Josh Landis has a truly excellent piece on his blog today. It is a lengthy account that he’s publishing there, that was written by someone identified only as “An American in Syria.” Whoever the writer is, the writing shows the closeness of her/his own connectedness to Syrians in Damascus of a variety of views and backgrounds, the acuity of his/her ability to understand the dangerous social fragmentation that seems to be ripping through the heart of Syrian society right now, and her/his own deep humanity.
The writer– or Landis?– identifies the following eleven themes in the essay:
- – the new phenomenon of Dera’an separateness
- – the challenging experience of Shia minority in the Dera’a muhafiza
- – effects of the suppression on the entire muhafiza, not just the city
- – identity as geographical, not only tribal/sectarian
- – new Damascene attitudes toward Dera’ans
- – Christian passivity and approval for the suppression
- – conservative trends in Sunni society vs. denial of Salafist presence
- – Alawi movement from prior measured criticism of the regime to a new, fanatical patriotism
- – reaction of Lebanese Shia, effect on large, extended family groups that span the Lebanon-Syria border
- – Hizbullah’s rapidly declining popularity among opposition Syrians
- – experience of opposition-oriented Syrian AUB students in Lebanon, threats
This piece is part of a fine tradition of great descriptions of how it feels to be inside a country that is undergoing a social fragmentation that is speedy, deep, and often comes as a huge surprise to the people who are undergoing/participating in the process, themselves… In Spring 1994, I published a review of two great books that explored the process from the inside, in both Lebanon and former Yugoslavia… I already archived the text of that review on JWN, several years ago. You can find it here.
One key lesson from both books is just how fast the ruptures, fissures, fears, scars, and worldview of fitna can spread through a whole society.
Since Spring 1994, of course, we have seen many other instances of seemingly stable societies splintering in a shockingly speedy and violent way. Right then, in April 1994, there was Rwanda… Since then, the first big examples that come to mind are post-invasion Iraq and Kenya.
There are many, many things that a responsible national government, responsible opposition politicians, and deeply engaged outsiders can do to arrest and even reverse this process of social breakdown (fitna.) Thus far, neither the Syrian government nor– as far as I can see– the opposition leaders, nor any outsiders have done anything effective in this regard.
The time to act is now (or yesterday.) The tools are widely available in all the annals of diplomacy and negotiation. Various governments (Norway, Qatar, Turkey, Switzerland) and non-governmental organizations like the Sant’ Egidio group in Rome have a lot of experience in figuring out how to stop and reverse the process ofiftitan.
A basic agreement not to demonize or diminish any “other” group of human beings, just for being members of that group, is key. So is a commitment to always be conservative in the way people report atrocities, tragedies, or other harms, as opposed to allowing exaggeration, fearmongering, and warmongering to enter into and take over the discourse. Finally, focusing on a strong concept of equal co-citizenship in the one country is an excellent way to restore respect among all the co-citizens, to underline their joint commitment to the wellbeing of their one country, and to pave the way for establishment of a democratic and accountable political system going forward.
But as I said, the time to act is now. Otherwise, Rwanda beckons.