This post is in response to Professor Webb’s comment on my last blog post on constructivism in the Tigris/Euphrates region.
Why do you think ethnic, religious, sectarian, or other identities sometimes become particularly salient, apparently driving conflicts and fierce competition, and at other times don’t seem to be very politically important? Sometimes states or non-state political entrepreneurs are able to exploit identities and identity differences for support or to mobilize against others, but at other times people of different identities coexist peacefully and cooperatively.
I think that these identities can become particularly salient in response to outside influence, specifically from the Western world. Democratization efforts of the US have facilitated in causing conflict and division within these countries. The Arab Spring is the perfect example. These protest movements were a result of Tunisia’s strong ties to Europe and the proliferation of democratic norms from media technology and social networking. Democracy, human rights, and freedom are all values that weaken the authoritarian structures of these nation-states. In the Middle East, political mobilization results in conflict that threatens regime security. Elites will resort to authoritarian solutions to repress these threats.
Western influence in the form of military intervention has a more direct effect on the region. This type of intervention results in the rise of reactionary armed groups like ISIS and further divides identities within the area. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq has been one source of this type of Western influence. Bashar al-Assad has described this invasion as a major cause of conflict within the entire region.
“It was the Iraq war in 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq. We were strongly opposed to that invasion, because we knew that things were moving in the direction of dividing societies and creating unrest. And we are Iraq’s neighbors. At that time, we saw that the war would turn Iraq into a sectarian country; into a society divided against itself. To the west of Syria there is another sectarian country – Lebanon. We are in the middle. We knew well that we would be affected. Consequently, the beginning of the Syrian crisis, or what happened in the beginning, was the natural result of that war and the sectarian situation in Iraq, part of which moved to Syria, and it was easy for them to incite some Syrian groups on sectarian grounds.”
Assad also claims that the West is “crying for the refugees with one eye and aiming at them with a machine gun with the second one.” He goes on to say “If you are worried about [refugees], stop supporting terrorists.”
Ultimately, the combination of identity differences and the influence of Western values and involvement is the main driver of conflict and competition within this region.