“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
— George Santayana
Ended in 1918, the First World War was followed by a series of international conferences in which the victors decided the fate of territories taken away from the vanquished. Especially territories resulting from the break-up of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires.
One such conference took place in Paris in July 1922. Under the chairmanship of the French Foreign Minister, diplomats from Britain, Italy and Japan – with the US ambassador ‘leading from behind’ as observer – ‘recognised’ the new state of Yugoslavia.
Meaning ‘Land of the Southern Slavs’, the newly-manufactured country bundled together several rather diverse populations. Needless to say, no one thought of asking the Pravoslav Serbs whether they harboured feelings of national solidarity towards the Catholic Croats, let alone towards the Muslim Bosnians and Albanians. To the ‘enlightened’ Western diplomats sipping exquisite cognac in Paris, the ‘Southern Slavs’ all sounded and looked pretty much the same. What’s more, local potentates (they should know, shouldn’t they??) assured them that the newly branded Yugoslavs will all live together in blissful harmony – forever and a day.
The next few decades appeared to vindicate that opinion; the ‘Yugoslav people’ seemed amazingly cohesive. But it wasn’t; it was just that the iron fist of successive dictators was choking off every secessionist squeak.
But even the strongest despot eventually dies; even the most relentless chokehold must ultimately relax. By the early 1990s, ‘Yugoslavia’ became the scene of a horrendous civil war. It was to last for a decade, costing the lives of 150,000 ‘Yugoslavs’ and displacing about 4 million people.
External actors got involved, too, with Turkey backing the Muslim Bosnians and Russia providing support for the Orthodox Serbs.
Midway through the ordeal, the ‘United’ Nations’ Security Council declared the town of Srebrenica a ‘safe area’ for civilians; it was supposed to be ‘protected’ by a Dutch Army unit, acting as ‘peacekeepers’ for the ‘United’ Nations. Yet the place proved to be anything but safe for 8,373 people, murdered in cold blood; and nobody protected the many hundreds of women and young girls who were mass raped.
That one instance of unspeakable inhumanity finally compelled criminally callous Western ‘leaders’ to intervene, both militarily and diplomatically. Even so, it took several years before the bloodbath could be brought to a standstill.
Eventually, a first fragile but increasingly stable peace emerged. With millions of people displaced and the artificial state dissolved, the former ‘Yugoslavs’ managed to re-organise behind some sort of borders and form several nation states. And that, more than anything else, removed the incentive for bloodshed: with the treasured identities reaffirmed, secure within national boundaries and no longer threatened by any imposed, artificial ‘nationality’, there was little left to fight for.
‘Yugoslavia’ was not the only artificial state created after World War I. In the former Ottoman lands, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon were similarly born, children of a marriage of convenience between Western imperialists and power-thirsty local potentates. In the Levant, just like in the Balkans, nobody asked the various populations (Kurds, Arabs, Druze and Arameans of Sunni, Shi’a, Alawi or Christian persuasion) whether they wished to trade off their ancient, visceral identities for the newly-minted ‘Iraqi’, ‘Syrian’ or ‘Lebanese’ nationality.
Little wonder that horrific bloodbaths eventually ensued: first in rudderless Lebanon; but soon also in Iraq and Syria – as soon as the local dictator was either removed or sufficiently weakened.
The resemblance between the ‘Yugoslav’ and the ‘Syrian’ case is glaring; indeed, even some of the same external protagonists are involved: Russia and Turkey found themselves – in Syria just like in Yugoslavia – supporting opposing sides in the conflict.
The resemblance may be glaring – but not to inane Western journalists; nor to the inept and dishonest Western ‘leaders’. They have yet to realise that these are similar problems – let alone that they have similar solutions.
People fight for many reasons; but the ‘Syrian’ war – just like the ‘Yugoslav’ one – is primarily a battle of identity. Like most human conflicts, such wars are primarily fuelled by fear. Fear of physical extermination, of course; but – even more, if possible – of ethnic and cultural annihilation. Despite what self-proclaimed Western ‘progressives’ would have us believe, people treasure their identities – sometimes more than they do their lives; because identity speaks to the very core of human soul – its yearning for immortality. People go to war, risking life and limb in the process, when they perceive that their identity, their primeval sense of belonging (whether tribal, ethnic, religious or ethno-religious in nature) is threatened.
It follows that any solution needs to alleviate that fear. This means safeguarding one’s life; but even more, ensuring protection for one’s identity – against passive dilution and forced dissolution – within the borders of a cohesive state.
The outcome of the war in ‘Syria’ will, in all probability, be similar to that in ‘Yugoslavia’: sooner or later, the Levant will be Balkanised; artificial borders between post-colonial ‘states’ (which are already no more than legal fictions) will eventually be replaced by ethnic and sectarian boundaries.
Sooner or later, this will happen to the French-invented ‘Syria’ and ‘Lebanon’, as well as to British-invented ‘Mesopotamia’ or ‘Iraq’– just as it did in the former British colonies of India, Palestine and Cyprus.
The process is already well under way. After all, some 14 million ‘Syrians’ have been displaced. And no, not all these people are heading for Europe or for neighbouring countries – most have just moved to other parts of ‘Syria’ – parts that ‘happen’ to be inhabited by people with similar identity. Safety in numbers.
One may like or dislike this development. Call it ‘population transfer’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’, if you are so inclined; but whatever one calls it, it is certainly better than massacre and extermination. Just ask the Muslims of Srebrenica or the Yazidis of Iraq. If, that is, you can find any still alive!
If Western ‘leaders’ had any sense (let alone that elusive quality called leadership), they would be planning how to help that happen as quickly and as painlessly as possible.
Both [Russian Foreign Minister] Sergei Lavrov and [US Secretary of State] John Kerry admitted, repeatedly, this was only progress on paper. Some diplomats are already saying “it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on”.
Even that was done only in order to show worried domestic constituencies that the ‘leaders’ are actually doing something about the threat of millions of ‘Syrian’ refugees potentially flooding Europe.
Of course, the Geneva agreement will be scrupulously implemented… as soon as hell freezes over. Well aware of this, EU politicians have meanwhile reverted to another solution – just as ‘diplomatic’ and just as dishonest, but – they hope – more practical: bribing Turkey to take in the refugees and prevent them from traveling further to Europe.
Meanwhile, a few opposition politicians, religious leaders and NGO activists have argued that the European Union should generously throw its gates open and take in as many ‘Syrians’ as wash up on its shores. To the best of my knowledge, none of those politicians, leaders and activists has so far offered to accommodate a family of asylum-seekers in their spare bedroom; but this does not prevent them from feeling good about themselves.
People endowed with that awful burden called ‘common sense’ might ask why – if millions of ‘Syrians’ have to leave their homes – should they be brought all the way to Europe and spread among local populations with whom they have little in common. Why not just help them establish themselves in another area of ‘Syria’, among people sharing the same cultural background?
What will happen once millions of ‘Syrians’ are settled throughout Germany, France and the UK? Optimists dream that they’ll ‘integrate’ in Multi-cultural Utopia. ‘Integrate’?? Why would they want to ‘integrate’? People are more, much more than mere living organisms. No, it is not just about saving their lives; nor is it just about feeding, clothing, educating and providing healthcare. We are not talking about stray dogs in need of a home, but about people endowed with rich cultural baggage, with identities they rightly treasure. Just like the former ‘Yugoslavs’.
Provided with self-determination in their own national homelands, the various ‘Syrian’ communities will further grow and develop unique civilisations within the colourful mosaic of humanity; but try to haphazardly transplant them from Damascus neighbourhoods into Düsseldorf slums – and all you’ll get is the horror of Mollenbeek: that devastating frustration of people bereft of identity. It’s cultural genocide wrapped in the noble mantle of asylum.
Westerners have no problem with Bosnians, Serbs and Croatians each living in their separate, sovereign nation state; they even support a ‘two-state solution’ for Palestinian Arabs and Jews. Yet when it comes to Syria, pompous, sanctimonious arses like John Kerry weirdly dream of
a future that ensures Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and non-sectarian character.
Of course, “unity, independence, territorial integrity, and non-sectarian character” do not exist in Syria – and never actually did; but hey – that won’t prevent Mr. Kerry from fighting for those ‘values’ – to the last ‘Syrian’.