By Johan Galtung
There seem to be three levels to the Syrian conundrum.
On top is the conflict over who is to rule Syria, the Assad minority Shia, 13%, mainly Alawite – or Baath rather, more secular, socialist–dictatorship respecting other minorities – Christians, Armenians, Assyrians, Druze, Kurds, Turkoman, or a majority Sunni, 73% dictatorship with no such respect. Both groups fight with brutality, the list of crimes on both sides is long, and the world is watching the unbearable suffering of the Syrian people, even from nerve gases.
Then, in the middle, is the usual geopolitical game of states and regions. In the background are huge alliances, the 28 mainly small NATO countries against the 6+ SCO-Shanghai Cooperation Organization countries with two enormous members. The five veto powers of the UN Security Council are openly involved – USA, UK, France, Russia and China, and Turkey, for their economic, military and political interests, paralyzing the UN Security Council (like the USA blocking a UNSC resolution after the February 2013 Damascus bombing).
And then, at the bottom, feeding into it all, two cultural, religious fundamentalisms. There is Islamist fundamentalism in the Shia-Sunni divide, with Iran-Hizbollah. But, possibly more important, is the anti-secularist-socialist/Baath position of Arab monarchies. And there is the Judeo-Christian idea of Chosenness afflicting Israel and the USA, with not only the right but a duty to impose their God-given will on others. They are two of the same kind, united in that faith, with the tail wagging the dog and Obama as the tail-dog link; protecting not only Israel-Jordan but also its own exceptionalism.
How do we approach this overwhelmingly complex conflict for solutions that could be acceptable and sustainable? How do we think?
Conflict fundamentalists will say: handle the fundamentalist center of the conundrum, the bottom, first, and the rest follows. Make Islam more tolerant; make Israel-USA less exceptionalist.
Others will say we do not have the time; in the meantime the power struggle inside and over Syria, and the suffering, continues.
Enters Putin and with a stroke of genius spreads some light over the whole complex: focus less on who did it, more on the gas itself. Get rid of it, by destruction and/or storage in a safe place, manages the incredible: geopolitical cooperation across the board, a focus on weapons and violence more than on the actors–usually one as evil–paving the way for a ceasefire in Syria. But, the fundamentalisms?
He explicitly addresses US exceptionalism – and the dishonest US empire-builders, badly wounded, try to hit back referring to him as KGB. But Putin is telling the intractable bottom level by handling the top and middle level: Look, your violent approach does not work!
The UN Secretary General, had he not been a US puppet, should have said this long time ago. A Hammnarskiöld might, a U Thant.
But, there are problems. That the Assad regime has chemical arms deposits to be declared, inspected, handled as parts of a multilateral, verifiable process is obvious. But there could be other deposits in other hands, also in neighboring countries, easily smuggled in. Are we to believe that the Assad regime ordered a gas attack, well knowing the red line, the White House producing no compelling evidence? Or that somebody else launched that attack to unleash massive anti-Assad retribution? The latter seems more likely, so any rational approach to eliminate the gas would have to cover both sides in talks behind closed doors.
The Russian focus on the gas got the USA off the hook. There is no support for a US attack except from Israel that wants Syria cut into four parts and the Shia part occupied. Not from NATO, not from US public opinion, not US top military, not the US Congress unable to unite on almost anything tormenting the USA right now, not “special relation” UK with the Parliament against, 285-272. The McNamara thesis: the USA does not want to act alone, like White House alone.
Where in the amazingly complex history of the region with present day Syria carved out by Western imperialism do we find the inspiration for a solution?
Every power left their marks, faiths, their nations behind, in what became a rich crossroad, for Christians on the road to Damascus (Saulus = Apostle Paul), for Muslims on the road to Mecca (the hajj). An incredible history. The Umayyad khalifate was short-lasting, 661-750, but became the largest empire of its time and one of the largest ever, expanding east and west along North Africa into Spain till 1492, spreading Islam everywhere. But in 750 they were overthrown by what became the Abassid khalifate centered in Baghdad, itself overthrown when Baghdad was sacked by the Mongol Hulegu on February 10 1258. Thus, a majority Sunni Syria next to majority Shia Iraq also revives historical rivalries the Baath party tried to mend.
That light comes from four centuries of Ottoman rule, 1516-1916, till the Western betrayal. They were Sunni Muslims respecting Arabic and the religious minorities: at the time Shia Muslim, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Armenian and Jewish–each constituting a millet with much autonomy. Human rights long before the human rights. Erdögan would have done better had he taken less of a position in the geopolitical game, basing himself more on Ottoman sophistication. And even more so now that the Nabucco pipeline from the Caspian to Southern Europe, bringing fossil fuels certified as non-Russian and non-Shia through Georgia and Turkey, with huge transition fees, seems to be crumbling.
This column has for years been arguing for a two-chamber parliament in Syria having an upper house with eight or so nations – like the Ottoman millets – and a coalition government. Very far from US “progressive solutions,” ours are based on criminalizing rather than killing the regime, with Assad for the International Criminal Court (Americans ruled out), etc.
Do that, and what remains is the whole Syrian conflict. Build on the two lights, and the roads to solutions are no longer hidden in the dark.
Originally published by Transcend Media Service here.