Why Syria turmoil threatens Middle East
October 2nd, 2012
10:31 AM ET

Why Syria turmoil threatens Middle East

By Fareed Zakaria

As Syria continues its descent into civil war, the terrible humanitarian tragedy occurring is unfolding in plain view: 20,000 dead, 250,000 refugees outside the country by some accounts, over a million people internally displaced.

There seems no easy solution to end the crisis. But now, Syria’s neighbors are getting worried. Syria’s problems will not stay confined to Syria. Syria is a multi-sectarian society with shared identities with groups in other countries. As a result, the sectarian tensions that are being unleashed there are also spilling over from Syria’s borders.

There was an excellent New York Times article last week that noted how the Kurds in Syria are now starting to try to leave the country and are massing on the Turkish border. They are also trying to carve out a Kurdish zone in Syria that would allow them some autonomy. This is precisely what the Kurds in Iraq did, it is what some Kurds in Turkey aspire to do, and it is what the Kurds in Syria may try to do.

Collectively, from the Kurdish point of view, this would fulfill a long held aspiration dating back decades, if not centuries, to create some kind of Kurdish community or state gathering together the Kurds of the Middle East. For those other countries involved, of course, it creates an enormous problem by exacerbating the separatist tendencies within each country’s borders. In effect, it creates safe havens for certain kinds of insurgent activities or anti-state activities and allows for the flourishing of sub-national identities. After all, Kurds in Iraq really don’t think of themselves as part of the Iraqi state – they have Kurdish passports, they speak Kurdish and the armed Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga, are essentially the Kurdish national army.

Ahmadinejad tells Zakaria: U.S. warnings don't affect our policies

All this is going to produce tremendous strains on the entire regional system. Joe Klein had a very good column in TIME in which he pointed out that to understand the big picture here, we need to remember that the states in the Middle East have very artificial borders. These borders were created for the most part at the end of World War I, and were carved out largely by the British and French. In almost no cases do they conform to natural borders – mountains, rivers and valleys – that have been the way nations have usually been formed through history. By some accounts, the only two natural countries in the Middle East are Iran and Egypt. (One might add Turkey, though it is not wholly Middle Eastern.)

Instead, borders in the Middle East were often formed by deliberately cobbling together separate groups that in the case of Britain allowed it to rule over these countries in the full knowledge that there was no one dominant group that would be able to drive them out. Iraq is thus made up of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, who often place their sectarian identity above a national identity.

Ahmadinejad: I'm quite popular

The unfolding violence in Syria is tugging at this fragile state system. So, could Syria’s neighbors come to recognize that civil war in Syria is not simply an internal affair, but something likely ultimately to undermine the entire state system of the Middle East? If Syria’s neighbors do indeed recognize this, you would expect to see Saudi Arabia and Egypt on the one hand, and Iran on the other trying to find ways to rein in the violence. And there have been moves to form a “contact group” of those four powers to meet. Iran has been eager to join in but so far Saudi Arabia has refused to sit down with the Iranians.

When all is said and done, however, it’s difficult to see how any progress towards a new political order will occur with Bashar al-Assad remaining as Syria’s president. So the first step would have to be for the Iranians to recognize the inevitable and call on al-Assad to leave office.

Sadly, when I asked President Ahmadinejad about this very matter last week, his answer was not encouraging.

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Topics: Middle East • Syria

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soundoff (263 Responses)
  1. MuckFohammad

    plagiarism, thy name is Fareed

    October 3, 2012 at 3:56 am | Reply
  2. Mike

    Hopefully it will spread to other ME nations. Ragheads.killing.ragheads is a good thing.

    October 3, 2012 at 7:55 am | Reply
  3. Kahn Keller

    ... we have tried and tried to get a lasting peace...it has not worked...lets go the other way and have a mid east war
    involing all the middle eastern states and see what we can do with those that survive ....could not do any worse than we are now...

    October 3, 2012 at 9:30 am | Reply
  4. deniz boro

    Treat to Turkey is not political but substantial at Turkey's doorstep now. 5 people killed and about a dozen injured because of a shell which exploded in Akcakale- a county near the border. And a second shell exploded in another county. However, I do not believe the material harm caused is greater than the unrest in the region. I sincerely hope that no other country in the region will get involved in this civil war.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:54 am | Reply
  5. Areyoucrazy

    Ahmadinejad should be put through a meat grinder, and should be fed to the pigs, which should then be forcefed to the supreme loser Khomenei, right before he is hung. As with all crazy islamic jihadi nut jobs, these guys should be exterminated!!!!! What a crazy barbaric backward culture.

    October 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Reply
  6. fiftyfive55

    Has there ever been peace in the mideast ?

    October 3, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  7. berman

    If Fareed understands that the state system in the Middle East was set up by colonial powers as part of a divide and rule strategy thereby leaving us with an inherently unstable system, why is he so opposed to the system correcting itself and a more natural international order working itself out? If the Palestinians deserve statehood, then how much more so do the Kurds?

    October 3, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Reply
  8. Taskmaster

    The Syrian refugees lack basic needs and so many people blame Assad.BUT before the rebels started the civil war how many refugees were leaving for other countries. Assad didn't close the borders to anyone wanting to leave.The rebels are the ones responsible for starting a civil war under the pretense of wanting a democracy.There will be no democracy in Syria only a takeover by the muslim brotherhood.if Assad is ousted. Put the blame where it belongs.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:55 pm | Reply
    • Javier

      that they did not have any intention of ddfeneing South Korea.It triggered the invasion from the North. Similarly the GH Bush Administration gave indication that they would not defend Kuwait either.Obama is like a rogue bull in a china shop. Too frequently, the US presidency overwhelms the individual.One day a social study will be done on HOW the American people could have selected and elected someone like Obama. An academic that never partiicipated in the real world and an ideaology that opposes the very basis of the US only similar in another way to the biggest moron today in US politics, Sarah Palin.

      July 6, 2014 at 1:47 pm | Reply
    • Dwie

      The Arabs are losing time, money, human captial and talent in all these unwarranted killings incited by foreigners. End of the day, they will be in debt, no human captial, no trained and educated workforce and leaders, and have to pay the westerns to rebuild their countries and owing the westerns debts that they will take generations to repay.Asian and southeast Asian countries must learn from the plight of the Arabs and not be exploited by the Americans into fighting each other and ended up like the poor Arabs.

      July 25, 2014 at 8:03 pm | Reply
  9. fiftyfive55

    I laugh every time they mention refugees when we have 12 million illegal aliens wandering around our streets and nobody knows who they are or what they are doing here . Syria has a mere 250,000 refugees and its such a big deal to our govt that we'll get involved in their war but will not do anything about 12 million illegal alien invaders here in America. HOW SAD.

    October 4, 2012 at 7:19 am | Reply
  10. Paul smith

    Get rid of the Jews and there will finally be world peace.

    October 4, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Reply
  11. choppedliver

    The greatest threat to Middle East and World Peace are the United States and Israel! Get rid of Israel and a new age will begin! There are no other neighboring countries to Iran or in the Middle East who are complaining of wanting to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. This is all American, U.K., and Israeli propaganda. Israel has no nuclear weapons...so the outcry from Israel. Israel will be 'Showered with Candies' from the East, South and North. Iran does not need nuclear weapons. Americans are no longer buying Israeli or American media biased propaganda for the sake of the "Zionist Nation" of Israel. As Americans we are "FED UP" with this crap. NO MORE ECONOMIC OR MILITARY AID TO AN PRO-APARTHEID OCCUPIER who claims to be democratic! I agree with Jimmy Carter-Israel must change or lose its status and soveriegnty as a nation. NO TICKY....NO SHIRTY!!!

    October 5, 2012 at 10:57 am | Reply
  12. Claude

    President Bashar al-Assad,

    Why dont ou just stop the violence and leave your position as well as your country. Thousands died already, millions hates you and your leadership. It is not healthy to be popular when you got the worong branding or in your case, the ugly Branding. Dont you think its about time to give your people freedome and make them experience the fgoodness of life?? NOT THE HELL YOURE GIVING THEM!!! Anyways, i am a muslim before but i chose the christian way. I chose it not because being a muslim has a bad impression to anyone or something.. that's not my point.. . but whenever i look back in the islamic way of life i learned, i dont think Allah promotes those violence you have introduced. Wake up!!. The World wants you down. so step down.. Face the consequences and repent. God forgives people, he loves us unconditionally.. I am a concerned student of the University of Santo Tomas, Philippines, hoping and Praying for the whole thing.

    Rugay, Claude

    November 18, 2012 at 5:27 am | Reply
  13. Nathaniel

    Good day, this is a direct letter to the President of Syria (Bashar al-Assad)
    Man in nature is good, there is no religion or belief that can change that fact. It is also a natural way to do what is ethical for the welfare of the human race. It is written in this article that "it’s difficult to see how any progress towards a new political order will occur with Bashar al-Assad remaining as Syria’s president. So the first step would have to be for the Iranians to recognize the inevitable and call on al-Assad to leave office." and the facts stated that "the terrible humanitarian tragedy occurring is unfolding in plain view: 20,000 dead, 250,000 refugees outside the country by some accounts, over a million people internally displaced." all is stated and nothing is needed to be said. You are violating the rights of mankind that NO RELIGION encourages or agrees with. This message will be short but lethal. If you want to stay and reign Syria for many years to come then make Syria a healthful, civilized, and God-fearing country. Because no man can become a God. You may change the people's religion, beliefs but you cannot change their faith. For goodness never fail. It's either you stepdown to your leadership or face the consequences that no man should give but only your God will give you.

    A letter of a concerned thomasian student. I will pray for you, and your country.
    David, Jason

    November 18, 2012 at 8:32 am | Reply
  14. Hungry for pringles

    I humbly request the President of Syria (Bashar al-Assad) to peacefully step down as you are doing my harm then good especially when it comes to the 20,000 dead, 250,000 refugees and the other million people who are internally displaced. You may have had plans for your beloved country but shedding blood is not the Muslim nor Christian way or any other faith. Again please step down and stop the suffering and let you and you're country be at peace.

    A message from a humble thomasian.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:28 am | Reply
  15. Christine

    A direct letter to President Bashar Al-Assad

    With all due respect, I earnestly believe that maintaining peace and order in a country does not require violence. Whenever deaths and casualties are increasing the more these protesters are eager to revolt. May the turmoil in your country end and I hope that you may learn that being a leader is not merely controlling the citizen under your jurisdiction. Remember that initially this PEOPLE have all their capacities to feel, think, etc. and shall have the right to express it and most importantly their precious lives which no one has the right to take it away from them.

    Considering the adverse happening in your country today, please step down from your position or at least contemplate on the lives that had been sacrifice in this war.

    Christine Siguenza
    University of Santo Tomas

    November 18, 2012 at 8:10 pm | Reply
  16. kim on you

    President Bashar al-Assad

    sir, terrible thing is going on your country where is under your leadership. People are wounded not only their physical body but also the mind inside them. your decision making is so important. please open your eyes and see what is going on in your mother country and please listen the sound of crying of the children who will lead your country for coming generation. you should hand over a peaceful country.

    sir, i truly ask you to step down from your position

    Kim on you
    University of Santo Tomas

    November 20, 2012 at 9:55 pm | Reply
  17. Jan Paola Sawit

    To President Bashar Al-Assad,

    Sir, open your eyes, look at your people and your country. Do you even know what's happening to your motherland? How many more lives must be taken to pay the price of your rule? How many more homes should be destroyed just to showcase what your powers can do? How long must your country and your people endure this turmoil? Sir, was there even a day or a time that no one died? You being a leader should know better. While you're at charge, everything is at risk. Please have the heart to end this so that everyone will be able to live there lives in ease again and that you too, sir, will have a peace of mind. A leader will be remembered for the things he has done for his land. People are dying, I hope you understand this situation. Innocent people are dying, children are dying. If you care about them, please, with all due respect, step down from your position.

    Jan Paola Sawit
    University of Santo Tomas

    November 22, 2012 at 7:03 am | Reply
  18. Bryan Trajano

    President Al-Assad.

    Sir, look at your country! Do you think that Syria was ok? Look for your own eyes on what is Happening in Syria. There are many people who died in the war and there are many infrastructures that was ruined. If you have care in your country, please step down of your position.

    Bryan Trajano
    University of Santo Tomas

    November 23, 2012 at 9:12 am | Reply
  19. John David Agbayani

    President Bashar Al-Assad

    With all due respect sir, I am requesting you to step down peacefully as the President of Syria. It is undeniable that Syria, under your current administration suffered unbearable damages to the properties, people and Syria itself. I firmly believe that stepping down from your position is the best answer to end cruelty and chaos and this could pave the way for peace.

    John David Agbayani
    University of Santo Toma, Manila Philippines

    November 24, 2012 at 11:35 am | Reply
  20. Adrianne Sy

    President Bashar Al-assad

    if you as a president cannot contain of maintain peace in Syria, might as well step down than forcing yourself to reign over Syria. it is already evident that peace in the middle east is hard to achieve due to artificial borders. you sir are only adding up to the turmoil of this unstable territorial claim. instead of wasting time killing your people, why not focus on uniting your country with other countries in the middle east to lessen tensions that could create world war 3 originating from middle east? I humbly ask for you to step down. if you do not plan to improve your country or end the civil war, your actions or lack of prevention of further disaster might lead to a domino effect with your neighboring countries.

    Adrianne Sy
    University of Santo Tomas

    November 25, 2012 at 8:07 am | Reply
  21. Aisha Kasan

    Mr. President, if you truly love your country, you would do things for the betterment of it. You will not harm the citizens in your country. If you really are a true leader, you will not think of your selfish needs, you will think of everyone. If you want to have peace among everyone, I strongly believe that it wont be gained through violence. We ask you with all our mind and hearts, Mr. President Bashar Al-Assad, to please step down.

    Kasan, Aishawara I.
    University of Sto. Tomas

    November 26, 2012 at 10:20 am | Reply
  22. ivy

    President Bashar Al Assad

    Please give the people of syria a lasting peace, show them that a true leader is the one who cares.

    Clarisse Ivy Tepora
    University of sto. tomas

    November 27, 2012 at 6:10 am | Reply
  23. Cher

    We want to ask with all our hearts and with all our minds for President Bashar Al Assad to step down.

    Please give the people of Syria a chance to choose their leader.

    Cajepe, Cher Niña F.
    University of Santo Tomas

    November 27, 2012 at 8:50 am | Reply
  24. Alec

    We want to ask with all our hearts and with all our minds that President Bashar Al Assad to please step down.
    A true leader would not hurt his people; please give Syria peace.

    Tarnate, Alexandra T.
    University of Sto. Tomas

    November 27, 2012 at 9:27 am | Reply
  25. bystander

    A message of appeal to Pres. Al-Asaad

    Mr. President Sir, please step down.
    Give the people of Syria what is due to them.

    Damasen, Angelica

    November 28, 2012 at 2:42 am | Reply
  26. sarahjane31

    Dear President Assad,

    Please step down in the name of Democracy.
    Thank you.

    Sarah Jane Casasola, 2ELS, University of Santo Tomas

    November 28, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Reply
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    November 27, 2013 at 11:40 pm | Reply
    • Kristine

      I have no problem with Arabs and Muslim, tughoh I dont really like Egyptians. In 2010, Turkey's economic world under the Islamic party AK achieved 2nd highest economic growth in the world. All these were hush up by the so-call free press in Western Countries. Turkey under the Islamist AK party on party since 2002 has achieved so much development previously unthinkable under the "secular party". The Islamist secret formula is as simple honesty (less corruption)and equality (socialism) that at this point of time, no party in Western Countries and PAP is able to meet the standard. (UMNO..etc are traitors to Islam phoney )I hope MD Mursi the newly elected Islamist president of Egypt from Islamic Brotherhood (deemed terrorist organization), will bring plenty of surprise to everyone. My view is Islamic party will corrupt sooner or later but now, they are honest.

      July 7, 2014 at 11:57 am | Reply
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