The war in Syria has spun off yet another intra-communal conflict, this time pitting Kurds against Sunni Arabs in the borderlands abutting Turkey. Reports are coming in of as many as 10,000 Arabs fleeing the settlements around Kobani, as their former Kurdish neighbors turn against them in collective retribution for having supported ISIS. “The YPG [Kurdish forces] burnt our village and looted our houses,” said a refugee from the village of Tel Thiab Sharqi. “I knew one of them—he is from one of the next villages. He was the one pouring diesel on the furniture of my house. […] The YPG said to us: ‘We will shoot at your children, and you will die if you stay here’. I saw one of them writing on our wall: ‘YPG don’t forget, don’t forgive’.”
The Arab refugees, many of whom claim to not support ISIS or violent jihadism in general, have been forced to take refuge in Hasakah province, an area of Syria largely controlled by ISIS.
This doesn’t mark a new reality in the Syrian conflict, but rather a resurrection of a very old pattern. As WRM outlined in his most recent piece for the Wall Street Journal, what we’re currently seeing in the Middle East can in some ways best be understood as the latest episode in the collapse of the “imperial zone”—the area that in the 19th century encompassed the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires:
Where the four pre-World War I empires once stood, there are now more than 40 states. The transformation satisfied the longing of many groups for national independence and opened the door to democracy in many countries, but for tens of millions of people, it led to unprecedented violence and displacement. Today’s strife in the region—with multi-confessional, multiethnic Syria and Iraq threatening to dissolve into smaller, more homogeneous units—is the latest act in a long, bloody tragedy.
When an empire collapses or a hegemon is no longer willing to keep order, the same pattern has repeated itself. If one party, no matter who, starts the bloodshed, other parties do not feel safe until they’ve driven their former neighbors from their homes and carved out an ethnic enclave. Historically, this process hasn’t had a great deal to do with who is the ‘good guy.’ After WWII, for example, over 2 million Sudenten Deutsch (ethnically German residents of Czechoslovakia) were expelled by the Czechs. Despite the mawkish stories we tell ourselves, nations are often built through this kind of violence. If a Kurdish nation-state emerges out of the wreck of the Middle East—which would probably save countless minority lives— more ethnic cleansing will almost certainly accompany it, and the same would hold for any religious or ethnic minority that manages to carve out a safe enclave in the region.
Those horrified by this process in the Middle East should understand, however, that America’s failure to lead helped created the conditions in which the cleansing is happening. This kind of bloodshed is the cost of the pull-back of the Pax Americana.