The Levant in Turmoil: Syria, Palestine, and the Transformation of Middle Eastern Politics
THE LEVANT IN TURMOIL – book Sample
Introduction – Political Turmoil and Social Transformation in the Levant
In the year 2014, the ongoing Syrian civil war, the advancement of the Islamic State (IS) in both Syria and Iraq, another round of failed bilateral negotiations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the military escalation in Gaza raised the question as to whether the developments in the Levant might lead not only to processes of regime change, but possibly also to an even more fundamental alteration of the Levant’s entire state system.
In the period after the Arab Uprisings of 2010–11, any hopes for a democratic, social, and political change in the Middle East have increasingly been disappointed. This applies in particular to the subregion of the Levant, where warfare has characterized the situation in Syria, Iraq, and the Gaza Strip. Hopes for a democratic rule in Syria and Iraq, as well as for the establishment of a Palestinian state in coexistence with Israel, have been essentially frustrated.
Confronted with the enormous human suffering in Syria, the international community has shown an appalling inability to act in an efficient way.
The Syrian population has become the pawn of a com- plex setting of brutal regime repression, militia warfare, organized crime, and the diverging interests of regional states and international great powers.
At the end of World War I, the international great powers together with their respective regional clients established a new political order in the Levant on the remnants of the territories of the demised Ottoman Empire. Although heavily disputed and challenged by various actors, in the end, this new political landscape of modern national states has largely remained unchanged until today.
However, the continuing dismantlement of the Syrian state and the territorial assertions of the IS are knitted into regional conflicts such as the Kurdish issue, the sectarian struggle in Iraq, the future of the Lebanese state, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Taking into account this complex setting of conflicts, the political violence that has unfolded since the “Arab Spring” might put at stake the political borders of the post– World War I order.
Taking this turmoil in the Levant as its central point of reference, this book brings together a multidisciplinary group of scholars.
The following chapters are written by international experts in the fields of Middle East area studies, history, International Relations, political science, and sociology. They provide fresh descriptions and analyses of the political predicament in the Levant that arose in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
This is done with the aim of presenting studies on the turmoil in the Levant from different disciplinary angles. We do not attempt to offer a theoretical frame through which all authors are expected to process their empirical data. Instead, we want to pre- sent a multiplicity of perspectives on current developments in the region. We asked the contributors to address the political turmoil in the Levant from their disciplinary angles, based on their own schol- arly experiences.
The volume is therefore deliberately characterized by a diversity of approaches and styles that give credit to the productive plurality of scholarly traditions as well as to each single author’s theo- retical and methodological preferences.1
In this endeavor the authors present their specific answers to the overarching question of the ways in which we might discern indicators for a political transformation of the state system in the Levant including its social, economic, and ethnic foundations. With the nine chapters of this book, the editors intend to provide the reader with diverse answers to this general ques- tion.
As the turmoil in the Levant is ongoing, it goes without saying that these answers are preliminary. They are meant to fuel the debate on the transformation of Middle East politics rather than to offer premature conclusions.
In chapter 1, Fred Lawson opens our discussion with an analysis based on a chronology of events of the Syrian civil war. Lawson’s chapter is first of all a primer for the reader, giving a detailed overview of the developments on the ground.
Lawson gives a precise account of the enormously fragmented political landscape of this war as it devel- oped throughout 2014. In so doing, he discerns four key features that characterized the Syrian war in its fourth year. First, he observes, sim- ilar to Peter Sluglett in chapter 2, a clear shift toward a fully sectarian- ized conflict. Second, he points to a remarkable increase in infighting among those militias that initially had the mutually shared goal of combating the regime in Damascus.
Third, Lawson observes the loss of control over large parts of Syrian territory by Damascus. Fourth, the regime nevertheless was able to maintain state control over some key districts with the help of loyal militias.
The second aim of the chapter is to analyze the reconfiguration of interstate relations in the Middle East, based on the previously mentioned key features of the war. In assessing the impact of the Syrian war on the relationship among regional states, Lawson puts the focus on Turkey’s regional realignments and the reconfiguration of the relationship between Iraq and Iran.
In addition, he emphasizes the ascendance of a much more powerful role in regional politics of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq and of local Kurdish organizations in general.
The chapter concludes with a description of the shift in the pattern of regional alignments as, according to Lawson, took place during the winter of 2013–14 and which are closely related to the “pronounced turn” of the Syrian war toward ethno-sectarian violence.
Lawson’s analysis clearly shows the transformative power of the events in Syria on a regional level; how- ever, it also indicates the rather ambiguous nature of these transformations, making predictions with respect to their outcomes a mere speculative endeavor.
The turn to ethno-sectarian violence described by Lawson, often accompanied by Sunni Jihadism, to a certain extent mirrors the violent expressions of sectarianism that more generally have become a frequent occurrence in the multi-sectarian parts of the Arab world.
The background for this relatively new phenomenon is described and analyzed in chapter 2 by Peter Sluglett, with a particular focus on Syria. The idea of his contribution is to explain how uncoordi- nated protests and demonstrations developed into an armed conflict between the regime and the opposition and later became transformed into a sectarian civil war.
The chapter takes a historical starting point, looking at the modern history of Syria, the creation of the army, and its history related to several military coups. Furthermore Sluglett analyses the development of the Baath party and the social and eco- nomic conditions under Hafiz al-Assad, who based his power on the Alawi sect in Syria.
Sluglett describes how in 1982 the regime crushed the militant uprising in Hama with extreme brutality, thereby contributing to laying the foundation for a “modern form of Salafism.” This Salafism, building on both Sunni extremism and anti-Shiism, gained impetus as a result of regional protests against the US-led invasion in Iraq in 2003.
The leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and others attempted to trigger a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, an ambition that was continued by followers in Iraq and Syria. The chapter emphasizes that the conflict in Syria is not simply a result of Sunni-Shia contradictions.
When the protests began in early 2011, power was monopolized by a heterodox minority, and the extremely repressive response to the demonstrations by the regime went out of control. In this development the religious dimension gradually began to play an increasing role, not least because of anticipations of revenge after a possible end of the fighting.
It is one of Sluglett’s interest- ing points to underline that the internal struggle in Syria is to some degree a result of contradictions beyond Syria’s borders. The chapter concludes with the idea that even though the complex regional development, including the rise of the IS, might not lead to a transformation of the state system in the Levant, the turmoil in the region will continue into the foreseeable future.
Basing his analysis on the complexities of the Syrian war economy with its multiplicity of competing actors, Samer Abboud comes to a similar conclusion in chapter 3.
In applying the lenses of politi- cal economy, Abboud is predominantly interested in the very fluid emergence of new political authorities in the course of the war in Syria. For the year 2014, he observed the evolution of four distinct areas that represented centers of military and administrative power.
First, there are those territories that have remained under control of the Assad regime. Then, there is the squat of land under the control of the IS, which combines territories within both the Syrian and the Iraqi states.
The third area is the Kurdish enclaves in the northern parts of Syria, close to the borders to Turkey and Iraq. Finally, there are various smaller pieces of territory in the south and northwest of Syria that are under control of different rebel factions.
Abboud describes and analyzes the emergence of forms of micro-governance and decentralized authority in these four areas. He argues…..
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