Minorities in the Mideast
How might the power and political structure in Syria evolve? One scenario that crops up is that the country devolves into several pieces, based on identity groupings. This might be termed its "balkanization," or "the recent Yugoslav model."
Recall that the former Yugoslavia, about the size of Oregon and about a third larger than Syria, in the 1990s broke into six republics plus Serbia's two autonomous provinces. Yugoslavia as a political entity existed in several forms since the end of World War One. The people of Yugoslavia had utilized two alphabets, hosted three major religions, spoke four languages, comprised two major races, and included several major nationalities. It finally broke apart as an entity.
For many years it has been commonplace to describe the Middle East as "Arab Moslem," as though it belongs to Arabs and Moslems exclusively. In reality, the multitude of minorities of the Middle East considered together may be nearly a majority.
The population may be categorized by religion, ethnicity, language, and racial lines, as well as by nationality. For example, the people of Syria often define themselves not only as Syrians but also as Alewite, Sunni, Shiite, Druze, Kurd, or Christian. (There was a sizable Jewish community in Syria since before Islam's birth in Arabia, but most Jews have left.)
Consider further major population identities and divisions of the Middle East.
The people of present Iran (formerly Persia) are not Arabs, but Persians. Iran is also home to Shiite Islam as compared to Sunni, whose home center of gravity is Saudi Arabia. Iran also has been home to the Baha'i and Zoroastrian religions, and its people speak the Farsi language, not Arabic.
Iraq has three major distinct populations grouped largely by geography: The Shiite population is mostly in the south and center of the country, the Sunni in the west, and Kurd in the north. Also, Iraq was home, until recently, to a significant Christian population of Assyrians. During the civil unrest in the past decade there have been considerable population migrations, some voluntary and others imposed.
Armenians, mostly Christian and living in regions of the Caucasus near Turkey, Iran, and Georgia, were unsuccessful at keeping statehood after the 1914-1918 war. Many were killed by the Turks in a civil war and/or genocide.
Egypt has a durable national, as distinct from Arab or Moslem, identity. There is a large minority of Coptic Christians (many millions), and a large racially African population. There was once a significant population of Greeks, other Europeans, and Jews, but most have long since left. A CNN News report on November 13, 2012 cited a Moslem extremist in Egypt calling for destruction of the Sphinx and pyramids, as pagan.
Lebanon was established as a Christian state alongside Syria, with Maronite and Orthodox Christians providing its primary identity, but also with large Sunni, Shiite, and Druze populations. It endured a long period of civil war particularly during the 1970s and 1980s. Lebanon also had a flourishing Jewish community (until modern times).
Israel, although a Jewish state, provides freedom of religious practice for its Christian and Moslem citizens and residents. Its Jewish population alone includes various racial groups including Middle Eastern, African, European, African, and South Asian.
Many people living in the Middle East think of their primary identity as other than Sunni or Shiite Moslem and other than Arab.
Kurds are a significant minority in Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Armenia, and Syria. While the Kurds are usually Sunni by religion, they consider themselves a distinct nation, an ethnic group other than Arab.
Many Bedouin tribes consider themselves as other than the majority populations in the states where they live, along with possessing distinct cultural characteristics.
The vast majority of people of Turkey do not identify as Arabs, but as Turks. A significant minority are Kurds. There has long been a Greek community in Turkey. (A population swap in the early 1920s saw many ethnic Greeks and Turks move to their respective cultural homelands. For this transfer, a Nobel Prize for peace was awarded the League of Nations organizer.) There are also Albanians, Armenians, Assyrians, Azerbaijanis, Bosniaks, Chechens, Circassians, Georgians, and other minorities. A community of Sephardic Jews resided in Turkey from the time of the Spanish expulsion five centuries ago, although it has diminished since Israel's reestablishment as a state.
The population of the United Arab Emirates includes Sunni and Shiite Moslems, Arabs, Persians and many South Asians (from India, etc.), Eastern Asians, Filipinos, and Western expats.
Some Moslem leaders have sought to submerge earlier identities of the peoples in lands where Islam became the majority religion and identity. Recall the Taliban's purposeful destruction (in March 1991 just months before 9/11) of ancient Buddhist shrines in Afghanistan -- one was the largest standing Buddha carving in the world (180 feet high) from the sixth or seventh century.
Some peoples defining themselves as Arab are of various racial characteristics (including African and Caucasian).
An excellent book on the subject of Mideast minorities is Mordechai Nisan's Minorities in the Middle East: A History of Struggle and Self Expression. (Also see his essay "The Minority Plight", Middle East Quarterly, September 1996)
Today the Middle East is in greater political flux than at any time since the early 1920s. After WWI, the British and French, and Turkish reformers replaced the defeated and collapsing Ottoman Empire that had ruled most of the region for centuries. They established multiple new political states and defined the frontiers.
Consider an alternative historical scenario that might have evolved if in autumn 1914 Ottoman leaders had not cast their lot with the Central Powers -- Germany and Austria-Hungary. That fateful choice gave the British concerns. They had built the Suez Canal several decades earlier and had cooperated with the Ottomans for half a century to defend it against Russia. During the course of the war, the Brits defended the canal against Ottoman attack and mounted military campaigns through the Sinai into the Holy Land and Syria, and northwest from the Persian Gulf into what became Iraq. By this means, Great Britain conquered or gained control of much of what had been the Ottoman Empire (except for its heartland that became Turkey). That empire might have endured had it not joined Britain's enemies in WW I, an intriguing "what if?" consideration.
The British victory in 1918 led to the formation of new states from territories long controlled by the Ottomans and known as the Levant, Mesopotamia, and Arabia. Among the new political entities formed were the Palestine Mandate (soon to comprise Transjordan and Israel, plus still disputed areas), Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Kuwait. Saudi Arabia would soon form into a political state, while the loser in the civil war over Arabia (where Saudis contended with Hashemites) gained leadership of what became Jordan and Iraq, courtesy of the British.
The formation of distinct Kurdish and Armenian states out of territory that had been controlled or contested by the Ottomans was discussed by the international community at that time but not carried out.
The British Foreign Office after WWI and the U.S. State Department after WW II cast the fortunes of their respective countries with Sunni Moslem Arabs in much of the Middle East. The French gained influence over what is now Syria and Lebanon, and particularly supported Lebanon's Christian population.
For various periods during the decades following WW I there was significant support for other select minorities: Armenian, Maronite, Kurd, Coptic, Shiite, and Jewish. The British initially supported Jewish rights in Palestine and later shifted away from that stance. Great Britain did support minority Sunni leadership of Iraq. In Transjordan (i.e., eastern Palestine) they similarly supported the exercise of power by migrant Hashemite tribal leaders from Arabia over the indigenous Arab population of modest numbers.
As Great Britain and the United States sequentially gained influence, they were inclined to downplay the rights of the region's minorities (with particularly Lebanon and Israel as sometime exceptions). Israel somehow overcame British switches in sympathy and support and American diplomatic inconstancy to force the British out of western Palestine in a military-political campaign running 1944-1947 and proclaim statehood in 1948. Since then Israel has fought repeatedly to defend itself from unending Moslem challenges and has flourished as a non-Moslem and democratic political entity, albeit one systemically threatened and often at war. It has served as a symbol of hope for other minorities.
Predominantly Moslem Iraq, since America's recent takedown of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, is a new sort of role model, in that the country saw vast population movements (both voluntary and forced) into three general territorial zones -- of Shiites, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds. (The long notable Iraqi Assyrian Christian community has been vastly diminished in recent decades by oppression and emigration.)
The present day may be an opportune time to stop referring to and considering the Middle East automatically as generically Arab and Moslem. Today provides an opportune moment to redress the neglect of minorities, by broadening an understanding and appreciation of the varied populations. A broader perspective would be illustrated by a new term to describe the region's peoples -- perhaps "the mosaic of Middle East minorities." This reflects the historic and current reality and it, or another like-minded term, is appropriate for our time, which sees attempts to create and enable democracies.
We have seen in the practice of the so-called "Arab Spring" (perhaps really another "Arab autumn") that whereas there may be elections, one component of democracy, they have not been accompanied by recognition of the rights of minorities. And it is those rights that are the central component in actual successful democracies, like the United States, Canada, Australia, etc.
A fresh perspective resulting from reorientation toward minority rights or evolvement of political entities into component elements may be beneficial if not for full peace, at least to the better prospect for balances of power and stability in the region. Might the recent example of the evolution of Yugoslavia into distinct states be a role model for Syria today? Would many or most of the peoples of Syria and their neighbors be better off?
Michael Zimmerman is a retired business executive and former army officer who leads discussion groups about international security affairs.