This last Tuesday, November 28, a new session of talks between the opposition and the Syrian government opened in Geneva, under the auspices of the UN. The aim is to find a political solution that puts an end to a six-year civil war.
There are so many obstacles on the road to peace that it is reasonable to be pessimistic. The opposition, meeting in Riyadh on November 24, showed that it was still handicapped by its divisions, its quarrels of ego, its over-reach. Supported by the major Western powers, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the opponents want to establish a transitional government in Damascus – with Bashar al-Assad quickly dismissed.
Assad, supported by the Iranians and the Russians, has a very different objective: to stay in power and regain control of the entire Syrian territory. We do not even know if he would be ready to give some of his opponents what De Gaulle once called a “peace of the brave”. Too many hatreds separate the two camps to allow reasonable dialogue. In the eyes of the rebels, the Syrian president ‘massacred his people’ in order to stay in power; in the eyes of Bashar al-Assad, the insurgents are terrorists who are determined to destroy the Ba’athist state.
It is nearly seven years since the start of the Arab Spring: first Tunisia, then Egypt, then Yemen, then Libya, then Syria. These old military dictatorships were swallowed up by two successive ideological waves. The first was that of democratic ideology and power to the people.
It enthused Western observers, who, in their intoxication, did not see the second wave coming – that of those who believed that the Law of God was superior to the Laws of Man. This was the wave of the Muslim Brotherhood, which proclaimed “Islam is the solution!” Better organised than the secular democrats, the Islamists rushed unto the breach of freedom that the first wave had opened.
Seven years later, it is clear that neither of these two ideologies has managed to seize the Middle East. The democratic ideology – which cannot live without the establishment of an effective rule of law – has not triumphed anywhere. After conquering important areas in Mesopotamia, Syria and North Africa, Islamist ideology is declining everywhere.
The 24 November Sinai massacre of more than three hundred worshipers praying in a Sufi mosque is only a short-term media success for ISIS. Green totalitarianism has begun to ebb. Despite its campaign of terror, it will never seize Egypt. Just as it has failed to seize Syria and Iraq. Jihadism is nesting in areas of chaos and trafficking. But faced with a strong state, it cannot survive very long.
As the exciting World Policy Conference recently held in Marrakech by Thierry de Montbrial has shown, the most striking political phenomenon in the Middle East today is not ideological in nature. It’s the return of the nation. To strengthen their respective nation states, we see powers collaborating with each other in spite of their cultural, ethnic and religious differences. Sunni Turkey and Shi’ite Iran collaborate because of their shared aversion to Kurdish autonomy.
In this game where the old states of the Middle East are strengthening, the Kurds, undermined by their tribal divisions, have lost their chance to create a state of their own. After their victory in Mosul, the Iraqi special forces took over the Kurdish oil city of Kirkuk, occupied since 2014. A failure attributable to the ‘betrayal’ of the pro-Iranian Kurds.
In Beirut, the Hariri affair has shown that there is a Lebanese nationalism capable of transcending confessional borders. The same national pride has triumphed in little Qatar which refused to submit to the dictates of its Saudi and Emirati neighbors.
As in Westphalian Europe, alliances can be formed between very dissimilar countries. The ‘Shi’ite’ Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut axis allows Persia to secure an outlet to the Mediterranean. Ranged against it is the unlikely axis of Tel-Aviv-Cairo-Riyadh-Abu Dhabi. Which, in turn, is challenged by the Ankara-Doha mini-axis.
In Europe, the twentieth century taught us that nation states were political units resilient to ideological swings. On November 26, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman closed a conference in Riyadh of more than forty Muslim states willing to co-operate with each other to kill the jihadist ideology. We will need to wait this worthwhile project to be completed before any form of democratic ideology can have any chance of returning to Middle Eastern societies.
This article was first published in Le Figaro.