As the Syria Geneva II conference has turned Western attention back to the Levantine tragedy, the mythical Western narrative of the conflict persists. This dangerous narrative conforms to Western standards of ‘good guys vs. bad guys,’ the framework has led to colossal failure in the past (see: Vietnam War, 2003 invasion of Iraq). There is a tendency to apply the same sort of reasoning to the current Syrian conflict: the Asad regime and its supporters are bad guys, the moderate rebels good guys. Most also now recognize the extremist rebel factions sympathetic to groups like Al-Qaeda (also bad guys).
However, in reality, any war, especially in the Middle East, cannot be broken down in such terms. The complicated roles of nationalism and factionalism make the situation, and most other Middle-Eastern conflicts, more complex than we’d like it to be.
Western conceptions of nations and nationalism cannot be applied in the Middle East. With a couple notable exceptions, Middle-Eastern national governments have rarely been able persist by virtue of a strong national identification among the populace. Because of the largely arbitrary post-war borders of countries like Jordan, Syria, and Iraq, governments have been required to strike a ruling bargain with their citizens in order to maintain legitimacy.
In Iraq and Syria, leaders have historically avoided democracy and practiced sectarian nepotism, but for many years distributed enough resources to their citizens to maintain legitimacy. In addition to the divided and sectarian nature of nations, there is the living phenomenon of Pan-Arabism, which considers the entire Arab world one nation. Brought to the prominence by Egypt’s Nasser, Pan-Arabism resulted in the brief union of Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic. Modern history is filled with influential figures preaching the virtues of the Pan-Arabism, and it plays a prominent role in current politics, as well as in extremist movements.
There is also the issue of factionalism and the way in which issues tend to intertwine in the Levant. Among the most important drivers is the Arab-Israeli conflict, an ever-present catalyst for fragmentation. Factions and governments are often defined by their relationship with the different parties in the conflict, including Hamas, Fatah, and Hezbollah, as well as the degree to which they identify with extremists. However, no single factor determines their role in any conflict. In the Syrian war, groups lie on a spectrum of extremism, support for democracy, and relationships with outside nations and groups. Both Hezbollah and the now prominent Al-Nusra front denounce Israel, shun Sunni Muslims, and are given the title ‘terrorist group’ by the United States. However, they are fighting on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict.
Examples like this show clearly that the Syrian Civil War is not a war of nations, ideas, or religious sects. It cannot be reduced to democracy vs. dictatorship, extremist vs. non-extremist, or Alawite vs. Shia vs. Sunni. If our politicians and diplomats continue to frame it in any of these narratives, there is no hope for success.
This conclusion begs the question: given the situation, can there be any hope for a negotiated (or even violent) solution? I believe that there is a prospect for a negotiated peace, much like that which arose in Lebanon at the end of its own civil war. This peace will have to be arranged by men and women much more knowledgeable than I, and it will not be satisfactory for all parties involved. However, given the potential benefits both in and around Syria, it is a peace worth striving for.