Peace within states is as important as it is between and among states. Let us not forget that internal wars on any ground such as ideology, religion, sub-nationalism or for political ends have taken more lives than major wars.
The case in point is Syria, where internal conflict over rights, power and regime change have dragged the regional states and external powers in. This unfortunate country has been through a terrible civil war for more than two years. With each passing year, the level of violence from the regime and the militant factions opposing it has escalated. Each side has used deadlier weapons and has taken the conflict to almost every corner of the country. The last episode in the suspected use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime on August 21 left 1,400 civilians in a rebel-controlled area dead, including 400 children. One finds the scene of the attack utterly disgusting.
The use of these weapons of mass destruction is a crime against humanity and a violation of the 1993 convention against the use of such weapons. The Syrian regime is the second in modern history after the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein that has used chemical weapons against its own population. The latter regime attacked the Iranian troops during the long war between the two countries.
One of the lessons of history is that the longer civil conflicts go on, the more difficult it becomes to resolve them peacefully. This is very true of the Syrian conflict. Every major and minor effort, including the appointment of a special envoy by the UN and initiatives of regional countries, has failed. The conflicting interests of the warring parties and three important regional players, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are no less a barrier than the hardened positions of the Syrian government and its opposition.
What is at stake in the Syrian conflict and what are the likely implications it might have for the wider Middle East, including Pakistan? There is hardly any facade left to hide the bitter fact about the Middle East. The region is becoming dangerously divided along sectarian lines. Two of the major competing states, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have used sectarian motives to compete for influence and power from Afghanistan to Lebanon. They have organised, funded and encouraged rival communities, movements and factions. The Syrian conflict, though started for democratic rights, has degenerated into a sectarian conflict.
The post-monarchical regimes of Iraq and Syria under the banner of secularism and Arab nationalism failed to deliver the promised end of an integrated political community, above the consideration of a narrow sectarian identity. Initially, the regime builders promoted the idea of secular nationalism and attempted to create inclusive power structures. Why did they fail? The rulers presenting themselves as messiahs relied on fear and oppression rather than on democratic consent to rule. In a few years’ time, despite heavy doses of nationalistic propaganda, they lost popular ‘revolutionary’ legitimacy. Every attempt by individuals, factions and groups to organise and seek rights was suppressed.
It was the denial of democracy and political freedoms that led people to seek refuge in their religious and sectarian communities. And these communities began to seek support from across the national borders, both from private groups and governments. Sectarian identity and factionalism is one of the deadliest fault lines of Pakistan and we have seen that this has often produced tragic consequences for us. If the Syrian war continues to expand, as it looks it will, we may not escape its fallout.
With an American attack on Syria that appears quite imminent, we may see a dangerous turn in the Syrian conflict. Whatever its outcome, the regional balance of power and identities will change.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 3rd, 2013.
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