Syria is caught once again in the long history of sectarian conflicts in the region and, as the killings escalate, the West recoils in horror. The urge to do something, anything, that might end this insanity is natural. And so France’s new president, Francois Hollande, ventures forth declaring, “It is not possible to allow Bashar Assad to massacre his own people.”
But immediately German leaders express surprise and caution against use of force that would likely complicate the situation.
There is the Russian and Chinese veto on the UN Security Council to consider, and the lesson of Libya sits uneasily in western capitals as the country slides deeper into the control of Islamists.
Moreover, there is no stomach in Washington or elsewhere to mount another campaign for regime change after the rancour of the Iraq war.
It is also now abundantly clear that liberal delusions surrounding the so-called Arab Spring have lifted, and the old adage — “the more things change, the more they stay the same” — describes well the culture and politics of the region.
This is reason for despair, and there are voices from the region expressing this despair that need to be heard and understood in western capitals. One such voice is that of Suat Kiniklioglu, a Turkish member of parliament and a frequent commentator for the Turkish paper Today’s Zaman. In a recent article titled “Back to a barbarian age,” Kiniklioglu expresses this despair in no uncertain terms. He writes about the pervasiveness of identity politics that is fuelling the conflicts in the region and pushing it “back to the Middle Ages.”
The Middle East, according to Kiniklioglu, is “being ravaged by barbarians who want to divide the world into Sunni and Shiite.”
The result is “sectarian rivalry between the Shiite Persians and the Wahhabi Saudis who are now fighting proxy wars all over the region.”
Syria is one theatre of this proxy war. Islamists or “Salafis who bomb the streets of Damascus,” Kiniklioglu writes, “are just as guilty and barbaric as Assad’s killing machine.”
We might as well ask if Kiniklioglu has a better understanding of the region than the Europeans or the Americans. He certainly does as his ancestors, the Ottoman Turks, ruled over much of the Arab lands and people for more than five centuries.
History is full of surprising twists, and Turks have had their share. The immense defeat in the great war of 1914-18 ironically “liberated” the Turks from the albatross of their empire, and out of that defeat emerged modern republican Turkey under Mustafa Kemal. Turks like Kiniklioglu are even more wary of getting drawn into a wider regional conflict than are the Germans at some distance. They know from their own experience how long and difficult is the recovery to sanity from any sort of barbarism.
Arabs need to find their own path into the modern world, as do the Shiites of Iran. This will likely happen only when they have exhausted themselves with their sectarian fighting.
We in the West, in the meantime, should hold back on our desire to do something and, instead, do as little as we did in awaiting the former Soviet Union to implode on its own.