Like Europe five or six centuries ago, the Middle East today is the scene of shifting alliances among states, political groups, and warring armies, in a struggle for supremacy or hegemony in the area. By contrast, the Ottoman Empire from its establishment in 1453 was a powerful, multinational, multilingual state that lasted until November 1, 1922, when the Turkish monarchy was abolished and a Republic was declared. The Ottoman Caliphate was abolished in March 1924.
The Syrian situation presents a dilemma for the West.
In spite of problems, the Ottoman Empire remained intact for four and a half centuries. It ruled using boundaries of administrative divisions: provinces, or vilayets and districts, or sanjaks, Islam sustained the empire, and the sultan, the personification of a family that had ruled for seven centuries, was the protector of Islam.
The Palestinian narrative of victimhood has made the world familiar with the Palestinian concept of the Nakba, the so-called catastrophe, resulting from the displacement of Arabs during and after the 1948-49 war (a war which they started). But from an objective point of view, the real Nakba for Arabs was the end of the Ottoman Empire, which, in spite of political and military problems, had ruled with a strong army and accepted political institutions, and which had created alliances with political and racial groups.
With the end of the empire after World War I, the League of Nations established the artificial Arab countries of the Middle East, with arbitrary boundaries and divided by internal ethnic and religious differences. The world is now confronted by the turmoil stemming from these creations with the two interrelated crises in Lebanon and Syria. The ensuing issue is not simply the battles and conflicts in those countries. More important is the likelihood that they will inflame a wider regional conflagration in the Middle East in a variety of ways: endless combat between Shiites and Sunnis; renewed attacks on Israel by various Arab nations and groups; encouraging Palestinians to be actively aggressive against Israel near the Golan Heights, as well as in Gaza and the West Bank; and engulfing Turkey, a non-Arab country, in clashes with other Muslim countries. It is ominous that Shiites from Iran via the Revolutionary Guard Corps; from Iraq via the Asaib Ahl al-Haq; and from Hezb’allah are not only defending the regime of Bashar al Assad, but now heralding the return of the Imam Mahdi — the twelfth Imam, whom they regard as the redeemer who will rid the world of evil and unite humanity under the banner of Islam.
Lebanon, founded by France in 1922, has 18 distinct religions and sects among its 4 million-strong population. The civil war between the Maronite Christians, the largest group, and others that began in 1975 and lasted 15 years led to the deaths of 120,000. Political leaders, such as former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, have been assassinated by their political opponents, those of a rival religious sect, and by the Syrian government, which assassinated General Wissam al-Hassan, the Christian head of information of Lebanese Internal Security Forces in Beirut, in February 2005.
On November 11, 1982, Hezb’allah was formed out of disparate groups that were then trained by the Revolutionary Guard of Iran and transformed them into a formidable terrorist group. Hezb’allah is unquestionably the most powerful body in the country, stronger than the official Lebanese army or any other political group.
Hezb’allah has not only killed Americans in attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in April 1983, the U.S. Marine barracks in October 1983, and on American peacekeepers, but it also became a state of its own within Lebanon. As a Shiite organization, Hezb’allah recognizes the grand ayatollah of Iran as leader of the global Islamic movement. Hassan Nasrallah the leader of Hezb’allah, declared a terrorist organization by the United States in 1997 and by Israel and Bahrain, ordered an attack on Israel in 2006, employing 4,000 rockets and missiles. It is now formidably armed with an estimated at 50,000 missiles, many of which are long-range.
In dramatic fashion, Hezb’allah has become increasingly assertive and involved in its military support for the Assad regime. This was evident in its participation in the fighting in the strategic town of Qusayr, a major transit point for supplies.
There are two possible outcomes if Hezb’allah is successful in helping Assad retain power. It may be emboldened to resume its attacks on northern Israel. Or, in a counterproductive fashion, it might lead to the Sunnis within Lebanon forming political and military alliances with Christians and others to challenge Hezb’allah.
Syria, which is a hodgepodge of various sects of Sunnis, Shiites, and Alawites, and of minority groups (particularly the Kurds), was created by France in 1922. The Syrian government has been a brutal one, internally and externally. Syria always claimed the territory of Lebanon and invaded the country in 1976 on the pretext of “restoring order.” Syrian troops remained in Lebanon for 29 years until 2005, taking billions of dollars in tithes, bribes, and drug money. The brutality of the regime was shown by its bombing of Hama in April 1981, when 20,000 of its own people were killed, and by the use of chemical weapons in the ongoing civil war, in which an estimated 80,000 have died.
The war has now taken on international dimensions with help being sent to both the regime and the rebels. Assad gets armaments and equipment from Russia, Iran, and Hezb’allah. Russia has supplied or is planning to send, among other assets, advanced antiaircraft missile systems and Scud missiles which could carry chemical warheads. Training conducted by these countries has helped Syria set up a separate militia, the National Defense Force of about 50,000, mostly Alawites, and independent of the regular army.
The anti-Assad rebels are aided by Western economic sanctions against the government and travel bans on Syrian officials, and perhaps some arms clandestinely. However, the Western countries are divided on the issues of the arms embargo, on whether to arm the rebels, on establishing no-fly zones monitored by Patriot missiles , and on bombing Syrian aircraft. President Obama up to this point has rejected proposals to supply arms and aid to the rebels for fear that the weapons might get into the wrong hands.
The Syrian situation presents a dilemma for the West. As the war continues, the rebels have become more Islamist. The rebels include important groups allied with al-Qaeda, such as Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front), with an estimated 6,000 armed men who fly a black banner and whose expressed ideology is to create an Islamic state. Several extreme Salafist factions, the largest of which is Ahrar al-Sham, are also part of the rebels. Several more secular groups, now less significant than they were, also include themselves among the roster. The West is aware that weapons sent to the rebels may be going to al-Qaeda-linked militants among them. It is also concerned about the brutal atrocities and kidnappings committed by some of the rebels, and bitter differences among the rebel groups.
The only country in the Middle East that is stable is Israel, which ironically has been the recipient of so many international resolutions condemning it. Not only are the Arab countries not stable; they are divided by political and sectarian passions. They are not free politically or economically; they have not integrated the minorities within them; they have not welcomed human rights, civil liberties, or equality of the sexes.
Arabs, living in these unstable and divided artificial countries created by colonial powers, must by this time surely regret the end of the Ottoman Empire that brought them safety and peace, if not democracy and civil rights. Surely the rest of the world, faced with endless conflicts among Arab states and by the growing Islamist threat, would be eager to agree to a restoration and to the accompanying addition of a stable and democratic Israel.