As the horrific tragedy in Syria continues to unfold amidst calls for intervention and growing fears of a region unraveling, it is useful to recall that a troubling proportion of conflict and disorder in the world is driven by the powerful force of ethno-nationalism.
Some seem to forget that Syria (like its neighbors Lebanon and Iraq) are artificial states, lines drawn on a map by European diplomats when they dismantled the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Indeed the same is true of much of Africa, carved up at the 1884-85 Berlin Conference. Borders were decided on the basis of European interests, not local ethnic/political dynamics. In the Middle East, there are only three entities that have historically been states/empires: Egypt, Turkey, and Iran.
The potency of ethno-nationalism as a political driver has been on display since the moment the USSR dissolved in 1991 and suddenly fifteen ethnic-based new republics, from Armenia to Uzbekistan, emerged. Then there was the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the Balkans wars of the 1990s, which is relatively calm thanks to a NATO interventions in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1996 to 1999, now sustained by EU forces) and Kosovo (ongoing since 1998 and extended again just yesterday) . Even Czechoslovakia split in two.
The contemporary reality is that local political identity, defined by kinship, language, and culture has assumed a growing importance, in part as an embrace of political identity in response to the complex and sometimes overwhelming forces of globalization.
Ethno-nationalism, a reinforcement of political identity, is to some extent, a coping mechanism for dealing with the exigencies of globalization, complicating things for the nation-state. If globalization tends to curtail the role of the state from above, ethno-nationalism tends to pull it apart from below. To the extent that states are ethnically homogenous–whether it is Japan, or Han Chinese in China (note the tensions on its periphery with Uighurs in Xinjiang and Tibetans) or Serbia–that reality tends to be a unifying factor shaping national identity.
Ironically, it is the fears of minorities who have come to terms with or benefit from Assad and his ruling Alawite-minority regime (Christians (10 percent), Kurds (9 percent) Druze (3 percent) and a smattering of Turkomans and Circassians, and not least the ruling Alawites (12 percent) of persecution or worse if a majority Sunni Arab (74 percent) regime replaces the current one that has helped perpetuate the bloody stalemate in Syria.
Ethnicity can be a sort of social glue in the case of homogenous states, and an imperative to fostering a larger national identity for multi-ethnic states. This is especially true in states whose creation occurred non-organically as most in the Middle East did. But in any case, ethnic politics may mask bad or incompetent governance, but it cannot substitute decent governance. Decades of a family-run repressive quasi-police state with a muddling along economy have over the past 14 months come back to haunt the Assad quasi-dynasty.
The need for ethnic/political balance or some sense of guaranteeing minority rights is a core challenge to the Syrian opposition. Overcoming fears of a tyrannical Sunni Islamist regime replacing Assad is one of the scenarios often raised when the question of “then what?” is asked about life after Assad.
Avoiding ugly sectarian strife in an uncertain Syrian future will be key to international support and legitimacy for the Syrian opposition. And a real prospect of a tolerant posts-Assad regime to calm ethnic fears will also be critical to the required shift of allegiances necessary to get Assad out of power.
Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council.