The Role of Ethnicity in the Stability of Iraq and Syria
The modern society of Iraq is characterized by diversity, influence of the past history of injustice, and the degree to which the population is mobilized behind the national independence project. The after-war Iraq is not stable either political or economically and, despite of the efforts of global community and the United States in particular, the stabilization of the nation is hardly possible due to ethnicity. Even though Syria is a peaceful country, it currently experiences the same problems as Iraq. Syria and Iraq are both experiencing the ethnically based political confrontations and violent changes in control of the state. Their regimes are authoritarian and can be marked as ethnocracies. Authoritarian regimes are hard to displace as the Saddam Hussein’s reign in Iraq and Hafez Assad’s ruling in Syria suggest, while the diverse ethnicity contributes even more to the destabilization of the countries.
Iraq is characterized by deep diversity in ethnicity, religion, language, and nationality. The majority of ethnic populations are Arabs (75%), others are Kurds (15-20%), Turkomen (5%), etc. It is diverse religiously: Sunni (37%), Shi’a (60%), and even Christians (2%). Most of the Iraqis speak Arabic (80%), the rest speak Kurdishi. This ethnical diversity leads to destabilization of Iraq in terms of political, social, and economical development. Unlike the United States which are also very diverse, Iraqis ethnic groups are not willing to co-exist under one flag and be united into one country. Kurds view themselves as a separate national group and seek independence. National diversity poses the threat of secession and, as Margaret Moore has noted, the constitutional arrangements for post-invasion Iraq have to be include for all groups in Iraqi society.
Ethnicity distorts the social stability in Iraq because of the brutal regime imposed by Baathists and genocidal repression of Shi’a Arabs in the south and Kurds in the north. Diverse ethnicity leads to the killing members of different ethnic groups, to serious bodily hard, and to inflictions of conditions of life. According to the estimates, Hussein’s repressive regime resulted in the murder of 300,000 of Kurdish and Shi’a rebels in 1991. Anfal campaign of 1988 was targeted at more than 40 villages with 182,000 being killed, blinded, and maimedii. The social and political repression of Kurd ethnic groups forced them to get mobilized behind the self-determination project. The recent elections in the Kurdish region of Iraq (January 2005) revealed that Kurds support their own independence and do not want to be referred to as Iraqis.
The situation in Syria is different from Iraq and there is no extreme division among ethnic groups. The Syrian problem is rooted in minority-based authoritarian regime governing state-controlled economy as market orthodoxyiii. The ethnic tensions in Syria occur on political level and significantly slow down the economic development of the whole country. There are two segments in conflict: Alawi military officers who control political power through domination of security apparatuses and Sunni businessmen who possess economic power. As Glenn Robinson has noted, Syria is unique in terms of how ethnicity influences the political and economic stability of the countryiv.
Sunni representatives seek greater political inclusion. Sunnis are demographically, economically, and historically dominating in Syria. Alawi constitute only 12% of the population and could not be able to regain the power in democratic regime. None of the groups is open for communication and the current lack of political and economic stability in Syria is directly related to the lack of understanding between two ethnic groups: Alawi and Sunni. According to Robinson, ethnic conflict in Syria is not historically rooted as in Iraq, but rather emerged in 1991 when the Syrian-Israeli question was transformed to a broader disputev.
Similar to military operations in Syria, the in-depth understanding of the role played by ethnicity in stability of Iraq emerged during the Operation Iraqi Freedom led by the United States of America. Even though most of the Iraqis are Muslims, they are greatly fragmented along religions and ethnic lines of cleavage. Shiites were brutally suppressed by the Iraqi Sunnis for the most of their history, and Saddam Hussein intensified the oppression even morevi. Shia live mostly in the rural countryside and are less developed economically. For Shiites, the leadership should be hereditary and linked to the Prophet Muhammad. Sunni Arabs, being the minority ethnic group, were and are the ruling group on Iraq. They live in the center of the country and control the capital city, Baghdad. They support the idea of Sunni monarch governmental system and dominate the country’s political and economic life.
Iraqi society is a “juxtaposition of the old and the new”vii. Even though the United States try to create the secular government on the national level and establish the modern structure of administrative districts, the ethnical differences and tensions minimize the positive results of all initiatives. The tribal system continues to play the key role in daily activities and most Iraqis do not associate themselves with the nation. Tribal rulers seek greater influence in local affairs and average citizens have not power to determine the political as well as economic development of the country.
Returning to situation in Syria, historically, political leaders believed in collectivist state-run economy. For example, General Salah Jadid supported accommodation with the private section and expansion of the Baath party by allowing the direct participation of non-Baathist in governmentviii. Despite of the tight tensions between the ruling bourgeoisie and military leaders, both ethnic groups have a common vision however work separately to promote the political and economic stability in the country. Power struggles in November 1970 shifted the power over country’s affairs to military coup. Asad was elected president with 92% of votes. The vast majority of population supported Asad for his initiative to consolidate the state apparatus and liberalize the economyix.
Thus, despite of the evident disputes between two ruling groups, ethnicity has minor impact on the overall stability in the Syria. The cooperation of both ethnic groups can be explained through idea that both military leaders and businessmen want to ensure stable economic growth. Asad created ubiquitous government consisting of the bureaucracy, political party, and standing military. The laws and stability in the country which were not supported by people were enforced by military. Just as forty years ago, today most of the governmental positions are filled through appointments rather than an election reflecting ethnic diversity. However Syria is more stable and economically developed compared to Iraq.
As Daniel Conversi wrote, ethnicity is pre-politicalx. Culture and ethnicity cannot be viewed separately because they are intrinsically linked and reinforce each other. Both Syria and Iraq consist of the ethnically diverse groups with different cultural heritage. However, Iraqis are more aggressive towards diversity and lack any tolerance of differences. Population of Syria is more loyal in this perspective, while the problem is rooted in division of power. Only military leaders and rich businessmen are granted the right to decide on national questions and economic development while other social levels are not represented in government at all. Similar political instability characterizes the current situation in Iraq. The inability of Iraqis to create a working government resulted in invasion of the country and forced establishment of democratic government by western powers.
Some theorists assume that lack of stability in Iraq is caused by fear, not ethnicity. As Ed Blanche wrote, every day Iraqis are dying in Saddam Hussein’s death camps, are tortured, and shipped back to their families in wooden coffins as a warning for those who oppose his regimexi. The country has numerous prisons, interrogation centers, and concentration camps. Western human rights organizations are aware of what is going on in Iraq, however, they prefer not to intervene for the reasons of political expediency. Even though the opinion of Ed Blanche can be understood in the light of September 11 events, there is little evidence to support the claim. If the Iraqis were afraid of death (which is not to be feared according to Islam), they would not oppose it as they have been doing for many years. Ethnical and ideological differences do have an influence on relationships among ethnically diverse groups as well as directly impacts the stability of Iraq.
Syria and Iraq cannot be compared because the only two aspects common for both countries are Arabic language and nationalism. The United States of American was and will remain the role model for the rest of the world in terms of national stability built on cultural and ethnical diversity. Nevertheless, the Western model of government has failed to become a working tool in Iraq and Syria. Religion, ethnicity, and culture play central role in Syria and Iraq, their ethnical differences cannot be simply ignored. For many years, both Syria and Iraq were under oppression of Western power, and today, when both nations have an opportunity to rebuild their countries, the ethnic majority groups are fighting with each other over the authority to decide on national economic and political interests.
In conclusion, ethnicity and ethnic difference have direct impact on political, social, and economic stability of the country. Iraq is very diverse in terms of ethnical groups and there are historical disputes among them. The cultural differences undermine all efforts to create a democratic government with equal representation of all groups. The stability in Iraq can be achieved if ethnic groups try to find mutual grounds of understanding. However, taking into account the aggressiveness and oppression supported with religious beliefs, it is hardly possible to stabilize the situation in Iraq. Syria, similar to Iraq, is also ethnically diverse; however, there is no aggressiveness towards each other. However, Syria is not stable as well, even though the problem is rooted not in ethnical differences but rather in historical division of power under which military representatives and businessmen hold authority over national economic and political questions.
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