September 23, 2013


Syria and the Peace of Westphalia (Robert Zaretsky, September 20th, 2013, LA REview of Books)

The treaty, which oversaw the creation of sovereign states free of external interference and defined by borders reflecting a single cultural and religious character, trumpeted the beginning of the modern international order. [...]

There are, of course, deep structural differences between the nature of the sectarian violence that fractured Christendom and that which fissures Islam. But there is one critical similarity: both in Middle Europe and the Middle East, religious differences piggybacked on geopolitical designs. At times, the latter trumped the former: Catholic France and Protestant Sweden became unlikely allies to parry the ambitions of the Catholic Habsburgs. While no Richelieu, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's refusal to openly support his fellow Shia in Syria, while also attempting to create bridges to Iraqi Sunnis, nevertheless reflects the Red Eminence's sense of realpolitik. Wilson's claim that the Thirty Years' War was religious only to the extent "that faith guided all early modern public policy and private behavior" can, with caution, be applied to today's Middle East.

With the murderous unraveling of Syria and Iraq, and the growing fragility of Lebanon, an increasing number of commentators are busily paying their last respects to the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, with which the French and British sliced and diced the carcass of the Ottoman Empire. Rather than creating viable states, the agreement instead spawned entities bereft of culturally or religiously coherent populations. David Lloyd George's opinion of Sykes-Picot remains tragically relevant: "[a] fatuous arrangement judged from any and every point of view."

History, of course, allows no mulligans: the past cannot be redone or undone. The diplomats gathered in Westphalia understood this fact. They were not idealists, much less torchbearers of modern tolerance. Instead, they were what the French called les politiques: pragmatic men who reworked the basis of the Augsburg Peace with their eyes fastened not on past grievances, but on present necessities. 

Five centuries later, another unspeakably savage intra-confessional war is devastating an entire region and murdering tens of thousands of innocents. The least bad option may well be a settlement in the spirit of Westphalia. Its goal would be to revise the map of Syria as it now stands, shattered into confessional and ethnic shards. Under the aegis of an existing supranational agency -- the UN, NATO, or the Arab League -- or an ad hoc group led by the United States and Russia, Westphalia 2.0 would make it possible for Syrians who felt it necessary to move to those areas where their co-religionists were in the majority. Should they decide to remain as a religious minority, they would be granted limited rights and protection to practice their faith.

The region should indeed subdivide into organic nations.  But the Anglosphere long ago redefined sovereignty to include a requirement that the resulting state be governed liberally.

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Posted by at September 23, 2013 4:33 AM

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