The Syrian nation-state is riven by civil war (exacerbated by external forces), and seems in serious danger of collapse into a state of anarchy so great, that little or nothing of the lives of its inhabitants can saved from destruction, injury and turmoil.
The world civilization that 7 billion people have created on the landscapes of our earth in the year 2013 AD by the Western calendar, is still, in an optimistic view, thriving, yet it is also quite plausible and believable to make a “realistic/pessimistic” case that our present world civilization of nation-states, powerful economic enterprises, and poorly informed masses of “ordinary citizens” is also in great danger of collapse (if on a slightly longer timescale of decades, rather than the years in which a collapse in Syria seems plausible) that will also leave the lives of its inhabitants in various states of destruction, injury and turmoil.
Thus the topic of this essay: what can we learn from considering Syria problem’s as a mirror of the world’s problems?
To begin, however, let’s look at an even more basic question.
What is the most important factor, the most important variable, that determines what you or I see, when we look in a mirror?
It’s not the light waves bouncing about between our face and the mirror – though these do determine what image is visible in the mirror to a hypothetical objective observer. Yet what you or I see in the mirror is determined by our mind, our psychology, our personality, our emotions and presumptions. Our philosophical structures (of explanations we believe in) may also play a role here. And the range of our emotions and presumptions about our appearance in a mirror is so vast, from those who have never or very seldom look in mirrors and don’t know what to expect, and then through all those of us who may expect to see a certain self-image and are either happy or disappointed to see that expected image, or else are either disappointed or happy in seeing something other than the expected image, in all the millions of ways people can be either happy or disappointed.
So let’s be very clear, when we perform an intellectual exercise like this, considering Syria as a mirror to the world, it’s all in our presumptions and prejudices and perceptions of what we think we’re seeing, when we look at complex human historical problems like Syria, or when we consider out current global society’s prospects. There will be vast disagreement according to our personalities, our systems of science, religion and philosophy, our politics and our economic interests, and we just have to live with it and learn to analyze it and love it (see here for much more on my hopes that we can accomplish these goals).
So how do we consider this intellectual exercise, Syria as a mirror to the world?
On a first shallow glancing view, it may be possible to entirely reject the comparison of Syria to the world. Syria’s problems, it might be said, arise from the specific policies of the Assad monarchical dictatorship; the rest of the world does not suffer from this particular patriarchy of despotism, and therefore there is no comparison.
In my view, however, this rejection would be an error. Yes, Syria’s current political problems are centered on the Assad regime that has been in power for over four decades. However many regions of the world, in all times, have had experiences of regimes that are similar to the political regimes “enjoyed” by Syria in its long history. As you may know, I prefer to analyze political behavior in human beings as the creation and (constant re-creation) and distribution of honor, status and rank in human societies, (leading to the tribal and state governmental structures that have elaborated so convincingly in human affairs from their roots in our concepts of status and rank).
Would it be fair to say that nearly all human societies have had their share of giving rank and political power to some of the most unworthy, authoritarian, selfish, deceptive and otherwise despotic men to be found in their societies? (And it has been overwhelmingly and nearly universally a male problem, despite the many tribal structures that have empowered women in various ways, or the more modern kingdoms that have allowed Queens and Empresses to supervise traditional structures of male authority.) Nor will I allow my native USA to wriggle out of this on some claim of liberty-loving constitutional exception, because certainly there have been plenty of local, institutionalized tyrants and abuses of power from political actors and cliques in all eras of our American history, not to mention race riots and lynchings. And how do we rate the current situation of a highly centralized, highly institutionalized national security state apparatus quite literally monitoring all our modern communications at all times and undressing us at airports, which somehow “just grew” (very specifically out of our military structures since 1945) without ever being asked for, voted on by the public, or discussed in any full or free manner in our most visible political or mass media debates/analysis, and which appears to be completely beyond any control by ordinary citizens. So yes, even if you might argue that it’s not fair to say “nearly all,” I do believe that it is fair to say that the vast majority of human societies do have an understanding of selfish, authoritarian political power wielded by those whom they honored, rightly or wrongly, with these ranks and offices.
And let us make no mistake, this is the nature of the problem in Syria, an authoritarian regime which will use any murder, any weapon, any barbarity to maintain its power. And yet the regime survives, primarily because it does have a legitimate population base of civil society – the various non-Sunni-Muslim ethnic groups and communities who find their fears of the prospect of repression and/or massacre by victorious Sunni Muslim insurgents to be greater than the fears induced by continuing the bloody, unproductive Assad regime. These 5 to 10 million people (my guess based on my quick glances at Syrian demographic statistics) are not just going to disappear from the stage of human history in the Eastern Mediterranean region in the 21st Century. They deserve support and protection as much as anyone else, I hope for their sake their fates are not tied to the fate of a regime whose attempts to protect itself seem to engender more and deeper opposition.
And if we take a pessimistic view that humans will not solve the problems of un-sustainability in our present state of civilization, the crisis that will be facing our children and grandchildren will be the problem of entrenched political and business elites who refuse to alter their regimes, no matter the seriousness of the ecological problems confronting us, whether this is the ecology of a relentlessly rising coastline combined with much greater hurricane activity, or a human economic ecological disaster like successfully launching a robotic manufacturing and simple-services economy while refusing to make any basic changes in economic postulates to ensure the survival of hundreds of millions of people now deprived of traditional means of sustaining themselves. So in this instance, the prospects of the world as a whole over the coming decades does mirror the prospects of the Syrian polity over the coming months and years: very poor prospects indeed, in any kind of “realistic” assumptions about human ability to reform political and economic institutions that give undue rewards to small elites while depriving large masses in small, less-than-obvious ways.
Here I would like to take some time to shoot down a notion I saw expressed in comments on a Syrian article on a major press service’s website, to the effect that “we don’t need to care about these quarrelsome little ethnic groups that have been fighting each other for millenia.” Again, I hope my other writings express why we need to care about everybody in world history if we care about ourselves, and our history. And as for the Eastern Mediterranean region in general (in which “Syria” was seen as a vague region within a general Arab-Muslim culture and was not formally defined until the map-making exercises of the victorious Allies of World War I) and traditional and modern Syria in particular, actually the various little ethnic groups (and the predominant Sunni Muslim Arab ethnic group) did a fair job of living and letting their neighboring communities live. There was not a continuous war of community against community, and all the major wars of the region after the establishment of the Islamic hemisphere in the 6-800’s AD represented invasions by Muslim, Mongol or Crusader imperialists arising not from Syria or its immediate neighbors. And the book I pulled from my dated shelves to refresh myself on Syrian history, Howard Sachar’s excellent “Europe Leaves the Middle East, 1936-54″, 1st ed. 1972, starts off by reminding us that the Mongol invasions and epidemic diseases of the 1200-1300’s AD had seriously depopulated and impoverished the region, “ravaged its forests and silted its irrigation canals,” (p. 5), and no regimes until the colonial regimes of the Europeans after World War I had attempted seriously to remedy the situation. Nevertheless, during all this time, the various ruling empires maintained an overall peace, and the various ethnic groups of the Syrian territory did not continually war against each other. And that when the Europeans did come in after 1919, they did so in complete contempt of the Arab majority’s attempt to establish an Arab kingdom in Damascus. And in the overall story of how Syria achieved its full independence of colonialism relatively peacefully in 1946, the relative unity of Syrians in their many strikes, protests and riots against French colonial rule was an important factor.
Indeed, if the conflict in Syria now gives us the horrifying prospect of extreme ideological versions of Sunni and Shi’a Islamic thought locked in mortal conflict – al Qaida and Hezbollah battling over the Syrian landscape, in conventional journalistic shorthand – this must be seen as a reflection in today’s Syria of the grand ideological wars of the 20th Century world in Europe and East Asia, and certainly not as something arising from the political and economic competition of two neighboring communities in the hills southwest of Damascus. The roots and models for this type of ideological conflict lie in London and Paris and Berlin and Moscow and other European capitals in late 1800’s and early 1900’s, in the development of nationalisms and socialism/communism, its ugly reflection in a fundamentally deadly schism in the Islamic world of the early 2100’s is an example of history echoing it previous cries — yet an example that is neither fully appreciable by many as a tragedy, yet cannot be, in any viewpoint, a farce that is pleasant and amusing.
And so, in our intellectual exercise of considering Syria as a mirror to the world, we see how both how the world resembles the Syrian mirror, while Syria reflects the world that interfaces with it. Whether the image that we see of Syria and the world is ugly and pessimistic and doomed to catastrophic collapse, or whether there are possibilities that increased self-education and organization amongst the world’s peoples, and increased success of democratic-progressive tendencies among national and global political bodies, and increased world political/diplomatic cooperation on all types of issues, everywhere, from stronger efforts at caring for refugees and providing food stability and other positive institutions of civil societies, while somehow negotiating a sustainable peace among bitter enemies, whether this can actually occur to really result in positive outcomes in the Syrian situation over the next few years, and whether similar efforts on our part can result in positive outcomes for the world situation over the next few decades, again that is a function of our own psychological structures, our emotions and our presumptions, our cynicisms and pessimisms, or our hopes and efforts to find a viable solution.
Is there any glimmer of hope that can relieve our forebodings over Syria? A few days after this article originally posted, we must praise the Russian-American accord on identifying, controlling and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons — hopefully with the real cooperation of the Syrian government — as a very real step forward by some of the world’s largest political malefactors. True, the actual outcome is still uncertain and these governments have much, more more to accomplish towards actual world peace and progress, yet the situation of an awkward agreement today is still a better outcome than the unilateral American missile strikes that looked likely yesterday.
Yet overall, the global question haunting our futures remains: can our desperate belief that we will somehow maneuver our civilization to survive the crises created by our own waste products (and counting our authoritarian, despotic government actors among the most toxic items in our garbage), will our desperation somehow bring about actual fundamental reforms for long-term viability? All of these dancing images flash across our intellectual mirror as our attitudes and emotions carry on their eternal dance of joy and despair … yet inevitably, our verifiable actions (and our unconscious omissions) will, in their overall sum totals as the 2010’s and the 2020’s and the 2030’s roll along, second by second and minute by minute and hour by inescapable, inexorable hour, these actions and omissions on our part will determine the history and outcome of our human future.