No peace with Totten journalism


Worse than leaving a year in Syria is reading the crackpot analysis and apparent journalism that is published about Syria and based on the tired theses and a neo-conservative view of the Middle East that’s unfortunately durable. Why else would someone like Michael Totten be read, let alone published, let alone funded by his readers? His recent piece for Commentary shows he knows nothing about Syria, and his editors couldn’t care less.

Most of Syria’s Alawites live along the Mediterranean coast, away from the Sunni heartland. They could, at least theoretically, be separated from Syria into their own Alawite nation. The Middle East would probably be a safer place if they were. They did have their own semiautonomous government under the French Mandate between 1930 and 1937, and again from 1939 to 1944, but their Latakia region has been a part of Syria ever since.

Such a nation almost certainly would make peace with Israel, at least eventually, if it wasn’t ruled by Assad and his thuggish clan. Arab nationalism would lose its appeal among a people that would no longer need to demonstrate belonging to an ethnic majority to make up for its status as a religious minority. The strident anti-Zionism of the Sunni “street” could likewise ease. A free Alawite state might even be a natural ally of Israel for the same reasons the Middle East’s Christians and Kurds tend to be.

Theoretically Mr. Totten, how would that happen? American genius or money will convince the political elite to give up their power and move back to the mountains? Except most Alawites, like the rest of diverse Syria, live in the cities — they moved to Aleppo or Damascus for school and work, are just as mixed up and a part of contemporary Syrian space and society as the Sunni Muslims, the Shia, the Christians — every sect, there are a dozen sects in Aleppo alone — and the Kurds, the Druze. The Arabist wrote very rightly that this is the silly “mosaic of the Middle East.. lets break it up” theory gone wrong, again, with the only real point to Totten’s dribble is that this imaginary Alawite nation would make quick peace with Israel.

Totten writes that Bashar al-Assad simply would not make peace with Israel because he doesn’t want to and couldn’t, anyway, since he’s Alawite and much of his country is Sunni. Why is analysis of Arab leaders who refuse negotiations with Israel always limited to, “well they don’t, because they don’t want to, they want to drive Jews into the sea, or either way, their people wouldn’t allow it.” Politics is more complex, and interesting than that, even dictatorships. To point: Bidoun last year published their excellent “Objects” issue. One of those objects was Hafez al-Assad’s Iron Bladder and its place in “bladder diplomacy.” Infinitely better analysis of Syria’s presidents. As Rasha Salti wrote:

The sport of bladder diplomacy consists of hosting diplomats, negotiators, and state officials for meetings that can last up to nine hours, regularly serving them beverages — hot to cold — until, beside themselves, they are forced to bring the meeting to a conclusion, capitulating to some or most of their host’s demand, just to get to the loo. When Henry Kissinger, then the American secretary of state, met Assad for the first time, their encounter took six hours and thirty minutes. Kissinger was equal to the task… Decades later, another secretary of state, James Baker, was treated to nine hours and forty-six minutes without a break…

… The magic of Assad’s negotiating style was not only his iron bladder. It was that he was always prepared to take no for an answer. In March 2000, when President Clinton presented Assad with Ehud Barak’s peace proposal in Geneva, the Syrian leader deemed it unacceptable. The round ended abruptly. All parties walked away empty-handed, the Americans furious.

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