WASHINGTON -- The headlines tell daily of more deaths in what is becoming a Syrian civil war. Underneath the surface, an increasingly worried "conversation" has been going on in the region's newspapers and among the Arab intelligentsia.
To oversimplify, the concern is growing rapidly that, led by Syria, much of the Middle East is essentially forsaking its colonially imposed borders and devolving into its original historical forms.
Writing recently in the Daily Star in Beirut, Michael Young, the paper's opinion editor, expressed the idea that this would take the form of "ethnic statelets."
"The breakup of Syria into ethnic or sectarian entities is a red line for Syria's neighbors," he wrote. "Turkey, Iraq and Iran would then have to confront Kurdish national aspirations. Sunnis in Iraq might seek to break away from their Shia-dominated state; Syria's atomization could have dangerous repercussions in Lebanon; and so on. Any Alawite statelet scheme would be made to fail, but it would also be monstrously traumatic."
And here you have one of the first keys to the gnawing questions about Syria: Why is it so unusually brutal a country, even for the Middle East? Many analysts are attempting to draw analogies in Syria to other Mideastern rebellions or revolutions -- Algeria in earlier years, Libya recently, or the 1990s wars in the Balkans. But why do none of them illustrate the uniqueness of the Syrian terror?
The answer is one that could well be applied to our troubled inner cities. When an innocent boy on the South Side of Chicago was beaten to death by other boys with boards and sticks, one of the major reasons was that the school board had redistricted and brought in children from another school not known or liked by the first.
In Syria, a great source of the problem is that the country, which historically has been a rich province patched together through Roman, Ottoman and Assyrian empires, has been since 1964 run by the Assad family of the minority Islamic Alawite sect. They have intertwined family, army, civil society, intelligence and education under the tiny percentage of Alawites (not unlike Saddam Hussein's brutal minority regime in Iraq), and have enforced their hegemony with a cold ruthlessness.
Is it really any better to have all minorities forced to live together -- when they are killing one another?
That is a question that is always particularly referred back to the Balkans wars of the 1990s. In the final accord in 1995, American and European negotiators arrogantly arranged for the Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croatians to share a state. It has been an unmitigated disaster, with all three peoples wanting their own independence from the people who had previously been killing them.
Syria, with its approximately 22 million people and its strategic position in the Middle East, is thus beginning to worry analysts in a way that the "Arab Spring" a year ago did not. Tunisia, Egypt and Libya could be largely self-contained revolutions. But if the Syrian rebellion spreads, it could evoke dangerous responses from Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Lebanon, where it already has strengthened the radical, anti-American Hezbollah movement.
No one really expects much anymore from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, who many dreamed might be a reformer, unlike his father Hafez al-Assad, who killed up to 20,000 people to crush an Islamist uprising in Hama in 1982. But there is informed talk in Syria about Bashar moving his Alawites up to the redoubts in the Alawite mountains to make a last stand there. Meanwhile, Gulf states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia are supplying arms to the rebels.
The position of the primary source of regional news in the Arab and outer world, Al Jazeera, has tellingly taken a pro-rebel position, too. "For more than four decades the (Assad) regime has made sure there is no daylight between leader, family, clan, sect, regime, army and state," Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera's senior political analyst, wrote recently.
"These layers of power have secured the position of the Assad family and clan at the helm of the country. But it also led to terrible repression and injustice. ... As the country slides into civil war, it's high time to reverse the direction of loyalty. Instead of sacrificing clan, sect and country for the leader, the latter must give up his authority to save the country he claims to love and defend."
But there are no indicators that Bashar will give up. It will most likely end in the mountains, but only after tens of thousands more dead.
Syria is one of those "mistakes" of British and French colonialists, who carved up the Middle East between the two world wars, drawing borders across families, clans and religions. We are all paying the price today for their strategic "wisdom."
Even while the war rages there, we can think about what we can learn from Syria. I would point again to the Balkans, and in particular to Bosnia, and even to our inner-city streets, and say, Don't be so idealistic that you think you can force opponents to like and live with one another. Above all, we need realism in foreign policy -- that, and an understanding of human nature.