I just finished the hot new book about the Middle East: Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia, Doubleday; (August 6, 2013). It’s the history of the birth of the modern Middle East—told through the lives of the legendary T.E. Lawrence and three spies—and how Britain, France, Germany and other powers manipulated the Arab and Muslim world into doing its bidding during World War I. Sensing the collapse of the Ottoman Empire as the Central Powers were stalled on their Western front, England and her allies literally carved up the Middle East according to their own liking. The operating document was the Sykes-Picot agreement, which resulted in the absurd nation-state cartography that has caused no end of grief since 1917. Of course, the dashing T.E. Lawrence and his daring exploits make for great reading. But the deeper moral implications, the deeper dilemma that Lawrence himself helped bring to light, remains today—and in Syria it is on full display.
The fact is that England and its allies during WWI decided that the Arabs, Turks and Persians were incapable of ruling themselves. The West decided they were inferior beings; politically, economically, and morally, and they needed a helping hand to bring them up to European snuff. Of course, there was a long history of this. The Crusaders, Napoleon, and the British all tried to recapture the West’s old influence and remake the Middle East in their own lights. But the Sykes-Picot treaty was perhaps the single most consequential act of imperialist ambition. The Muslim world was drawn up to reflect the reality Britain and France desired. The historical ethnic, religious, and tribal distinctions that governed the Muslim world no longer mattered. Two mid-level diplomats would throw together whole countries in the manner that suited their foreign policy interests.
When Cameron and Obama went to their respective legislatures asking for permission to punish Assad for acts he committed against his own people, both leaders were continuing the Sykes-Picot legacy of governing the Muslim world from afar. Somehow the notion that Arabs and Muslims cannot take care of themselves haunts the corridors of Western governments 94 years later. This is absurd, and both Cameron and Obama may have just seen the flat-out rejection of this concept for the first time in recent memory. Yet the Western “what to do about Syria” drama continues to unfold.
The Arab, Turkish, and Persian world of today bears no resemblance to those geographic regions in 1917. Then, the collapsing 400-year rule of the Ottoman Turks left a backwards and impoverished Arabia, Egypt, and Syria (not to mention Palestine, which was a province of Syria). Today, some of the Arab world is gushing money as it drains the coffers of the West with hundred-dollar-a-barrel oil. The Saudis have replaced camels and swords with Phantoms and AWACS. The Syrians are armed to the teeth with Russian MiGs. The Turks are NATO members and have access to the most advanced weaponry that alliance has to offer. Far from being the prostrate nations of the Sykes-Picot era, the Muslim world is in fact at least militarily upright.
So why will they not use these arms against a homicidal tyrant like Assad? Why do the photos and videos of gassed children stir calls for action in London, Paris and Washington but not to the same degree in Riyadh, Cairo and Istanbul? Where are the voices of the Arab and Muslim leaders? Why are they drowned out by the chorus coming from Western governments? And why are the Russians and Chinese advocating complacency in light of the slaughter of innocents (notwithstanding Russia’s recent offer to help secure Assad’s chemical weapons)?
I think the answer goes back to 1917. By carving up the Muslim world as the West did it removed the responsibility—and maybe even the possibility—of proper governance. The boundaries of Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia are so artificial that no moral consensus can emerge. The people and their leaders can find no behavioral compass to show them the way. Thus repression, brutality, destruction, and death operate without restraint.
A few Tomahawk missiles will not heal these deep wounds. They will only deepen them. The cynical and historically war-ravaged Russians and Chinese intuitively know this. The descendants of the West’s “white man’s burden” era do not. What the surgical strikes to punish Assad will do is once again reinforce the notion that the Arab and Muslim world cannot speak or act for itself. It gives a free pass to all the Arab leaders who have spoken with muted voices about the slaughter in Syria. They need to speak louder, not be drowned out by the whine of a cruise missile.
For the Arab and Muslim world to emerge and take its place in the sun of all nations it must find the courage to have a moral voice. Certainly it can be outraged. We know from Muhammad Al Durra- the Palestinian boy caught in the Gaza cross fire, the Turkish flotilla fiasco, the Danish cartoons, the Abu Ghraib photos that the Arab and Muslim world can speak loudly when it is offended. But those are Western offenses against it, not Muslim on Muslim ones. This is the hurdle they need to overcome. This outrage must come out over Syria; Obama and Hollande cannot do it for them. All that these Western leaders can do—like Sykes and Picot before them—is draw up a new map of what the Arab and Muslim mind should be thinking. Yet it is only the people of the Middle East who have the ability to change its destiny for the better.