Lessons of Yugoslavia in the unraveling of the Middle East
The expanding Middle Eastern conflict in recent years and the merging of sectarian and ethnic front-lines may seem like a recent phenomenon, but in reality it is anything but that. The unraveling of the sociopolitical map of the Middle East is a by-product of the gradual end to dictatorships, which were an almost necessary ingredient to hold together the Sykes-Picot inspired Middle Eastern status quo.
Nowhere is this example more prominent than in Syria. The Sunni conflicts in Iraq and Syria are merging as one battle, with communal ties across the borders. The Syrian Kurdish battle and the fight for democratic rights naturally link to the Turkish and Iraqi Kurds across the border, especially the Kurdistan Region. The Shiite powers in Lebanon and Syria are grouping to defend their future and powerbase.
Syria has quickly become a series of war within wars in addition to a proxy battle between regional Sunni and Shiite powers.
With 100,000 dead and millions more people displaced, just when will the Syrian fortunes take a turn for the better? Unfortunately, in most wars, it is when enough devastation of lives, infrastructure, economy and society takes place when ethnic, sectarian or national loyalties are finally exhausted by a stark reality. A reality is that sooner or later, there is no option but to sit at the peace table and negotiate.
There is revived talk of Geneva II been held next month, but such negotiations are only successful when there is the realisation that things can never be the same again. The building of bridges must be based on a new reality. In Syria, it means that the days of a strong man, authoritarian rule and ultimately Bashar al-Assad is over.
Syria will only work with a decentralisation of power much like in Iraq. With artificial created borders comes a pooling of people that is unnatural and unsustainable. The pride of Syrian nationality becomes secondary to significance of ethnic or sectarian identity.
It is not just in Syria where such soft-partitions are inevitable, most countries whose dictatorial rule was ended by the Arab Spring risk this eventuality especially Libya. Most of these countries never tasted true democracy and thus regional splits and boundaries within each state could be masked. Iraq is a prime example, through the electoral polls, Shiites may now be the majority but Sunnis and Kurds would never accept rule of the Shiites by virtue of their electoral clout.
The unraveling of the Middle East needs no greater example than the fall of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia managed to mask numerous ethnic and religious fault lines through the use of force and an iron hand.
The eventual break-up of Yugoslavia was brutal and bloody but ultimately the only solution was outright separation in most cases and soft-partition in some others.
The conflict in Bosnia that started in 1992 and ended with the Dayton Agreement in 1995, effectively split Bosnia and Herzegovina into a Bosniak and Croat federation and a second Serb entity, Republika Srpska.
With the untangling of borders comes a rush to form new identities and to consolidate power. As with Yugoslavia and particularly Bosnia, the result of that is ethnic cleansing and mass population movements.
It took countless lives, atrocities and suffering to finally realise that a negotiated settlement was the only way out of the Bosnian conflict and ultimately this will be the same for Syria. A soft portion of course casts doubts on real unity or the principle of a single state.
This example can be described no better than the recent Bosnian football team triumph that saw them reach the World Cup in 2014 for the first time. Football normally brings the country together but in spite of a truly historic achievement, the reaction of the Serbian entity, whose natural allegiance is to neighboring Serbia, was muted at best. The Croatian elements in Bosnia were hardly more inspiring.
This is the result of borders not reflecting split of ethnicities or sectarian components.
The ethnic group that has suffered the most from the artificial boundaries of the Middle East is the Kurds. With de-facto erosions in the Middle Eastern borders, they have a unique opportunity to build bridges between all parts of Kurdistan.
The Kurds must capitalize when the shape of the Middle East is in a fluid state by leveraging a strong had in the current crises they are exposed to and have significantly influence in. This starts with the protection of the Syrian Kurds and their newfound historic autonomy.