Revisiting ‘the Eastern Question’

We are revisiting “the Eastern Question” during the final days of the Ottoman Empire and familiar the problems of “Sunni–Shiite Fitna”

Eyad Abu Shakra

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The recent resolution of internal differences within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was a significant development as these have allowed the enemies of the Arab Mashreq (East) to score an undeniable victory in Yemen.

Equally significant is the beginning of hearings of political testimonies at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up by the U.N. Security Council to try the assassins of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and others as well as look into the alleged role of the Syrian regime in that crime. The tribunal has spent the previous months dealing with technical and forensic issues.

Last, but not least, are the details that have emerged about the proposals from the United Nation’s special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, to “freeze” the situation on the battle fronts, create “autonomous areas,” and postpone any discussion of the future of President Bashar Al-Assad and the staging of multi-party elections. This runs contrary to the spirit of the Geneva I communiqué, which called for Assad’s departure and the creation of a transitional administration as the main preconditions for any negotiated settlement.

In fact, these three developments are inseparable, and have arrived against a backdrop of escalating terrorist violence from jihadists operating under the veil of “political Islam,” and the collapse of hopes for a for Israeli–Palestinian peace settlement.

The relationship between the rising popularity of “political Islam” – in all its shades and facets – and the insistence of the Israeli Right on destroying the credibility of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim moderates is a direct one. In doing so it relies on Washington’s inaction in the face of Israel’s policy of accelerating its land-grab and settlement-building policy, as well as its incitement and exploitation of religious fundamentalism with the intention of turning what has been a struggle against occupation into a religious war, one that defies logic, awareness, and any attempt at reconciliation.

The relationship between the rising popularity of “political Islam” – in all its shades and facets – and the insistence of the Israeli Right on destroying the credibility of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim moderates is a direct one.

Eyad Abu Shakra

Incidentally, the rehearsal for such a “religious war,” launched to serve political ends, is nothing new, and is not limited to Israel. What we witness today throughout the Arab Mashreq is salient proof. Iran is busy stoking Sunni–Shiite tensions with its sectarian militias, from Iraq to Lebanon and Gaza, via Syria – not forgetting Yemen and the continuous attempts to foment conflict among the GCC countries.

The Israeli Right see a benefit in a religious war that eliminates moderate Palestinians who are qualified to conduct genuine and serious peace negotiations, leaving the Palestinian arena to religious forces who understand nothing but violence and exclusion, while failing to provide the average citizen anything on a land which is threatened with being either seized or destroyed. On the other hand, Iran’s leaders are using Islam as a camouflage to hide their true nationalist project, as it would be difficult for them to invade the region under the banners of Persian nationalism. Between the two sides there is an intersection of interests which incentivizes them to promote an “alliance of minorities” with Russo–American blessing. Indeed, de Mistura’s leaked plan is nothing but the implementation of this on the ground in Syria.

The Israeli Right see a benefit in a religious war that eliminates moderate Palestinians who are qualified to conduct genuine and serious peace negotiations.

Eyad Abu Shakra

At the moment we are revisiting what was known as “the Eastern Question” during the final days of the Ottoman Empire, in addition to the familiar problems of “Sunni–Shiite Fitna,” the Sykes–Picot Agreement, and of course, the Balfour Declaration.

Yes, “the Eastern Question” applies to Arab lands inhabited by Christians since ancient times, and saw them take root, flourish and establish a glorious theological, cultural, scientific, and social heritage that has enriched world civilization. If ISIS’ threat to Iraqi Kurdistan and the Baghdad regime established by the occupation of Iraq in 2003 was the spark that alerted the West to react, the Christians’ fears were also instrumental in building up the mood for action.

Here I do not only mean ISIS’ onslaught against Christian (also Yazidi and Shabak) towns and villages in Nineveh Province in northwestern Iraq, but also the positions taken by Christian religious leaders in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. They viewed Sunni jihadist extremists like ISIS as a far more dangerous immediate threat even than the growing influence of Iran’s Ayatollahs and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the region.

Attitudes toward Isalmist extremists

Without denying the fact that Assad’s regime is exploiting the extremists’ excesses, and without rejecting the possibility that its embedded shabiha (Assad’s militias, or thugs) may be taking part in them, there have been some serious incidents. Two prominent bishops, one of them a brother of the patriarch of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, were kidnapped near Aleppo in April 2013, causing great shock and revulsion within the Christian Syrian community. In Lebanon, the Maronite patriarch, who has been more critical of Sunni extremists than Shiite extremism even before his elevation to the patriarchate, made his position clear during his early foreign visits to France and Russia, where he expressed his preference for Assad staying rather than being replaced by extremist Muslims.

As for the two Antiochian Orthodox and Catholic patriarchs – both Syrian – they have always maintained good relations with the Damascus regime, and have been worried about the apparent hijacking of the Syrian revolution by radical Islamist groups following the reluctance of the international community, led by the United States, to effectively support the moderate groups, which include Christian figures such as Michel Kilo, George Sabra and others.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the conference held by the In Defense of Christians organization in Washington, DC, in September, which aimed to “empower the Middle Eastern Christian Diaspora and energize the American people to stand in solidarity for the protection and preservation of Christians in the Middle East.” Among those who financed and organized the event were reportedly several wealthy pro-Assad and even pro-Hezbollah Christian businessmen from Syria and Lebanon.

Although what came out of the conference attempted to avoid provocations, its overall theme and atmosphere encouraged a Republican U.S. senator to say that Middle Eastern Christians “have no greater ally than [Israel]” – perhaps as a guarantor for the region’s religious minorities. His naive speech was booed by some of the audience and criticized by senior clergy in attendance.

Be that as it may, the “autonomous” areas as envisaged in de Mistura’s leaked plan would almost likely be drawn with religious, sectarian and ethnic considerations in mind. Any wise observer now accepts that a future Syria cannot be the same as the pre-March 2011 Syria, as a result of the massacres and uprooting of thousands of people that have taken place and the resulting deep animosities. Thus, even if Syria survives intact, it can only do so as a loose federal state.

This begs two questions: Was it not more worthwhile to have imposed “safe havens” and “no-fly zones” before in order to minimize the number of casualties and force Assad to the negotiating table? How come the idea of “autonomous areas” now makes sense while “no-fly zones” are still being rejected?

The answer: It is “the “Eastern Question”!

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014.


Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.

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