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Opinion

Syria: A new paradigm shift?

Syrians can overcome the crisis by crossing bridges and refusing to adhere to Ottoman-era sectarian and feudal divides.

Last updated: 01 Apr 2014 13:40
Ammar Waqqaf

Ammar Waqqaf is a member of the British Syrian Society. He works as a management consultant in the UK.
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Democracy was never really the main issue for the majority of Syrians who rebelled, writes Waqqaf [AFP]

The reason why the Syrian crisis has gone on for this long is that the underlying questions that can unite Syrians are yet to be asked. It's as simple as that.

Forget about democracy. Although it is perceived as a key element of this conflict, it was never really the main issue for the majority of Syrians who rebelled. For some, it was a vague term that benignly disguised majoritarian wishes and, for others, it was merely a language through which they could appeal to Western public opinion and facilitate the task of winning support from Western governments.

Despite talking democracy day and night, look at the tyrannical practises in rebel-controlled areas, for example, or at the inability of the Syrian opposition's political class to lead their followers. The lack of deeply rooted democratic beliefs or the irrelevance of it, is there for everyone to see.

Forget about the "foreign conspiracy" theory as well. Regional and international interests have always existed and clashed, and will continue to do so. You could even forget about the much-hyped sectarian split, or even the far more important class struggle that is clearly evident in the rift between rural and urban areas. All of these factors have contributed to the bloodshed, but they do not actually account for the prolonging of the crisis. Only by scratching the surface a bit deeper will one notice that the great divide is in fact that of an identity clash or, to be more precise, a clash of mentalities. Not only is this why the crisis has taken so long, but this is why it could take even longer.

What Syria will become

Looking at it from such a vantage point, this won't be a struggle between two types of Syrians any more, ie, Sunni v Shia or poor v rich, etc. Instead, it would look more like a clash over what Syria is, or, rather, what Syria will become. To settle this issue, Syrians need to dig deep, not into who they are and what they are about, but into where they are and where they want their children to be.

The era of religious identity in the Levant that coincided with four centuries of Ottoman rule never really ended with the empire's demise. The rise of nationalism in the region did bring new cross-boundary dynamics that were vital for multi-religious societies, like the one in Syria, to be able to function in a progressive way.

The era of religious identity in the Levant that coincided with four centuries of Ottoman rule never really ended with the empire's demise. The rise of nationalism in the region did bring new cross-boundary dynamics that were vital for multi-religious societies, like the one in Syria, to be able to function in a progressive way.

Nonetheless, the vast amounts of oil that were discovered in the Gulf area, and the huge disposable income it generated, meant that societies with different priorities had some influence. Whether passively, through second and third generations of economic immigrants from the Levant, Egypt and Iraq, or actively, through generously funded radical ideologies in those countries, religious identity did manage a comeback.

As for Syria specifically, and unlike in neighbouring Lebanon where a society very similar in fabric and culture resides, the consecutive Syrian governments following independence from France, conducted their business so as not to constitutionally reinforce sectarian and feudal lines. As a result, a sizable chunk of Syrians found it increasingly feasible, over the decades, especially in urban centres, to cross lines and engage with people who were perceived to be different for centuries. There was no second-class citizenship - not any more. This trend persisted until the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the regional religious propaganda started in full swing.

Syrians were bashed throughout the past three years, and it's far from over. The complex nature of the crisis meant that alliances forced their way across the same fault lines that supposedly divided Syrian society. It didn't, though, despite the severe damage, and this offers a platform that must be explored if Syria is ever to spring effectively into the future.

Moreover, one could argue that what is taking place in Syria at the moment, did take place in all nations that can now boast societies based on individual rights, reason and transparency. The fact that this severe mentality clash is happening in Syria, and not in other countries around the Middle East, is perhaps a testament of the soundness of the secular approach of post-independence Syrian governments.

A new rallying point

Now, here's the thing: Whereas adherents to the traditional interpretations of the Syrian crisis tend to split society straight down the middle, one that calls for crossing bridges and rejecting irrational behaviour, could appeal to the vast majority, and constitute a much-needed novel rallying point.

Unfortunately, this view is hardly universal among Syrians at the moment. Many of them, especially those who lost loved ones, view the struggle from an existential point of view. It would be quite a challenge to bring them along, and encourage them to accept such a paradigm shift. One key obstacle in this regard is the part played by the so-called progressive Syrians, who have dug their heels so deep into the "anti-dictatorship" paradigm that there seems to be no apparent way forward. Another roadblock is the absence of a coherent group of Syrians, who could be trusted by a large enough number of their countrymen, both in character and in capacity, and who could then lead the way.

If Syrians do not open themselves up to a new way of looking at the problem, this crisis will be repeated, generation after generation, no matter how it is tackled, whether by force, by international or regional checks and balances, or whatever.

It is up to the Syrians, and no one else, to really solve this crisis and find a way through towards a more fertile future for them and their children. Destiny has chosen them to lead the way for other societies in the Middle East in the regional struggle towards rationality, and they need to prove, first to themselves, that they are up for the challenge.

Ammar Waqqaf is a member of the British Syrian Society. He works as a management consultant in the UK.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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