisive politics, and Israel’s security concerns (to say nothing of the awkward presence of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as a potential member in a future Syrian government), it’s hard to imagine that Syria would be allowed to decide its future free of foreign influence. The same can be said to apply to the entire region, a patchwork of different sects, ethnicities, languages, and religions, which, when combined with the push for more accountable governance, could be a massive problem with no easy resolution.

It may well be across this region that the so-called Saudi-Iranian Cold War, over the future of the Middle East—which includes Turkey, may include Egypt, and involves the U.S. as a decreasingly powerful factor—is decided. This is not to suggest essentialism, to make absurd and cowardly reference to ancient hatreds, or to imply inevitability. It is simply to suggest instead that what is happening is far more complicated than mere battles of ‘good Arabs’ versus ‘bad Arabs,’ usually mapped out over religious and secular (except that, in this fight, we are allied with conservative Turkey, along with religious Saudi Arabia and Qatar, against a secular, autocratic Syria, even as we worry about Islamists. Come again?)

While we are correct to consider the role of religion in the future of Arab democracies, we should also consider the Arab world’s three regions, and the particular circumstances of each. There’s a reason the most successful revolts of the Arab Spring took place in North Africa, which is comparatively less complicated. There, where ethnic homogeneity is far greater, we can expect future conflicts to take shape around ideology (in Libya, regional politics will also play a role, simply a combination of the country’s huge size and tiny, scattered population). But in the Arab world’s Balkans, ethnic politics will come to dominate, perhaps far more so than ideological cleavages.

Again, this is not to suggest inevitability, but that we must know what to look out for. While the Arab world is struggling to establish its own democracies, we must pay attention to the absence of larger, regional structures, through which conflicts can be resolved, tempered, or contained. Already, the region is split between alliances of powers, and lacks mechanisms by which countries can talk to one another. Democracies are far better at this than autocracies, but either way the Arab world needs a rejuvenated Arab League as the consequences of allowing local disputes to spill out of control are terrible to contemplate. The Iraqi Civil War was bad enough, but imagine if it grew to include Syria, Lebanon, and others in the region.

Syria’s Destiny

The reason the war in Bosnia remains frozen isn’t because a great political solution has been found. To the contrary, Bosnia’s political system is mired in endless gridlock. The country doesn’t work. The primary reason it’s still around is because the promise of European Union membership offers a far larger, wealthier, and safer space, within which tiny Bosnia becomes a little piece of a bigger puzzle. That same reality is required in the Middle East: there needs to be regional collaboration. Considering that the United States is playing a far less direct role in the region, perhaps this is an area of priority. We’re eager to contemplate military intervention, but far less enthused by the prospect of helping to build institutions that cross boundaries and prevent further ethnic cleansing.

Of course, it’s unlikely Bashar’s family’s rule can survive much longer. But considering that Iraq has essentially been partitioned, it’s conceivable that the same could happen in Syria; it may, in fact, already be happening. And considering how frequently ethnic and linguistic minorities cross national boundaries, a Balkan scenario in Syria becomes even more likely, which should encourage analysts to think beyond the Assad family. How can Arab democracies emerge that are able to accommodate not just ideological differences, but meaningful ethnic, religious, and linguistic ones, too? This might mean messy, inefficient states, non-secular (but non-theocratic) governance, and other awkward compromises. But an awkward compromise is better than a war to make the boundaries in some people’s imaginations match the boundaries on the ground.