Syria or Kashmir?

Friday’s Wall Street Journalcontains an excellent op-ed by Naser Danan and Louay Sakka, two Syrians committed to a “free, independent and democratic Syria.” How the U.S. Can Help Avert a Failed State in Syria They wrote a cri de coeur asking for American assistance and intervention in the Syrian conflict, to prevent Syria from becoming “ a failed state akin to Somalia.” Their argument is that only with American intervention can the Free Syrian Army gain the upper hand and marginalize the jihadists and foreign extremists.

I am not a Syrian and I do not want to quibble with these Syrian patriots and their lofty goals for a free and democratic country; I would like that too. However, it could be pointed out that the Syrian civil war is far more like the Kashmiri conflict for independence from India than that in Somalia. There are several important differences, and embracing the Kashmir parallel may shed some light on the true nature of the difficulties and how they might be resolved.

The ancient semiautonomous tribal area of Kashmir was grafted onto British imperial India in 1846. Like so many colonial boundaries, it was drawn up with little or no regard to the cultural, linguistic or religious character of its inhabitants; rather, it was just a convenience for the foreign desk in Whitehall. At the time, Kashmir was 20 percent Hindu and 80 percent Muslim. The Hindus were the over class, the Muslims basically serfs.

When India and Pakistan were partitioned in 1947, Kashmir became a sticking point, with neither country wishing to drop its claim to the land. The result was a series of invasions and wars, culminating in the division of Kashmir and the birth of disputed claims that last to this day. There have been three wars, in 1947, 1965 and 1999. All ended in stalemates followed by uncertainty, guerilla war and constant retaliation.

If you substitute Alawites for Hindus and Sunnis for Muslims, the Syrian conflict seems cut from the same cloth. Syria itself is a country created in 1920 in the drawing rooms of, of all places, San Remo. Syria was taken by the French as a mandate and carved up into six autonomous regions, the smallest being Alawite. Never really a country but an area composed of tribal, religious and ethnic enclaves, Syria was under French rule until 1944, when it was granted independence. Like Kashmir’s Hindu minority, the Alawites consolidated power and dominated the Sunnis, Shiites, Druze and Christians impervious to economic or political justice. As in Kashmir, the vacuum left by the colonial power’s departure encouraged the oppressed majority to address their grievances by force. Thanks to the el-Assad family’s employment of brutality and murder, they were able to forestall the pressures on their Alawite sect for 41 years. Now the non-Alawite Syrians want their day in the political and economic sun.

Syria, for all its faults and sad history of misrule, is not Somalia. The Syrians are by geography and nature a Mediterranean people, far more like southern Europeans than black Africans. Syria was once home to some of the most sophisticated of all ancient peoples; later antiquity was also kind to Syria. Left to their own devices and free of outside interference from Wahhabi fanatics and tyrannical Shia mullahs, Syrians could actually build a real country.

But first they may need an internal partition. By hanging on for so long, the Assads have poisoned the body politic. The recent destruction and murder perpetrated by Bashar will not be quickly forgiven. His intransigence has also made Syria a pawn in the greater game of Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and now Israel—hence the plea from Dr. Danan and Mr. Sakka for America’s involvement.

Perhaps their request should also be addressed to Russia, Iran and all the other players. Unfortunately, America has so far proved itself a babe in the woods in its dealings with Mideast and Islamic conflicts. Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are not exactly success stories showcasing American prowess. Ditto relations with Iran and half a dozen other Arab nations. We’re good at leveling our adversaries’ infrastructure and forcing their armies to retreat, not so good at sorting out the resulting new order.

If we can see the Kashmiri conflict as a road map for where Syria came from and where it may be heading, at least we won’t be surprised by the twists and turns and potholes along the way. A rough and tortuous road lies ahead for Syria; the forces and vested interests make that inevitable. Syria is a flashpoint for the Sunni/Shia great partition just as Kashmir was—and still is—for the Hindu/Muslim one. As in Kashmir, expect little peace and continued conflict. In both Kashmir and Syria, where the grievances are age-old, the people’s feelings are still raw and angry.

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