By Ramzy Baroud
When Arab streets exploded with fury, from Tunis to Sanaa, Pan-Arabism then seemed like a nominal notion. The so-called Jasmine Revolution did not use slogans that affirmed its Arab identity, nor did angry Egyptian youth raise the banner proclaiming Arab unity atop the high buildings adjacent to Tahrir Square.
Oddly, the Arabism of the "Arab Spring" seemed to be nothing short of a matter of convenience - it was politically convenient for western governments to stereotype Arab nations as being no more than duplicates of each other and also to suggest that national sentiments, identities, expectations and popular revolts are all rooted in the same past and correspond to a precise reality in the present. Thus, many in the West expected that the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, followed by the abdication of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt would lead to a domino effect. "Who's next?" was a pretentious question that many asked, some with no understanding at all of the region and its complexity.
After initial hesitation, the US, along with its western allies moved quickly to influence the outcomes in some Arab countries. Their mission was to ensure a smooth transition in countries whose fate have been decided by the impulsive revolts, in order to speed up the toppling of their enemies and to prop up their allies so that they would not suffer a similar fate.
The outcome was utter and complete devastation. Countries where the West and their allies, along with their enemies, were involved, became infernos, not of revolutionary fervor, but of militant chaos, terrorism and unabated wars. Libya and Syria are the most obvious examples.
In some way, the West, its media and its allies took on the responsibility of being the gatekeepers of determining, not only the fate of the Arabs, but also of molding their identities as well.
In his testimony before a US Senate committee to discuss the Syria cease-fire, Secretary of State John Kerry revealed that his country was preparing a "Plan B" should the cease-fire fail. Kerry refrained from offering specifics, however, he offered clues. It may be "too late to keep as a whole Syria if we wait much longer," he indicated.
The possibility of dividing Syria was not a random warning, but situated in a large and growing edifice of intellectual and media text in the US and other western countries. It was articulated by Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institute in a Reuter's op-ed last October. He called on the US to find a "common purpose with Russia", while bearing in mind the "Bosnia model.
"In similar fashion, a future Syria could be a confederation of several sectors: One largely Alawite, another Kurdish, a third primarily Druze, a fourth largely made up of Sunni Muslims; and then a central zone of intermixed groups in the country's main population belt from Damascus to Aleppo."
What is dangerous about O'Hanlon's solution for Syria is not the complete disregard of Syria's national identity. Frankly, many western intellectuals have never even subscribed to the notion that Arabs were nations as per the western definition of nationhood in the first place.
It is no secret that the modern formation of Arab countries is largely the outcome of dividing the Arab region within the Ottoman Empire into mini-states. That was the result of political necessities and compromises that arose from the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916. The US then was completely consumed with its South American environs, and the rest of the world was largely a "great game" that was mastered by Britain and France.
The British-French agreement, with the consent of Russia was entirely motivated by sheer power, economic interests, political hegemony and little else. This explains why most of the borders of Arab countries were perfect straight lines. Indeed, they were charted by a pencil and ruler, not organic evolution of geography based on multiple factors and a protracted history of conflict or concord.
It has been almost exactly 100 years since colonial powers divided the Arabs, although they are yet to respect the very boundaries that they have created. Moreover, they have invested much time, energies, resources and at times, all-out wars, to ensure that the arbitrary division never truly ends.
Not only does the West loath the term "Arab unity;" they also loath whoever dares exhibit what they deem to be hostile, radical terminology.
To ensure that Arabs are never to unite, the West invested in their further disunity. In 2006/07, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made it clear that the US would cease its support of the Palestinian Authority should Fatah and Hamas unite. Earlier, when, resistance in Iraq reached a point that the American occupiers found unbearable, they invested in dividing the ranks of the Iraqis along sectarian lines. Their intellectuals pondered the possibility of dividing Iraq into dividing Iraq into three autonomous states: Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish.
Libya too was broken up after NATO's intervention turned a regional uprising into a bloody war. Since then, France, Britain, the US and others have backed some parties against others. Whatever sense of nationhood existed after the end of the Italian colonialism of that country, has been decimated as Liberians reverted to their regions and tribes to survive the upheaval.
A rumored "Plan B" to divide Libya into three separate protectorates of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan was recently rejected by the Libyan Ambassador to Rome. However, Libyans seem to be presently the least relevant party in determining the future of their own country.
The Arab world has always been seen by western eyes as a place of conquest, to be exploited, controlled and tamed. That mindset continues to define that relationship.
What is truly interesting is that, despite the lack of a pan-Arab vision in Arab countries that experienced popular revolts five years ago, few events in modern history have brought the Arabs together like the chants of freedom in Tunis, the cries of victories in Egypt and screams of pain in Syria. It is that very collective identity, often unspoken but felt, that drives millions of Arabs to hold on to however faint a hope that their nations survive the ongoing onslaught and prospected western division.