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Syria: A very modern conflict

We must be wary of rose-tinted narratives about the past: sectarian tensions have been present, even if non-confrontational, in peaceful times.

Stories about the “good old days” are familiar to any Lebanese who, like me, moved as a child to London to escape the civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990. Our parents and grandparents shook their heads at every outbreak of violence while recalling that they never cared which sects their classmates were from and used to celebrate each other’s holy feasts together. Many still do and they continue to be horrified as new conflicts arise in the Middle East.

A decade ago, Iraqis began to say similar things and now it is the Syrian people’s turn. The Lebanese can only watch sadly as Syria descends more deeply into the kind of bloody and increasingly sectarian civil war with which they are all too familiar. We must be wary of rose-tinted narratives about the past: sectarian tensions have been present, even if non-confrontational, in peaceful times. Yet it would be wrong to see Syria, or the region more generally, as prone to ancient hatreds that are reasserting themselves today.

To represent the civil war as purely sectarian is as reductive as it is dangerous, because policy decisions are often based on such interpretations. Dan Snow’s BBC documentary A History of Syria (broadcast in March) took this line, neglecting the political and economic interests that are the real causes of violence in the country.

In common with many western commentators, Snow presented the civil war as an inevitable uprising of Sunni conservatism against Bashar al-Assad’s secularist government. By way of a supporting argument, he stated that Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. It is true that religious sects exist and that memories of violence understandably return when tensions rise again but it is an altogether different thing to say that sectarianism is an inherent and retrograde aspect of life in the region.

It is more useful to think about what is happening in terms of what I would call “sectarianisation” – a recent process, rather than a phenomenon that has always existed and prevents the Middle East from becoming modern and democratic. Instead of conflating sectarianism with religious belief, we should focus on the people who profit, politically and economically, from those identities and divisions.

The Syrian uprising began in 2011 in the small, southern city of Deraa as a way of expressing grievances against corrupt local officials and the regime’s repressive measures. This was taken up as a non-sectarian movement for reform and democratisation throughout the country. Early slogans and calls to demonstrate emphasised the inclusive nature of the revolution. Prominent Alawites and Christians supported it.

Assad’s immediate accusations that the rebels were foreigners and Salafists were exaggerations, if not fictitious, but as the crisis has dragged on, more and more foreign jihadists have entered Syria to fight against him. Assad has manipulated sectarian divisions ruthlessly to maintain power. By presenting the opposition as Sunni extremists, Salafists and al-Qaeda supporters who want to wipe out minorities, he has been able to mobilise Alawites (11 per cent of the population), Christians (12 per cent), Druze (3 per cent) and Shias (2 per cent) to support him. As the war has progressed, increased violence and massacres, such as those at Houla and Qubayr last year, have turned sectarian divisions into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is not difficult to find instances of sectarianisation throughout history. The British and French built links with Alawites, Druze, Christians and other minorities, ostensibly to encourage equality, but mostly to use them to gain economic and military inroads into the area. Some minorities, particularly the Alawites, had been neglected under the Ottoman empire, suffering poverty and a lack of education. The French mandate of 1920-46 created an autonomous Alawite region around Latakia and recruited Alawites, Druze, Circassians and Armenians into their troupes spéciales. Partly as a result of this, the Alawites maintained a strong sense of identity even while remaining poor. Syrian independence and Arab nationalism motivated them to work their way up through the military.

Regional events seem to be shaping up along sectarian lines. The recent incursion of the Lebanese Hezbollah into Syria and Iran’s plan to send troops to support Assad signal a Shia alliance across the region. The oil-rich Sunni monarchies Qatar and Saudi Arabia are supporting the Syrian rebels. This is not a return to age-old religious differences. Sectarianism is created and re-created at different times and in different contexts.

Lana Asfour is a writer based in London and Beirut

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

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Why did the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet win this year's Nobel Peace Prize?

Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

It is a fitting that in a tumultuous year for global peacemaking, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the little-known Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition made up of the union federation UGTT, the employers’ institute, the Tunisian human rights league and the order of lawyers . Over the past few years, the Quartet has been quietly shepherded in democracy to the country that lit the fuse of the Arab Spring. In part thanks to the efforts of this broad cross-section of civil society, Tunisia has stayed the course in transitioning from an authoritarian past to a democratic future, even in the face of terrorist violence and as other revolutions in the region have faltered.

The award comes at a time of escalating sectarian conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Islamic State’s campaign of terror has uprooted Iraqis and Syrians alike, driving desperate refugees into small boats to battle the waves of the Mediterranean. They join others fleeing to Europe from political and economic crises in Africa and Asia, forming a stream of humanity symbolising failures in leadership in three continents.

Among all this, it is not hard to identify why the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the world’s most coveted peace prize to the Tunisian Quartet.

First,Tunisia deserves to be celebrated for its momentous achievements in consolidating democracy. Unlike other countries in the region, it has trodden a path that is slow but solid, adopting a comprehensive and consensus-building approach to decision-making.

In this it provides a rare and extremely important example, not only for the region but also for the world. Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

Civil society steps up

Second, the role of civil society is fundamental for bringing about sustainable peace. Political leadership is important, but the scale of the challenge in transitional societies means that we cannot simply leave things to political leaders to sort out.

At local level especially, peace feels a lot more real when it comes with tangible improvements to quality of life. Citizens want to see the economy motoring again and to have confidence in the state’s institutions. They want to know that they can sleep soundly and safely, without fear of violence, persecution or poverty. Governments often lack the capacity and credibility to deliver these dividends alone. Civil society must step up to the plate – particularly the associations of trade, justice and human rights of which the Quartet is formed.

And third, the Quartet’s work relies heavily on forming constructive relationships across the political spectrum – from secularists to fundamentalists. It has walked a fine line, keeping disparate groups with diverging interests invested in an inclusive national process of dialogue. It has, in the words of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, laid the “groundwork for a national fraternity”.

Politicians are often the most cynical of creatures, yet the Quartet has managed to build a sense of collective endeavour among them. It has encouraged them to put the country’s best interest ahead of personal or sectarian interests, making this the guiding principle for decision-making.

Other bright spots

The transition in Tunisia is a work in progress and there will be more setbacks and successes. The country was left reeling from two terrorist attacks earlier this year, when 22 people were killed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and another 39 people died during an attack on a tourist resort in Sousse. But the message today is clear – Tunisia has made remarkable progress since 2010, despite the odds. This is in large part due to a credible and engaged civil society, a remarkable achievement in a new democracy. The country has forged a path of inclusive national dialogue from which many lessons can be learned.

Elsewhere this year, Myanmar goes to the polls in November – the country’s first free national ballot since 1990. Colombia is closer to lasting peace than ever, ending half a century of war that has taken 220,00 lives and uprooted six million people.

The US restored diplomatic relationships with Cuba, and also struck a landmark agreement with Iran over its nuclear programmes. And the UN has adopted the sustainable development goals, explicitly recognising peaceful and inclusive societies as a development priority for the first time. Behind every step forward there is an individual or institution worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, but only one can win and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet is a worthy laureate.

Laura Payne is a Research Fellow and Director of RISING Global Peace Forum, Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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