In Iraq, and now Syria, US seeks secular outcome by… promoting sectarian division

Israel/Palestine
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Everybody is talking about Syria, which we can all agree is a mess. With rare exception, this site has not been covering Syria, but I must point out that Assad is fighting a jihadist-dominated rebel movement, and the US is continuing to insert itself by utilizing the “inclusion of some of the more radical forces… to assert a moderate authority in Syria”(pdf). How reassuring–not.

There’s an illusion that exists widely in the mainstream that the US is trying to build strong or moderate secular states we can all relate to. This neverending fantasy of a benevolent US role in nation building is perpetuated by the constant drumbeat of sectarian divisions in the Middle East, divisions the US does not shy away from fostering, as they seem to justify positioning our influence as a “moderating force.”

Let’s listen to Tom Friedman’s recent New York Times op ed about Syria,  Caution, Curves Ahead:

There is a strong argument for everyone doing more to end the Syrian civil war before the Syrian state totally collapses and before its sectarian venom and refugees further destabilize Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan…..

Why has he been able to hold on so long? Russian and Iranian military aid certainly help, but so does the support he still enjoys in key communities. Assad’s Alawite minority sect, which has been ruling since 1970 and constitutes 12 percent of Syria’s 22 million population, believes that either they rule or they die at the hands of the country’s Sunni Muslim majority (74 percent). The Syrian Christians, who are 10 percent, and some secular Sunni Muslims, particularly merchants, have also thrown in their lot with Assad, because they believe that either he rules or chaos does. None of them believe the rebels can or will build a stable, secular, multisectarian democracy in Assad’s wake. Why do we think they are wrong?

Some secular Sunni Muslims, eh? How many? Friedman tells us the Syrian Sunni Majority is 74%,  the Syrian Alawite community is 12%, and Syrian Christians are 10%. But that hardly explains the basis of Assad’s support. Friedman describes the secular Sunni Muslims who support Assad as “merchants.” Friedman ignores the fact that Syrians, like Iraqis before our invasion, lived, primarily, in a secular society.

Assad’s regime is secular. Saddam was also a secular dictator. The US supports and empowers sectarian actors, while claiming to seek democratic secular results. Why do we do that? Friedman won’t tell you.

When I first started blogging after the Iraq war one of the first things I heard from Iraqi bloggers was that, for the most part, Iraqis were not divided by sect. And whenever they claimed that, the neocon bloggers argued incessantly how wrong they were.

Watch the clip below of Chris Hayes’s, Iraq 10 years after. It begins with before- and after- maps of Baghdad, with the neighborhoods colored coded by sectarian groups– white being mixed. Note how the vast majority of pre-invasion Baghdad was white. 

Those days are over. Raed Jarrar explains how sectarian identity is now the “core component” of Iraq identity now– as the result of our war on their country, their culture.

Raed Jarrar: I’m actually half Sunni and half Shite, we call it Sushis,(laughter). From my personal experience I have never been asked in my entire life until 2003 if was a Sunni or a Shia, I had never seen someone been ask that question.

Chris Hayes: Growing up in Iraq.

Raed Jarrar: It was never a (inaudible) identity before 2003, after 2003 it is now. It’s the core component unfortuneately. The system of sectarian and ethnic quarters in the government created a complete different government system and that was introduced in 2003 during the government council, so Iraqis were chosen based on their sectarian and ethnic background for the first time in contemporary history.

Zainab Suwaij: At the same time I think the political parties played a big part of that… political parties the lack of security helped a lot in this kind of system. 

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I am not going to argue here that the Assad government is tolerant of dissent or democracy. But let’s not delude ourselves about the alternative. As Americans discover, probably too late, the extent to which we’re financing radicals– many of them foreign– in Syria, let’s not pretend they’re secularists. A simple principle binds the American experience of the last 10 years: Neocon intervention facilitates sectarian division as a means to an end.

About Annie Robbins

Annie Robbins is Editor at Large for Mondoweiss, a mother, a human rights activist and a ceramic artist. She lives in the SF bay area. Follow her on Twitter @anniefofani

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