Whatever develops out of the bloody, chaotic mess Syria has become, it is unlikely that the short-term outcome will be good or the long-term prospects much brighter. One has only to recall the dozens of post-World War II coups that preceded the arrival of the Assad/Alawite/Baathist dictatorship in 1970, a dictatorship that survived in no small measure because of its alliance with the Soviet Union.
Perhaps there is no better example of failure of the European nation-state template arbitrarily planted on non-European regions than post-Ottoman Syria. Breaking up the old multiethnic empires, including the Turkish caliphate, was promoted at Versailles by a well-meaning Woodrow Wilson. But it evolved into unscrupulous formulas used by America's enemies between the two wars. Then a version of the nationalist concept was transferred whole hog in the post-World War II era, with disastrous results for what used to be called "Afro-Asia."
Whether it was Burma, Indochina, French West Africa, Sudan, Ceylon, Indonesia or Egypt, nomenclature and concepts from the European environment were hijacked to cover totally different societies and economies. Straitjacketed into that formula, petty despots in those countries have ever since explained away their own inadequacies with the excuse that their failures are the products of their colonial histories.
In Syria, the nation-state was derailed by deep, ancient, often obscure prejudices. (It's said the Druze religion is so secret that even its leaders don't tell its hoi polloi the exact doctrines they are supposed to believe.) Ethnic intolerance is reinforced by benighted moral codes, from cousin endogamy to enslavement of women, mostly defying inroads of what has come to be seen as standards of universal moral modernism. Even the introduction of modern technology hasn't solved these problems. Cellphones and social media networks do not a democratic society make; a brutal police regime may use them as successfully as reformers.
One of the most disastrous effects of this ideological detour has been interference in millennium-old trading patterns that might have, in time, developed into nascent capitalism. In Syria's case, Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia — and even Iskenderun, snatched by Turkey with French connivance in 1937 — were cut off by the new borders from their hinterlands along ancient caravan routes. At the other end of the Muslim world, Indonesia's demagogic Sukarno could use the old anti-colonial slogan "one language, one people, one fatherland" to deflect attention from his economy's collapse.
These new nation-states manques soon degenerated into frameworks for so-called "command economies," modeled on false promises of the Soviet experience and masking a new kind of kleptocracy with bloodsucking bureaucracies. That led, for example, to four decades of stagnation in India. India, which in 1945 had the most developed commercial community in Asia, has not yet and may never recover.
Syria, having tried European parliamentarism, military rule, "Arab socialism," Nasserite Arab nationalism and finally the Assad family's traditional Oriental despotism, now looks likely to take an even further step backward into Arab Muslim fundamentalism. If so, the worst aspect of that choice — given Syria's keystone geographic position in the Middle East map — may be that the crisis in Damascus cannot be contained within the country's artificial borders. Syria's Sunni majority and all its many minority groups have ties and loyalties to their ethnic brothers across the region. This has always been the danger of the fall of the house of Assad and the only legitimate reason the Obama administration has for pursuing its customary amateur Machiavellianism of "leading from behind" in the crisis.
But Washington's current flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood and all its appendages is a dangerous game. No, Mrs. Clinton, an Islamicist political party is not the local equivalent of Western European Christian Democracy, nor can it ever be. The Brotherhood's credo was and is: "Allah is our objective; the Koran is our law, the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations."
Khairat el-Shater, who has enriched himself while rising to the top of Egypt's branch of the Brotherhood, is no Konrad Adenauer. Nor will Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, his nebbishy replacement forced on the Brotherhood by the military, develop into that kind of leader. At best, Muslim fundamentalist politics may be weaned off its fanaticism by wholesale corruption. But, as can be seen in the record of mullah-driven Iran, the outside world cannot count on it.
• Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at email@example.com and blogs at www.yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.
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