By Kamran Bokhari
Throughout history, nations and regimes have been forged in war. However, in the modern age, it is believed that nation-states and democratic regimes can be formed through a more civilized process, involving negotiations, bargaining and compromise. In the Arab world, nation-states are now crumbling, putting this modern method of state building to the test. Governments and territorial boundaries are being challenged by non-state groups, as we will see through the examples of Syria and Afghanistan. To try and contain this growing anarchy, the United States and the wider international community are steering the various countries in conflict toward Western-style governance. This approach towards peace building in Arab countries (and even in many parts of the broader Muslim world) is unlikely to succeed due to the autocratic nature of both the incumbent regimes and those challenging them.
Redefining the Syrian State
Syria is the best example of a country where non-state actors are attempting to redefine the state through armed conflict. However, the same situation (albeit at different levels of intensity) can be found throughout the Arab/Muslim world. The main non-state actors waging insurrections as well as the states resisting them have a formula for war but not for peace. Despite the ideological differences between the regimes and their challengers, autocracy is the common denominator, which will prevent them from reaching a settlement any time soon.
Secularism in the Arab world was represented for decades by regimes that ruled with an iron fist, including those of Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak. This is a key reason secular political movements that challenge authoritarian regimes and seek a democratic outcome remain marginal players. In addition, the rise of Islamism – in its various forms – as the main opposing force to the regimes in recent decades has greatly shaped the trajectory of the conflict in Syria. The uprising against Assad was initially a protest movement against his authoritarian regime and quickly devolved into an armed struggle.
In addition to sectarian motivations, the fighting is driven by the rebels’ desire to create an Islamic state (not to be confused with the Islamic State that declared a caliphate in 2014 in eastern Syria and western Iraq). Once the struggle against the regime turned into an armed conflict, this goal allowed Salafist-jihadists to become the dominant faction in the internationally recognized opposition. Their long-held view that an Islamic state cannot be brought about except through jihad has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This deeply ingrained zero-sum approach is a major obstacle toward progress in the international peacemaking efforts. Creating peace requires political compromise, which is incompatible with the worldview of the majority of rebels who seek to erect a new order through military conquest. In general, it is extremely difficult to get any form of warring parties anywhere in the world to agree on a peace deal, much less a system of governance. In the case of Islamist rebels, it is all the more difficult because they seek to apply medieval interpretations of Islamic law (Shariah) in a modern state.
Hence, the discourse revolving around caliphates, emirates and territorial expansion. Such ideas are not limited to IS or al-Qaida. Even though other groups may not be as extreme as these two and have confined their activities to a given nation-state, they are still equally devoted to their causes. We recently explained how a medieval understanding of Shariah takes precedence over the rule of law in many Muslim states. While Syria at present represents the focal point of this problem, we have seen this scenario play out before in Afghanistan.
Islamism Takes Over in Afghanistan
Afghanistan was the incubator in which such forces were unleashed, ironically with massive Western assistance. Due to the logic of the Cold War and the Western need to contain the Soviet Union, foreign fighters were heavily encouraged to join the “jihad” in the southwest Asian nation. This critical element, along with the ideological struggle against communism, in which the West leveraged Islamism, allowed for transnational jihadism to take shape and proliferate. Indeed, American indifference after the Soviets were forced to withdraw, as well as Pakistan’s strategic imperatives, facilitated the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan. After the U.S. lost interest in Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal, the Pakistanis had to make sure that Afghanistan had a pro-Islamabad government.
However, the more critical element was the fact that those same Afghan rebel groups that sought to liberate their country from foreign occupation also wanted to create an Islamic state in Afghanistan. Although foreign fighters initially flocked to the country to help fellow Muslims against communist aggression, this goal evolved into the need to establish an Islamic regime in Afghanistan and expand it to the wider Arab/Muslim world. This is the story of how al-Qaida was founded.
However, even the Afghan Islamist rebel groups that did not subscribe to a caliphate or an emirate could not cooperate with each other after ousting the Marxist regime in the spring of 1992 and attempting to negotiate a new order. The result was that neither democracy nor their envisioned Islamic state came about. Instead, Afghanistan suffered through four more years of war in which the same forces that were united against the communists slaughtered one another. The end result was the 1996 establishment of the Taliban emirate, under whose watch al-Qaida became the organization that staged the 9/11 attacks.
Even though the United States and its Western allies have all but withdrawn from Afghanistan, some 15 years after the fall of the Taliban regime, the war and efforts towards peace with the Taliban continue nearly two generations after the Soviet-Afghan War began. The primary reason for this is that those original Islamist factions that dominate the state built by the West are not able to get along. In addition, the feeble Islamic Republic of Afghanistan faces a massive challenge from the Taliban, which seeks to resurrect its Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Both sides refer to themselves as the mujahideen and the true torchbearers of jihad. Syria faces a similar outcome, though with far greater geopolitical ramifications given the Levantine country’s strategic location in the heart of the Middle East. The Salafist-jihadist rebels are caught between the Shiite-supported Assad regime and the Islamic State’s caliphate. The purported 97 rebel groups that signed on to the truce that took effect on Feb. 27 and are now being pressed to engage in peace talks agree that Assad must go and an Islamic order must replace his regime.
Barriers to Peace
What that Islamic order entails, these rebel groups don’t know and can’t seem to agree on, other than that it must somehow involve the imposition of Shariah law. In many ways, it is unclear how different it will be from the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate, other than that it will be more of an emirate – limited to the nation-state of Syria. If the rebels displace Assad’s forces from the capital, though this seems highly unlikely in the foreseeable future, Damascus will look very similar to Kabul in 1992, where rival forces would quickly turn their guns against each other. At the heart of the problem is that the rebels are using the peace talks – designed to produce an inclusive polity based on power-sharing – to establish an Islamic polity.
The Syria peace process will take years if not decades to produce an agreement. It will be contingent upon a number of factors. The many actors involved in the conflict (including the Kurds and different regional state actors, especially Turkey and Iran, which have the most to gain and/or lose from the conflict) will greatly shape the peace process. The success of the process will also depend on whether other countries in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, further deteriorate. But most significant, it will depend on the ideological and behavioral evolution of the rebels.
All actors transform over time – some more than others. Some of these Salafist-jihadist outfits – certainly the ones that are more nationalistic and tend to be more pragmatic – may be brought into the political process through a power-sharing arrangement. This happened with Egypt’s most prominent Salafist political party, Hizb al-Nour, which, until it became clear that former President Hosni Mubarak was going to fall, considered politics religiously forbidden and democracy un-Islamic. After Mubarak’s ouster, the group formed a political party, which has contested two parliamentary elections and supports the secular regime of military chief turned president Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi despite losing the most recent polls.
That said, al-Nour is the political arm of the decades-old apolitical al-Dawah al-Salafiyah movement, while the Syrian rebel groups began as armed militias and thus have a different starting point. Therefore, if and when Syrian Salafist-jihadist militias join the mainstream, they will follow their own unique course. Much will depend on the extent these groups are influenced by Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Ankara has a deep interest in shaping a post-Assad Syria in its own image, whereas the Saudis are not interested in a democratic Syria because it would impact their own domestic stability and because Syria is simply an opportunity to block growing Iranian regional influence.
There is also the Islamic State model that some of these other groups would like to refine, especially if they are able to supplant IS. Al-Qaida’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, certainly has this goal in mind. However, al-Nusra is also deeply connected to the Syrian rebels, especially through its alignment with the largest Syrian rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham. Therefore, al-Nusra’s evolution will be the one to watch as it has an impact on how both transnational as well as nationalist jihadism evolves over the long haul and not just in Syria.
It is very difficult to see how these actors who have been born in war can be accommodated in a peace process, where the desired outcome is an order that is at odds with their exclusivist ideology. In the case of Syria, the forces that make up the bulk of the opposition are ideologically incompatible with the Western model of governance. For this reason, the talks are unlike to result in an intact Syrian state.