In 1789, representatives of the French people arrived at the Palace of Versailles at the behest of King Louis XVI to solve France’s chronic financial problems. Instead, upon taking an oath in the palace tennis court, the delegates sought to change the system by bringing liberté, égalité, and fraternité to France. The French nation was born that day, though it was forged through violent revolution, a reign of terror by its radical proponents, and endured the intervention of outside powers. The conflagration brought down two kingdoms, dissolved feudalism, and created a new international order that changed the destiny of human civilization. This story is unfolding again, this time in Islamic World, where a momentous change in the Mediterranean world, and human history is unfolding before our eyes.
The Arab Spring that began in 2010 was a wave that swept through North Africa and spread to every corner of the Muslim world, toppling governments and leading to a massive civil war that spreads two countries, dragging three regional powers and three great powers into the conflict. The Islamic State (IS or ISIS) is challenging the modern conception of “Middle East,” and declared war on the West. Certainly, such an event, in the context of the “Global War On Terror,” has been an earth shattering event for policymakers that saw the Arab Spring as the beginning of a renaissance of western values, specifically democratic rule, finally bear fruit. Instead, something else happened in the Muslim world, and it’s tied to sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites, and a little talked about concept of “Nationalism.”
Islamic v. Secular?
Policymakers have been debating throughout the conflict what forces are pushing this conflict, proposing belief systems like Islamism and Salafism. This is too narrow, because the Syrian war is purely a religious crusade by radical clerics, nor a revolutionary struggle between a small band of revolutionaries cast in the style of Lenin, Mao or Castro. Instead, it is nationalism with a strong popular and religious backing. We are used to thinking of nationalism as a western concept, describing the formation of great nation-states, with a specific identity made up of common values, customs, languages, and history. It is also the fundamental bedrock for a nation-state, whose boundaries and sovereign rule within those boundaries are a reflection of these aspects of nationalism. Unlike the western world, the Islamic World does not have that historical tradition. Identity is shared through the common faith of Islam, transcending all previously described boundaries, cultural or political. The key feature of Islamic Nationalism is the rejection of the “nation-state,” affirming the global community bound in the umma or Islamic community and its root in the values and traditions of Muhammad and his successors.
As with the French in relation to Europe from 1789 to 1799 (and Germans of the 1930s and 40s), Islamic Nationalism is pushing the region towards escalating violence, seeking to overthrow a western imposed system of nation-states. ISIS is the ultimate product, drawing from poor hungry farmers to outcast Baathists who see no legitimacy in the current system, and wish to reject products of Western intervention. They use acts of terror and a combination of guerrilla and conventional warfare to hold territory, and are instituting a social and political revolution across the region and beyond through complex state-building and communications strategies. While these attitudes and motives are rooted the religious violence of the Iranian Revolution and Saudi exportation of Wahhabism, this phase of revolution is consuming all of these actors, blowing back on decades of rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh.
So what is the Syrian Civil War really about? The Arab Spring, ISIS, and the current conflict is about the struggle between two ideological camps, struggling to define the destiny of the Islamic World Order. Rejecting the Old Nationalists or conservatives like Assad and the Sauds is accepting Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate, a continuation of the Muslim version of Empire. While it subjugates people under its auspices to the will of Allah, it also embodies the Umma, and restores the long line of succession of empires, broken temporarily by the post-World War I reordering of the Ottoman Empire. The Islamic State, functioning as the Middle Eastern Robespierre, is enacting a reign of terror that will carry the full weight of Islamic Nationalism to change the map of the region, regardless of outside intervention.
Islamic World Order in Transition
The Islamic World is in a state of reordering, but whether it is rapid or slow depends on 1) whether the great powers will intervene beyond current levels of involvement, 2) if the violence will eventually give way to peace talks between the major powers, 3) will Assad’s Syrian regime or Maliki’s government in Baghdad survive the onslaught before the former two options are possible, and 4) if ISIS overthrows either one of thetargeted regimes. If the civil war in Syria is about two visions of the Muslim world and Islamic order in conflict, what should countries like the United States be looking for in creating foreign policy going forward? The United States, France, and Russia have strong interests in maintaining the current political order in the region, but also run the risk of further
encouraging Islamic Nationalists to fight against everything they represent (i.e. Syria or Iraq). While the Napoleonic Wars of the 19th century reordered Europe in sixteen years, there was a longer period over decades where empires and absolute monarchies slowly disintegrated, becoming republics and constitutional monarchies that we see today. The same process is occurring in the Islamic World, and the duration of this transition has no end in sight.
The conflict between these two camps is also accentuating a bigger division within the Islamic World: that between Sunni and Shiite. While those countries of the western Middle East are largely Sunni, sectarian violence has not been a common occurrence through their histories, since most violence on the part of Islamic extremists is directed outward. But the fragmenting secularism of regimes like Egypt and Syria especially threaten to draw a tighter orbit of Shiite and Sunni groups towards their more natural centers in Tehran and Riyadh. If this trend continues, it will remove many opportunities for powers, like the United States and Russia, to influence events in the region, especially in the wake of continued disintegration of post-1921 Middle East. If Islamic Nationalism replaces the Old Nationalism, or parties that have held states like Syria and Iraq, then international policymakers will be faced with a new cold war over the region. The greatest question to ask is whether or not ISIS will succeed in overthrowing Assad and, by extension, how far its revolution will threaten the backers of Sunni movements like ISIS.
Containing this movement and limiting its violence should be the top priority of policymakers both inside and outside the establishments of all governments involved. France has a unique role as the recent victim of the Paris attacks, and has rallied its allies, including Russia, to intervene against ISIS. President Francois Hollande should seek an Article V call for collective action by NATO, which has proved its credibility on humanitarian grounds in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya. The threat of military force, however is not the reason it should be considered. Rather, intervention should be used a means of bringing the major powers to the conference table in a shared discussion about the containing the ongoing revolution, reducing its violence and the influence of ISIS, and setting up a process to manage the transition of the region. The United States, Russia, France, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey have an opportunity to lead the way, as none can achieve these goals without the involvement or acquiescence of the other. No policymaker, or great political mind like Metternich and Castlereagh, can turn back the clock, or restore the status quo. But they can influence it by supporting the people of Middle East to build a governing system reflective of their values. It is this sort of intervention, long-term as it is, that will best address the revolutionary forces unleashed by the Arab Spring, and hawkishly implemented by ISIS.