An Arab friend remarked to me that watching the US debate how much to get involved in Syria reminded him of an Arab proverb: “If you burn your tongue once eating soup, for the rest of your life you’ll blow on your yogurt.”
After burning its tongue in Iraq and Afghanistan, and watching with increasing distress the aftermath of the revolutions in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, US President Barack Obama is right to be cautious about the US getting burned in Damascus. We have now seen enough of these Arab transitions from autocracy to draw some crucial lessons about what it takes to sustain positive change in these countries. We ignore the lessons at our peril — especially the lesson of Iraq, which everyone just wants to forget, but is hugely relevant.
Syria is Iraq’s twin: an artificial state that was also born after World War I inside lines drawn by imperial powers. Like Iraq, Syria’s constituent communities — Sunnis, Alawite/Shiites, Kurds, Druze, Christians — never volunteered to live together under agreed rules. So, like Iraq, Syria has been ruled for much of its modern history by either a colonial power or an iron-fisted autocrat.
In Iraq, the hope was that once the iron-fisted dictator was removed by the US it would steadily transition to a multisectarian, multiparty democracy. Ditto for Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen.
However, we now see the huge difference between Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Arab world now. In most of Eastern Europe, the heavy lid of communist authoritarian rule was suppressing broad and deeply rooted aspirations for democracy. So when that lid was removed, most of these countries relatively quickly moved to freely elected governments — helped and inspired by the EU.
By contrast, in the Arab world, the heavy lid of authoritarianism was suppressing sectarian, tribal, Islamist and democratic aspirations. So, when the lids were removed, all four surfaced at once. However, the Islamist trend has been the most energetic — helped and inspired not by the EU, but by Islamist mosques and charities in the Persian Gulf — and the democratic one has proved to be the least organized, least funded and most frail. In short, most of Eastern Europe turned out to be like Poland after communism ended and most of the Arab countries turned out to be like Yugoslavia after communism ended.
As I said, our hope and the hope of the courageous Arab democrats who started these revolutions was that these Arab countries would make the transition from former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein to former US president Thomas Jefferson without getting stuck in former Iranian supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini or Thomas Hobbes — to go from autocracy to democracy without getting stuck in Islamism or anarchism.
Although to do that they need either an external midwife to act as a referee between all their constituent communities, who never developed trust in one another, as they try to replace sectarianism, Islamism and tribalism with a spirit of democratic citizenship, or they need their own Nelson Mandela. That is, a homegrown figure who can lead, inspire and navigate a democratic transition that is inclusive of all communities.
We all know the US played that external referee role in Iraq — hugely ineptly at first. However, the US and moderate Iraqis eventually found a way back from the brink, beat back Sunni and Shiite violent extremists, wrote a constitution and held multiple free elections, hoping to give birth to an Iraqi Mandela. Alas, they got Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who, instead of building trust with other communities, is re-sowing sectarian division. Decades of zero-sum politics — “I’m weak, how can I compromise/I’m strong, why should I compromise” — are hard to extinguish.