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How Will our Region Look Come November 2016?

23 July 2015

By Eyad Abu Shakra

Against the backdrop of genocide committed by the rump of the Syrian regime against its people in the service of the agreed regional script for the Arab Mashreq (East), and the accelerating collapse of the concept of the "State" throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Lebanon becomes nothing more than a trivial sideshow.

Why care anyway about what happens to Lebanon if those supposedly most in need of it, and were deemed the main beneficiaries for whom it was created . . . do not give a damn about it anymore? And why be keen to keep Lebanon if the international accords which created it as an independent country are now under review by the world powers?

The former main beneficiaries were those Lebanese Christians who always dreamt of living in a viable and permanent independent entity in the Arab Mashreq, although there are others who never felt the need for such an entity based on the conviction that the Christians were never "guests" in the region's geography nor were they foreign to its heritage and history. Indeed, how could they be when two pre-Islamic Christian Arab kingdoms were founded in southwest Iraq and southern Syria by the major Yemenite tribes Lakhm and Ghassan respectively? Later, under Islam, the Muslims and Arabs refused to hold Christianity as a religion, or their Christian compatriots, responsible for the Crusades, which they called "Wars of the Firinja" (the Franks or Westerners), without any reference to Jesus Christ.

In any case, in 1920, Grand Liban, or Greater Lebanon, was created, and soon afterwards became Lebanon, an independent republic "with an Arab face"(!), while the two parallel sectarian mini-states also created under the French mandate, "the State of the Alawite Mountain" and "the State of the Druze Mountain," were both dissolved and merged in the nascent Syrian Republic. For both the Alawite and Druze minorities the bond of "Arabism" was good enough a guarantee—indeed an assurance—for coexistence in a new state where Sunni Muslims make up more than 70 percent of the population.

The situation was a bit different in the new Lebanon where no single sect could claim to constitute a majority. Thus Lebanon's political culture was based on fragile consensus and the fact-of-life acceptance of pluralism through mutual concessions between the two main religious blocs, the Muslims and the Christians. This went on until the uneven population growth and the various regional political and military developments combined to ignite the Lebanese Civil War between 1975 and 1990. Afterwards, rational Christian leaders became convinced that the Taif Accords, which formally established the 50/50 partition of political and civil service posts between Muslims and Christians regardless of population figures, and confirmed in writing the allocation of the presidency, the speakership and premiership after modifying their powers, provided the best long-term guarantees to the Christians.

Only Gen. Michel Aoun, the commander-in-chief, opposed the said accords, claiming they weakened the Christians' position vis-à-vis that of the Muslims, especially the Sunnis. Aoun's stubborn opposition made him a hero in Christian heartlands, where for hardliners he came to represent the Christian challenge to "Muslim hegemony," as well as becoming the "champion" of liberating Lebanon from "Syrian occupation."

Today, in spite of becoming the number one Christian ally of both the Syrian and Iranian regimes, Aoun is at it again threatening mass rallies "in defense of Christians' Rights," as a reaction to the Lebanese cabinet's refusal to appoint his son-in-law to his old post—that of commander-in-chief of the army. In this instance he is forcing the Christian community into a tight corner as the Middle East suffers the tough polarization between the two extreme Sunni and Shi'ite versions of "Political Islam."

Aoun, however, is not alone in underestimating the dangers of involving the Christian minority in a war that is not really its war. There are, actually, a few religious and political figures who have committed that error, which will only increase extremism and gift (self-proclaimed "Islamist") groups a credibility they do not deserve.

It is worth recalling that when Ayatollah Khomeini's insistence on "exporting" his "Islamic Revolution" to the Arab world sparked the Iran–Iraq War, and radicalized Arab fighters returned from Afghanistan, the whole region regressed into a cocoon away from openness and tolerance. Then things got worse as outbidding began in earnest between extremist Sunni and Shi'ite movements and groups culminating in the current poisonous polarization between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)–Al-Qaeda camp and the velayat-e faqih–Karbala camp. This religious and sectarian situation has been and will be even more costly to the region, but one must recognize that underneath the religious and sectarian cloak there are nationalistic dimensions.

These nationalistic dimensions express themselves in two areas:

The first is the covert confrontation between Iran and Turkey; and the second, the confused calculations of religious, sectarian, and ethnic minorities.

Nationalist feelings in the Arab Mashreq—be they Lebanese, Syrian, or Arab—were never limited to Christians, but rather intensified within Muslim communities as an "Arab" reaction to the process of "Turkification"—or Turkish Nationalism—during the last decades of the Ottoman Empire; which was a non-nationalist Sunni Muslim caliphate. Iran too has never been immune from heightened nationalism, bearing in mind that for centuries it was ruled by non-Persian and even non-Aryan rulers.

Today both Turkey and Iran are two large countries where the "major" ethno-linguistic constituent barely surpasses 50 percent of the total population, and hence for both attack is the best method of defense. This means neither of them contemplates defeat, nor would they hesitate to use others in their "grand confrontation" for regional supremacy. As for the "others," be they Arabs, Kurds, or unattached minorities, they are available and ready to be used as cheap foot soldiers.

Last week I saw a published map of Rojeva, or Western Kurdistan, extending along the Syrian–Turkish border and connected with Iraqi Kurdistan. Like many others, I have also been reading lately about the "useful Syria"—meaning the western part of Syria bordering Lebanon and overlooking the Mediterranean. Then of course there is ISIS dominating the desert inner curve of the Fertile Crescent, while southern Iraq is gradually becoming more-or-less an Iranian sector.

I am not sure where the Christians and other minorities following their example will find themselves in all this mess; but I reckon using ISIS as an excuse or justification for the Iran–US deal is a very ominous step, and equally as ominous is preventing Turkey from defending itself against the consequences of the deal.

Given all of the above, can we imagine how our region will look like come November 2016?

Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with the newspaper since 1978. 

 

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