Twelve months ago it seemed inevitable that Bashar Al-Assad had no future in Syria, that it was merely a matter of time before his reign – and his dynasty – came to an end. What has been consistent also, however, is that there has been no clarity in terms of who should replace him. Furthermore, this has never been an internalised, isolated civil war; it is regional, strategic, and symbolic.Montreux is an other worldy town on the north shore of Lake Geneva, home to a once famous Jazz festival, and a place I stayed in once about ten years ago. It is the kind of place one would expect to find Hercule Poirot, investigating some complex murder; or perhaps an errant Bertie Wooster, on the run from an enforced suitor. It finds itself the location for the latest attempts at peacemaking, and today’s news is that the two sides have agreed to meet in the same room, which is an apparent breakthrough. One suspects it will not be a small room.
While the Assad delegation is relatively straightforward to understand, their counterpoint is less so. With Saudi jihadists and al Qa’eda, the tribes of Syria are not necessarily well aligned themselves. One suspects that outside forces are trying to forge some unity in the opposition in an attempt to give some coherence to the dialogue, and – most importantly – a better chance for any outcome to stick. It’s not just in Syria either, as Robert Kaplan wrote recently in Foreign Policy – tribes really matter in many parts of the world:
Yes, tribes. They were the solution to checking the violence and undermining the religious extremists with their death cults in Iraq. They have been the dominating reality in Afghanistan, a world of clans and khels (what the Pashtuns call subclans). And when those reptilian regimes in North Africa and the Near East foundered, it was not democracies that immediately emerged, but tribes. This was particularly the case in Yemen, Libya, and Mali, but it was also true to a surprising degree in more developed societies like Syria, where beneath the carapace of sectarianism lay a grand guignol of tribes and clans, too many of which were infused with the spirit of holy war.
So the Arab Spring, it seems, may have actually been regressive, from strong centralised government with dictatorial authority, to feudal balkanisation. The question is, does this mean that these States will regress further, and either break up or simply break down? In one sense this causes problems for Western interests, as negotiations are hard to conduct and conclusions are difficult to enforce. In another, the absence of strength means that Israel is less threatened, and the capacity to wage war at any level is diminished. However, failed states are not good things; they are worse indeed than rogue states in many respects, as they are unpredictable.
In other news, I finally got my hands on Frederick Buell’s ‘National Culture and the New Global System‘. The connection between national identity and state legitimacy is really important here. The cohesion of states is certainly attached to identity; globalised society with such enormous potential geographic mobility significantly undermines one of the key reasons for having States in the first place, or at least States as we have come to understand them. Culture is important; tribal culture (see above, as tribes make a comeback) is important; but in the absence of a cohesive state, is culture defined by a man-made land boundary actually all that relevant? We shall see!