“The ‘Somalization’ of Syria is a great concern,” stated Yigal Palmor, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, in a recent interview with Turkey’s Hürriyet Daily News about the sectarian conflicts within Syria. “We hope that this war ends as quickly as possible, with a central power emerging that will rule all Syria.”
Israel’s desire for a centralized regime that rules over Syria’s minorities is misguided. A breakup of Syria into its component nations would empower the country’s minorities while serving to protect Israel. Rather than discouraging the minorities’ hopes for self rule, Israel should be encouraging it, and helping to shape it. Otherwise the outcome of Syria’s civil war could redound to Israel’s sorrow.
If a central Syrian government wholly replaces President Assad’s regime, it will likely be Islamist, as occurred across North Africa following the Arab Spring. If an armistice agreement splits the country, southern Syria would fall into the Islamist camp. In either scenario, Israel would be facing an Islamist regime on its northern border, making it more vulnerable than it has been under Assad’s secular rule, particularly if the emboldened rebels take seriously their promise to retake the Golan Heights. The Syrian minorities who would now be subject to Islamist rule – the Druze, Kurds and the now-ruling Alawites – would also be at peril, as are North Africa’s minorities.
A much better outcome – for Israel as well as for Syrian minorities – would be the decentralized approach that existed in the pre-Assad, pre-Ba’athist period of the 1920s and 1930s, when the French Mandate established five states within what is now Syria to accommodate Sunni Arabs as well as some minorities. The minorities have a long history of wanting self-rule – the Druze, for example, maintained quasi-independence through their own emirs under the Ottomans, despite repeated attempts by the Ottomans to subjugate them. In 1948, the Druze in the south of Syria – the region which until 1936 formed the Jebel Druze State – even tried to enlist the help of the fledgling Israeli state to free itself from Syrian rule.
Israel in 1948 did not have the means to assist the Druze but it does now; if the Druze haven’t yet asked Israel for help in the current war, that call may come soon. To date the Druze have stayed neutral – they don’t want to give either side a reason to attack them and they especially don’t want a rebel win, which would likely lead to an Islamist state that the Druze fear.
But the Druze may not be able to keep their neutrality for long – some of them are already choosing sides, creating rifts in their community. And once the fighting stops, their location in the south of Syria would likely see them incorporated into an Islamist government that controls the whole or the south of Syria. Israel is their best hope for avoiding control by Islamists, who see the Druze as heretics. They need to know that, unlike 1948, Israel would be there to help with arms and military intelligence should the Druze break for independence. Comments by Israeli spokesmen wishing for a return to central Syrian rule don’t help.
The logic of a Druze alliance with Israel extends to times of peace as well. From the Druze perspective, Israel, as an immediate neighbor, would enable free movement between the Israeli and Syrian Druze communities and provide the land-locked Druze State with access to the Mediterranean. From the Israeli perspective, a Druze state would represent a strategic advance in that Israel would have a people on its borders who represent no terrorist or security threat – the Druze of Israel have been loyal citizens. If the Kurds and other minorities in the region also attain self-rule, Israel would be able to count more friends still in its neighborhood. At the same time, states like Syria dedicated to Israel’s destruction would be diminished in size and in ability to wreak havoc.
The term “Somalization,” which connotes a failed state run by warlords, is ironic, in that it distorts history and thus the lessons that could be learned from history. Somalia, like Syria, was the creation of colonial powers that merged different nations to create unstable, artificial states – Somalia came of the merger of the former British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland.
As with Syria, almost immediately after Somalia’s creation warring began among the different incompatible nations. Somalia in fact split up in 1991, with the northern region – former British Somaliland – declaring independence. This breakaway Somaliland is now a pro-Western and pro-Israeli country that over the past 20 years has had a functioning democracy with a growing free-market economy that doesn’t rely on foreign aid. Somaliland has also been at peace with its neighbors, no mean feat considering its neighborhood. Israel should welcome another such “Somalization,” and another friend, on its northern border.