Minorities and Borders

Syria and Iraq, these two states have much in common. Both ruled under auspices of Ba’athism and both were controlled by religious minorities within their respective states.

The question remains as to why minority groups in both countries ruled for as long as they did; in Syria they still partially do and in Iraq the solely Sunni fundamentalist group I.S.I.S. (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), Da’esh (the groups Middle Eastern name) I.S. (the Islamic State) as it now wishes to be known has already declared a new state as of this date[i]. I.S. which has recently been named “the biggest threat to [the] US”[ii], only a little over a year ago, the organisation did not exist in its current incarnation and yet it has within this short amount of time, taken control over sizable portions of Iraq and Syria. I.S.I.S. began as an al-Qaeda cell operating in Iraq, eventually taking advantage of the destabilised religion and sectarian divide to become what it is today[iii]

So why isit that ethnic minority groups in this region can hold onto power when the majority can not seem to? Both states were originally carved out under the spheres of influence of both the French and British Empires, with Iraq as a British mandate and Syria a French one. To quickly skip over this bit of history, both states in their eventual independence and Ba’athist revolution existed solely to support the regime, with Hafez al-Assad (the current President’s father) coming to power in Syria in 1970 after a series of coup d’état and Saddam Hussein coming to power in 1979 again after a series of coup d’état. Known colloquially as Mukhabarat[iv] or Police states it was the supreme efficiency of the domestic surveillance departments in both countries that kept them from fracturing into what we see today.

Middle Eastern post-colonial states are not organic creations after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and as such their borders, resources population and demographics are often hopelessly mismatched. To add to the troubles of holding a state together in this region of the world, is the age old rivalry between Sunni and Shia (the two predominant religious denominations within Islam), which has blighted the so called ‘Arab World’ since the death of the prophet. Many of the rebels in the region today, not just I.S., claim to be fighting for Allah rather than any sense of devotion to their particular country[v]. It is this major schism that ties into the wider historical narrative that underlies the Middle East today. Traditionally the region has been divided between the two main branches of Islam (Sunni and Shia), one that in Iraq divides the nation into a Shia majority in the south and a Sunni majority in the centre, not including the Kurdish autonomous region in the north-along a fluid border[vi].

These are the dilemmas facing the regimes of the region, as there is no one binding force of a secular ideology, as identified with in the west, when the idea of Iraqi or Syrian nationalism can barely hold a candle to religious or tribal ties, which are at total odds with the borders that they must adhere to. The states of Iraq and Syria are held hostage by these borders, held in immobility as state and regime in the present context are one and the same, to relinquish territory or to allow democratic process would be suicidal for the regime. In this sense, the states of Iraq and Syria are almost pre-Westphalian (the European treaty in 1648 that first established the creation of rigid borders and identified the ideology of Sovereignty) in that they never embraced traditional European concepts of borders and statehood. Without their ruling regimes remaining in a totalitarian facility they would fall apart, as indeed they are doing at present. The territory held by the self-styled Islamic State spans the border between Syria and Iraq, highlighting how ill-conceived the establishment of the old borders were.

Keeping these dilemmas in mind it is almost miraculous that a state would be viable under such conditions, the Hobbesian mess that is now north east Iraq and much of Syria would of seemed much more likely, Hobbes wrote about his ideas of the world before the modern state system came into being, calling it the ‘state of nature’ in which he described life as “Nasty, Brutish and Short”[vii] in other words: anarchy. The Ba’athist regimes institutionalised by Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein were an answer to the sectarian divisions that would mar many other forms of government, voting for example can hardly work if Sunnis will only vote for Sunni candidates and Shia likewise. Instead what evolved was a rule of the minority, ostensibly secular and socialist in nature with a power base through ethnic/social ties but strong enough to be able to court enough of the majority to maintain popular support, for a while.

The failure of the Arab spring within certain nations showed how invested the West really was in democratic peace theory (the idea that democracies do not go to war with other democracies, the driving force of many Western foreign policies), where whole populations were begging for representation. Unfortunately the notion of representation by Islamist groups was not good enough politically and Egypt allowed it’s Army to take back control when the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi was deposed in July 2013[viii], Libya is now ruled by militias[ix] and Yemen[x] is still in turmoil; whilst Syria and Iraq are still in the midst of a civil war.

At the time of writing this article it has been reported that, with some senior Western figures endorsing at the very least, dialogue, “[The] West [is] poised to join forces with President Assad”[xi] This is an interesting development considering the Assad regimes ties to Russia, it clearly shows however that the West is clearly more in favour of an ostensibly secular despot than a border spanning caliphate that threatens to encroach upon the borders of a member of NATO, namely Turkey. The Assad regime has even learnt further tricks of survival from its old neighbour, Saddam Hussein. That in making such a public show of relinquishing its chemical weapons effectively allowed an excuse for the west to remain as uninvolved as it has, up until now.

So what has led the Ba’athist regimes to remain such a dominant force in the Middle East, both politically and socially? Why have the states of Iraq and Syria been ruled by Ba’athist minorities for so long? The reason is simply that short of redrawing the map of most of the Middle East, the only viable alternatives of rule were those based upon religious or tribal ties which do not suit the Western predisposition toward secular governance. Unfortunately I.S.I.S. or I.S. plays into the unfortunate stereotype of a violent and backward Islamic caliphate whilst perversely highlighting the underlying problems of the region which will not disappear after the civil wars in Iraq and Syria eventually end. Finally one ought to have a look at the map of Europe only one hundred years ago, it looks very different from today, and it was a continent of nearly constant warfare until quite recently. Perhaps the Middle East will go through a similar metamorphosis. It is difficult to see any change in the near future, rather we should invest in long term gains that will only come to fruition fifty years hence, continuing airstrikes and invasions will only continue the vicious cycle of violence that has blighted this region for so long.


[i] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/07/baghdadi-vision-new-caliphate-20147184858247981.html – accessed 24/08/2014

[ii] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-28891325 – accessed 22/08/2014

[iii] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-24179084 – accessed 14/08/2014

[iv] The Arab World: Nation, State and Democracy by Fawzy Mansour Review by: John P. Entelis Page 340 of 340-341

[v] http://www.vice.com/ground-zero/the-destruction-of-daraa-part-1 – accessed 22/08/2014

[vi] http://www.vox.com/a/maps-explain-the-middle-east Map 13 – accessed 22/08/2014

[vii] http://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/hobbes/Leviathan.pdf – accessed 14/08/2014

[viii] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/03/mohamed-morsi-egypt-second-revolution accessed 24/08/2014

[ix] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/08/tripoli-airport-2014823183122249347.html – accessed 24/08/2014

[x] http://www.voanews.com/content/suspected-al-qaida-bomb-attacks-kill-4-in-yemen/2425937.html – accessed 24/08/2014

[xi] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/west-poised-to-join-forces-with-president-assad-in-face-of-islamic-state-9686666.html – accessed 23/08/2014

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