Oh, by that I don’t mean who’s in and who’s out and who “will win.” This month, we are told, the Islamic State in eastern Syria is now unstoppable, or it’s the Al-Nusra Front that is on first in Homs — or is Aleppo? — and a few months ago, it was Assad, aided ably by Hezbollah, who confidently had, we were confidently told, the upper hand. In the seesaw of Syria, breathless reports keep suggesting that this side or another — if not the Islamic State, then Al-Nusra, if not Assad, then the Alawites-cum-Hezbollah-cum-Iran without Assad. Or perhaps even one detected the possible triumph of the democratic and progressive forces that exist, but those forces turn out to be so small and so ineffective as not to warrant much hope that they can somehow inherit Syria.
But what if Syria can never be put back together? It is strange how little is said about that. In Libya, after Qaddafi fell, there were articles about the three parts of Libya — Fezzan, Tripoli, Benghazi — that had been united only in the early 20th century, as a way of suggesting that Libya might naturally split again into those three parts. As it has turned out, Libya is full of so many different militia, their members and loyalties linked to particular locales (not just Tripoli and Benghazi, but also Misrata and Zintan) that if ever the fighting in Libya were to die down — and why should it? who will make it? — there would be not three new states, but a half-dozen city-states, each policing its own area, and possibly making temporary alliances with others, but not forming part of a larger state.
In Iraq, similarly, while the American effort over ten years was directed at keeping that country together, to make Shi’a Arabs less triumphant and Sunni Arabs less resentful, and to persuade Kurds to stay with the regime in Baghdad instead of doing what so many of them had hoped, which was to declare independence, despite all this, there have been endless articles recently on why Iraq “cannot remain in one piece” and why a Kurdish state, a Shi’a state, and a Sunni rump state, oil-less, in Anbar and Diyala, is “inevitable.”
Which brings me back to Syria. Why is there so little focus on what should be clear — that Syria cannot be put back together, and that it, as much as Libya and Iraq, will likely split apart? Is it because there is still this see-saw in the fighting everywhere? Perhaps it is because that dissolution will be so messy, without the clear-cut three divisions, according to ethnic or religious group (Kurd, Shi’a Arab, Sunni Arab) in Iraq, or those city-states in Libya, that the mind simply reels from thinking too much about what it will be like. An Alawite enclave is mentioned, near Latakia, but beyond that, what happens elsewhere, in Aleppo and Homs and Damascus, and in eastern Syria, where the Islamic State holds such sway, never quite comes into focus. The focus in the American press, when Syria is being discussed, is on whether Assad will fall or be propped up.
But what could “triumph” mean in these places, where the behavior on all sides has been so atrocious that no Second Inaugural is likely, and no one can bind up these wounds? Because of that history, widespread massacres by those who take power, against those they have defeated in a particular locale, are to be expected. It is not hard to foresee a tripartite division of Iraq. Nor is the city-state outcome in Libya implausible. But in Syria, the talk is still of a “Syria after Assad.” There is no Syria now, just a rump army and a rump state, and there certainly won’t be one “after Assad.” Is it possible that the whole subject is just too painful, and that future so difficult to contemplate, that we all keep pretending that Syria will exist, instead of admitting it is gone and focusing on the refugees and how to keep them from smuggling themselves into Europe? There, by the hundreds of thousands and possibly millions, they are now settling, and doing tremendous damage to the cohesion of the European peoples, and to their welfare systems, and hospitals, and schools, and of course have put tremendous pressure on the security services.
It is not the Americans who redrew much of the Middle East, as Muslims like to accuse them of having done, as they accused the British before them, but rather the pressure of Islam, with its different champions — now Al-Nusra, now the Islamic State — has done so. The different terrified objects of the attention of these Islamic groups, such as the Alawites, must even now be at the end of their tether, wondering whether they can hold out in little Latakia, and whether Hezbollah will manage somehow to come to their rescue.
Meanwhile, in besieged Europe — besieged but crazily allowing in the besiegers — the Syrians keep coming, and coming, as do so many others from Islamic lands. And no government apparently dares to send these people back to the Middle East, presumably because in Turkey and Jordan, they already have so many refugees. Some pretend to believe that the numbers are finite and manageable, that the “refugee flood will end.” But that is not true. There is no end to the flow from Islamic lands into Europe, no end at all. That is perhaps why we don’t want to think about the end of Syria, but rather hopefully, falsely, about who will rule over this state called Syria, once the fighting stops — even though Syria no longer exists.