Thursday, 30 January 2014

My reply to a student from Singapore, Dr Shabir Choudhry

My reply to a student from Singapore, Dr Shabir Choudhry
Deepika Chandrasekar is a student who is doing some research on the following topic: "To what extent did the division of Jammu and Kashmir disrupt the peace of the Indian subcontinent?"
Like so many other students around the world who contact me for help and advice on various issues related to Jammu and Kashmir and Indo Pak relations she also asked for help, and subsequently sent me four questions. Her questions and my replies are as below.

1-    What are your views on the Kashmir dispute?

The Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir enjoyed semi autonomous status under the British Raj. The State, referred here as Kashmir included the areas currently occupied by India, Pakistan and China and namely Jammu, the Valley of Kashmir, Ladakh (Occupied by India); Aksai Chin occupied by China in 1962 Indo China war, and a tract of approximately 2200 sq miles given to China by Pakistan to China in 1963 from Gilgit Baltistan and areas of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan occupied by Pakistan.

The British Raj in India consisted of two units, namely the British India which was directly ruled by the India and the Princely India consisted of more than 562 big and small Princely States and was indirectly ruled by the British through separate treaties. Jammu and Kashmir was among the biggest Princely States and enjoyed greater autonomy than vast majority of other Princely States; and also had history and tradition of being an independent country.

The Division of India which took place in accordance with the Two Nations Theory was only applicable to the British India; and did not apply to the Princely States, as pointed out in the following documents:

The Cabinet Mission Memorandum
Third June Plan
Indian Independence Act

The independent character of the Princely States, especially after the British departure from India, was discussed in a Cabinet Meeting, which was also attended by Mountbatten on 20th May 1947, in which The British Viceroy to India Lord Mountbatten asserted that ‘as soon as Dominion Status was granted to British India, paramountcy would come to an end. The states would then become fully independent and would be free to negotiate new arrangements if they thought it desirable to do so’ 1
Furthermore, Mountbatten in his speech to Chamber of Princes on 25th July 1947 explained to the Princes the position of the States after the lapse of Paramountcy: ‘the Indian Independence Act releases the states from all their obligations to the Crown. The states will have complete freedom – technically and legally they become independent’. 2

Apart from that the man who was seeking a separate homeland for Muslims and demanding a division of India, Mohammed Ali Jinnah also believed that the Two Nations Theory did not apply to the Princely Stats. Mr. Jinnah categorically asserted that the states were fully entitled to refuse to join either of the constituent assemblies. Mr. Jinnah, in a press statement on 17th June 1947, declared that:

‘After the lapse of paramountcy, the Indian states would be, constitutionally and legally, sovereign states and free to adopt for themselves any course they wished. It is open to the states to join the Hindustan Constituent Assembly or to decide to remain independent. In my opinion they are free to remain independent if they so desire’.

This clearly demonstrates that the Two Nations Theory did not apply to the Princely States; and Mohammed Ali Jinnah practically proved that by accepting accession of Junagarr State which had a Muslim Ruler but vast majority of his subjects were non Muslims. Apart from that he supported Ruler of Hyderabad’s right to remain independent, even though this Princely State had two thirds non Muslim Majority; and if rules of the Two Nations Theory were applicable to the Princely States then Junagarr and Hyderabad would have automatically joined India.

What this proves is that after the end of the British Raj in India, when the British Paramountcy lapsed on 15 August 1947, the State of Jammu and Kashmir emerged as a sovereign State with a right to conduct its own foreign affairs. The Ruler of Jammu and Kashmir concluded a Standstill Agreement with newly established state of Pakistan; and made a similar offer to India.

Independence of Jammu and Kashmir did not lost for too long because of two big hostile neighbours. On 22 October 1947, Pakistan violated the Standstill Agreement and managed a tribal invasion of Kashmir (for details see my book: Tribal Invasion and Kashmir). In order to save his throne and the country he asked for help from India, which was only made available after the accession which was provisionally accepted.

On the morning of 27 October 1947, the Indian forces landed in Srinagar, and the subsequent war between India and Pakistan divided the state of Jammu and Kashmir; and which remains forcibly divided to date and people suffer on both sides of the divide.

Despite the respective claims of India and Pakistan, the entire State of Jammu and Kashmir is disputed. It is not legally part of India, Pakistan or china. All areas are occupied and the forces of these countries are stationed there against our will. Hitherto, there were only three parties to the dispute, namely India, Pakistan and people of Jammu and Kashmir. China, despite its occupation of JK territory, is not considered as a party to the dispute. However, over the years, mainly due to weakening position of Pakistan, government of Pakistan and some Kashmiri leaders have made efforts to make China part of the Kashmir dispute, which would be disastrous for Jammu and Kashmir and the entire region.

Even though it is people of Jammu and Kashmir who continue to suffer, and it is they who are the main party to the dispute, the sad thing is the both occupying countries have never included people of JK part of any negotiations.

We had no say in the UN Security Council, and all the Resolutions are against our will. The UNCIP Resolution of 5 January 1947 truncated our right to self determination. What we have is a right of accession and not right to self determination. The Shimla Agreement of 1972 has practically made the Kashmir dispute a bilateral dispute; and the UN Resolutions are only mentioned by Pakistan and some Kashmiri leaders to fool their audience.

There could be no peace in the Indian Sub Continent until the Kashmir dispute is resolved in accordance with the wishes of the people of Jammu and Kashmir; and India and Pakistan have no right to decide our future. As long as the Kashmir dispute is there unresolved, there will be powerful groups in Pakistan and elsewhere recruiting people in name of Jihad and liberation of Kashmir, hence more violence and destruction.

Kashmir and the people of the region have seen too much violence and destruction. Gun and violence is not the way forward, as that will further aggravate the situation. People want to live in peace and harmony and the way forward is a process of dialogue involving all parties to the dispute.
1.         Cabinet Record 134/343, 1B (47) 26, 20th May 1947, quoted in Mountbatten, by Ziegler, Phillip.
2.         Full text of the speech, Rao, Guru Raj, Legal Aspects of the Kashmir Problem, pages 190-194.
(You can also quote from my book: Kashmir and the Partition of India (My Mphil theses)

2- How do you think this conflict has disrupted peace in India?


Although the partition of India on communal lines and subsequent riots that killed more than half million people embittered the relationship between the two countries; but it is believed that with time the wound would have healed if it was not for the bitter rivalry over the State of Jammu and Kashmir. The controversial Radcliffe Award ensured that India also had a land access to Kashmir through Gurdaspur.

Both the Muslim League and the Congress were competing with each other to win over the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir. After the British Raj, both countries went to war with each other over the control of Jammu and Kashmir. No country was in a position to win a decisive victory against the other; and the UN arranged a Cease Fire which became effective on 1 January 1949.

Despite the Cease Fire both countries remained hostile to each other and their efforts to get Kashmir continued. For decades the Kashmir dispute was a corner stone of their foreign policies; and their bilateral relationship had been held hostage by this dispute.

The Kashmir dispute not only led to more than war between the both competing countries it also promoted religious extremism, hatred and violence, as people were persuaded to wage a jihad against Hindu India. People of Pakistan, especially the people of Punjab, where from the ruling elite belongs, are emotional about Kashmir and they wanted to get Jammu and Kashmir for religious and strategic reasons. Also beauty and natural resources of Kashmir were very important to them.

In my considered opinion the root cause of instability in the Indian Sub Continent is because of the unresolved Kashmir dispute. Also it is also the bone of contention between the two countries, and main source of tension, competition arms race, hatred and extremism. Pakistan justifies in keeping a large army and nuclear war heads and sophisticated missile system because of animosity with India over Kashmir.

In view of this, it is imperative that the Kashmir dispute is resolved through a process of dialogue, and by taking appropriate steps to build confidence and increasing the area of cooperation that a new era of friendship and cooperation could begin in South Asia.

3- How do the people in Kashmir feel about this dispute?

Jammu and Kashmir was a multi religious and multi ethnic state with great civilisation, vibrant and tolerant society. However, all this changed after the partition of India, and the tribal invasion and forced division of the Jammu and Kashmir State. Furthermore the Pakistani supported militancy mainly in the Valley of Kashmir has torn apart the fabrics of this tolerant society and gave rise to religious intolerance, hatred and violence.

Now the position is as follows:
·         So called Azad Kashmir 100% Muslim;

·         Gilgit Baltistan 100% Muslim, although different areas are occupied by different sects of Islam;

·         From the Valley of Kashmir nearly all non Muslims were forced to leave because of militancy; and the uprooted people live in Jammu and in India;

·         In Ladakh, Leh has non Muslim majority (Buddhists); and Kargil has Muslim majority;

·         In Jammu there is non - Muslim majority with some districts having Muslim majority.

Because of the forced division and religious indoctrination people are divided on religious, ethnic and regional lines. Also people are directly influenced by the propaganda of either India or Pakistan and the political parties operating in both parts of the State.

Result of this is some people want to join India, some want to join Pakistan and some want to become independent. Some would even vote for the status quo. However, nearly all want to have Kashmiri identity, culture and traditions preserved. If there was a vote held under an impartial body like the UN with three choices, namely accession to India, accession to Pakistan and an independent Jammu and Kashmir, many impartial surveys have concluded that more than 70% will vote for the third option of independence.

It is because of this both India and Pakistan want to ensure that there is no third option available to the people of Jammu and Kashmir; and that they are not part of any negotiations to resolve the Kashmir dispute.

Whatever is the future of Jammu and Kashmir, overwhelming majority of the people believe that the former Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir is one political entity; and it must not be divided, as it would lead to more extremism and intolerance in the region.

Also overwhelming majority of the people believes there is no military solution to the dispute and that the dispute must be resolved by a process of trilateral dialogue.

4- How the Kargil War affected India and Pakistan?


Animosity and distrust between India and Pakistan continued despite diplomatic relations and different pacts. Both countries continued to work against each other and destabilise the other. Most Pakistanis believed that India did not sincerely acknowledge the creation of Pakistan; and all Pakistan’s energies were India centric, and to defend itself from the giant neighbour.

In the late 1990s, the governments of Nawaz Sharif and Atal Behari Vajpayee decided to start a process of dialogue to resolve all outstanding disputes including the Kashmir dispute. Both matured and pro peace Prime Ministers came to the conclusion that the Indian Sub Continent needs peace and not continued confrontation and hatred. So despite opposition from the powerful anti peace lobbies both Prime Ministers continued with the confidence building measures and the peace process.

In this regard a daring visit by Atal Behari Vajpayee to Pakistan and Minar e Pakistan to demonstrate his sincerity that he wanted peace in the region; and that India sincerely acknowledged existence of Pakistan and did not want to destroy Pakistan.

While millions of people were dreaming of peace in the sub continent and close cooperation between India and Pakistan, the powerful Pakistan army and anti peace forces had other ideas. They wanted to back stab the peace process and their elected Prime Minister by initiating another military operation against India. This time they selected the heights of Kargil and.

Sad thing is that while the civilian government in Pakistan was busy in making plans for the peace, mutual trade and cooperation a small group in the top ranks of the Pakistan army planned the misadventure of Kargil, which killed the peace process and had a far reaching negative impact on the India Pakistan relations. Because of the Kargil, the trust level was at its lowest; and the Indian government and its establishment felt they were betrayed; and that how could they trust the country which initiates a military attack while signing a treaty of friendship and mutual cooperation.

The Kargil adventure will go down as a turning point in the history of the both countries; and will always be viewed as a disastrous mistake that caused death and destruction and rolled back the peace process. Also it strengthened the suspicions, mistrust and hatred. END

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The photos Saudi Arabia doesn’t want seen and proof Islam's most holy relics are being demolished in Mecca

The photos Saudi Arabia doesn’t want seen and proof Islam's most holy relics are being demolished in Mecca
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Archaeologists fear billion-pound development has led to destruction of key historical sites
The authorities in Saudi Arabia have begun dismantling some of the oldest sections of Islam’s most important mosque as part of a highly controversial multi-billion pound expansion.
Photographs obtained by The Independentreveal how workers with drills and mechanical diggers have started demolishing some Ottoman and Abbasid sections on the eastern side of the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca.

The building, which is also known as the Grand Mosque, is the holiest site in Islam because it contains the Kaaba –  the point to which all Muslims face when praying. The columns are the last remaining sections of the mosque which date back more than a few hundred years and form the inner perimeter on the outskirts of the white marble floor surrounding the Kaaba.
The new photos, taken over the last few weeks, have caused alarm among archaeologists and come as Prince Charles – a long-term supporter of preserving architectural heritage – flew into Saudi Arabia yesterday for a visit with the Duchess of Cornwall. The timing of his tour has been criticised by human rights campaigners after the Saudis shot seven men in public earlier this week despite major concerns about their trial and the fact that some of the men were juveniles at the time of their alleged crimes.

Many of the Ottoman and Abbasid columns in Mecca were inscribed with intricate Arabic calligraphy marking the names of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions and key moments in his life. One column which is believed to have been ripped down is supposed to mark the spot where Muslims believe Muhammad began his heavenly journey on a winged horse, which took him to Jerusalem and heaven in a single night.

To accommodate the ever increasing number of pilgrims heading to the twin holy cities of Mecca and Medina each year the Saudi authorities have embarked upon a massive expansion project. Billions of pounds have been poured in to increase the capacity of the Masjid al-Haram and the Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina which marks where Muhammad is buried. King Abdullah has put the prominent Wahabi cleric and imam of the Grand Mosque, Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, in charge of the expansion while the Saudi Binladin Group – one of the country’s largest firms – has won the construction contract.

While there is little disagreement over the need to expand, critics have accused the Saudi regime of wantonly disregarding the archaeological, historical and cultural heritage of Islam’s two holiest cities. In the last decade Mecca has been transformed from a dusty desert pilgrimage town into a gleaming metropolis of skyscrapers that tower over the Masjid al-Haram and are filled with a myriad of shopping malls, luxury apartments and five star hotels.

But such a transformation has come at a cost. The Washington-based Gulf Institute estimates that 95 per cent of Mecca's millennium-old buildings have been demolished in the past two decades alone. Dozens of key historical sites dating back to the birth of Islam have already been lost and there is a scramble among archaeologists and academics to try and encourage the authorities to preserve what little remains.

Many senior Wahabis are vehemently against the preservation of historical Islamic sites that are linked to the prophet because they believe it encourages shirq – the sin of idol worshipping.
But Dr Irfan al-Alawi, executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation which obtained the new photographs from inside the Grand Mosque, says the removal of the Ottoman and Abbasid columns will leave future generations of Muslims ignorant of their significance.
“It matters because many of these columns signified certain areas of the mosque where the Prophet sat and prayed,” he said. “The historical record is being deleted. A new Muslim would never have a clue because there’s nothing marking these locations now. There are ways you could expand Mecca and Medina while protecting the historical heritage of the mosque itself and the surrounding sites.”

There are signs that King Abdullah has listened to concerns about the historical destruction of Mecca and Medina. Last October The Independent revealed how new plans for the masjid an-Nabawi in Medina would  result in the destruction of three of the world’s oldest mosques on the west hand side of the main complex. However new plans approved by King Abdullah last week appear to show a change of heart with the bulk of the expansion now slated to take place to the north of the Masjid an-Nabawi.

However key sites are still at risk. The Independent has obtained a presentation used by the Saudis to illustrate how the expansion of Mecca’s main mosque will look. In one of the slides it is clear that the Bayt al-Mawlid, an area which is believed to be the house where Muhammad was born in, will have to be removed unless plans change.

The Independent asked the Saudi Embassy in London a number of questions about the expansion plans and why more was not being done to preserve key historical sites. They replied: “Thank you for calling, but no comment.”

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Unity is must to promote the cause of an independent Jammu and Kashmir, declare Kashmiri leaders in London

London        28 January 2014
Unity is must to promote the cause of an independent Jammu and Kashmir, declare Kashmiri leaders in London

Senior leaders of Kashmir National Party and United Kashmir Peoples National Party, once again, met in London to discuss and analyse the prevailing situation with regard to the Kashmir dispute.

Abbas Butt and Sardar Shaukat Kashmiri expressed serious concern over the news that conspiracies are being hatched to divide the State of Jammu and Kashmir; and in this regard Gilgit Baltistan and Pakistani Administered Kashmir could be annexed by Pakistan by giving them some kind of provincial status.

Participants of the meeting unanimously declared that the State of Jammu and Kashmir is one political entity, and must remain one entity whatever future of the State. The former Princely State must not be divided under any pretext, as that will cause enormous problems to the region; and will support those forces which want to promote extremism, hatred and religious intolerance.

The leaders also assessed the hitherto progress of the efforts to establish a platform of those political parties which sincerely believe in united and independent Jammu and Kashmir; and which denounce extremism, violence and hatred.

The leaders of the parties agreed in principle to formulate an alliance of like minded parties to advance the cause of an independent Kashmir, and promote pro people and pro peace policies. In order to take the process to the next level, Dr Shabir Choudhry was assigned the task of liaising with like minded people to formulate an alliance.

Also it was decided that all like minded people will be invited in a meeting to discuss and formulate an alliance towards the end of February 2014. Time and venue of the meeting shall be announced once the consultation process is complete.
Issued by Dr Shabir Choudhry

Monday, 27 January 2014

Pakistan: More than 100 dead bodies from three mass graves were found in one district of Balochistan

Pakistan More than 100 dead bodies found in mass graves
Tuesday, 28 January 2014, 10:17 am
Press Release: AHRC
January 27, 2014
Pakistan: More than 100 dead bodies from three mass graves were found in one district of Balochistan
The UN and international human rights organisations must send fact finding missions to probe the illegal disposal of Baloch people in mass graves
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) expresses shock and deep concern over the discovery of mass graves in Balochistan; it is suspected that these graves are of Baloch missing persons who were arrested and subsequently extrajudicially killed. A large number of family members gathered around the places of Tootak village, district Khuzdar to inquire about their loved ones who have been missing for many years. However, the police and other security forces refused them permission to try and identify the bodies and baton charged the people to disperse them.
On January 25, three mass graves were found after one of them was discovered by a shepherd who saw pieces of human bodies and bones. He informed the Levies, a private armed force organised by tribal leaders, and according to Assistant Commissioner, district Khuzdar, Mr. Afzal Supra, Balochistan, the grave was excavated and 15 bodies were found.
As the news of the mass grave spread throughout the district people gathered there and started digging in the nearby area where they found two more mass graves. In total 103 bodies were recovered from the graves. The bodies were too decomposed to be identified. From the three mass graves 17, 8 and 78 bodies were found but the local people say that a total of 169 bodies have been found. People have witnessed more than 100 human bodies in Tootak while they were digging the area. However, Pakistani military forces stopped the local people from unearthing the mass graves and took control of the area. Now, no one is allowed access to the location except military personnel.
According to the media, a security official who spoke on condition of anonymity said so far they have found around 56 unidentified graves and that there are many more. It is claimed that these bodies are those of Baloch missing persons.
The confirmation by government officials that over one dozen bullet-riddled bodies have been dumped in unmarked graves — many of them considered to be mass graves — in Balochistan has exposed the gross human rights abuses perpetrated by the security forces over the years in a bid to suppress a popular uprising against the government.
It is feared that more mass graves will be found in the coming days. However, the Pakistan Army, in order to hide its crimes, is not allowing any civilian or media outlets to visit the area. Anyone trying to gain access to the area comes under live fire by the Army. It is believed that the genocide of Balochis is one of the biggest mass killings of the 21st century.
Nasrullah Baloch, the vice chairman of the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), fears that their relatives who disappeared following arrest by the security services in the restive province might be buried in those graves. Baloch says that his cousin and the son of Mama Qadeer, who is leading the historical long march for the recovery of missing persons, Jalil Reki and another, Sana Sangat were brought to Khuzdar after arrest and killed after some days. He believes that their bodies must be here with others.
These mass graves were found very close to the residence of Mr. Shafique Mengal, who is a well known man of the security agencies and who is heading a militant organisation with the name of Nifaz-e-Amn. The organisation claims itself to be affiliated to the Pakistan security forces, working for the implementation of Islam and against Anti State elements. He has been provided with 30 armed vehicles. Whenever the security forces fail to conduct actions in tribal and mountainous areas they ask for Mengal’s help. The Frontier Corp (FC) own this organisation as the true one working body for the protection of Balochistan. The FC and other forces, as claimed by Baloch nationalist groups, have helped him to make private jails and torture centers in Tootak where the missing persons are brought and tortured before being extrajudicially killed. There is no power supply in the area but interestingly, electricity lines were provided to his private jails and his ‘fort’ which is guarded by the law enforcement agencies.
Human rights violations could soon escalate as the Pakistani government recently passed a new controversial law, the ‘Pakistani Protection Ordinance’- PPO, which has legalised enforced disappearances. The government has made an amendment in the PPO, though it has yet to be approved by the parliament. In an effort to provide protection for the crimes of the security forces the government has given legal cover for enforced disappearances and allows the security agencies to keep any suspect for up to three months without presenting them before a court and in cases of suspected terrorism the person can be kept for six months in their custody.
The crimes of the security agencies in Balochistan and the mass-scale disappearances and extrajudicial killings have now been exposed by the discoveries of these mass graves.
The non-investigation of the enforced disappearance of thousands of persons in Balochistan can be likened to the concentration camps of the Nazi’s who operated without any control or oversight; in a similar fashion as the armed forces and security agencies in Pakistan who answer to no one.
The AHRC urges the government of Pakistan to immediately form a transparent high judicial inquiry to probe the cases of the mass graves and provide information relating to the possible identities of the deceased persons. It is a prime responsibility of the government to inform the nation of each and every development in the progress of the investigation. Otherwise it will be difficult to control the volatile situation in Balochistan which may well spread like wildfire throughout the entire country.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan must take Sou Moto action on the discovery of the mass graves.
The AHRC urges the United Nations to send a high powered fact finding mission to probe the presence of mass graves in Balochistan province, particularly in Khuzdar district. It must be pointed out that the people of Pakistan do not expect any proper and transparent investigation from their government and the security agencies as they themselves are involved in the killings and enforced disappearances and the concealment of such crimes, therefore, the importance of a UN report cannot be over emphasised.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Geelani donates property to trust consisting kith and kin

Geelani donates property to trust consisting kith and kin
Srinagar: The issue of donation of property by Hurriyat Conference leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani to a trust has taken a new twist with Jamaat-e-Islami claiming ownership of the property. 

JEI, a socio-religious political organisation to which Geelani was affiliated for several decades before forming his own party in 2004-05, snubbed the octogenarian leader claiming the ownership of the donated property.
"The property at Rehmatabad (locality of) Hyderpora currently being used by Syed Ali Geelani for residential and official purposes actually belongs to Jama'at-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir and after Geelani Sahib, Jama'at will be authorised to take any decision about it," the JEI said in a statement.

It has also decided to send a delegation with a letter of Jamaat Chief to Geelani to verify the facts regarding the donation of the said property to the trust.

Geelani's elder son Naem Zaffar Geelani and his son-in-law Altaf Ahmad Shah are among the eight trustees of 'Mili Trust', formed on December 13, 2013, according to the trust deed registered in a local court.

The other members of the "Milli trust" include Geelani's close associates Mohammad Ashraf Khan, alias Seharai, Shah Wali Mohammad, Raja Mehraj-ud-din Kalwal, Mohammad Akbar Khanday, alias Ayaz Akbar, Bashir Ahmad Bhat, alias Peer Saifullah and Mohammad Yousuf Sofi, alias Mujahid.

Geelani announced donating his residential and office property, located in the posh Hyderpora area on the Srinagar Airport road, to the trust as his "stand for accountability".

While Geelani's son Naem is a doctor by profession who returned to Kashmir in November 2010 from Pakistan after living there for a decade, his son-in-law Shah is a businessman as well as a lawyer.

Geelani is the founder trustee as well as the patron and lifelong chairman of the newly-formed trust.


Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Geopolitics of the Syrian Civil War, by Reva Bhalla

The Geopolitics of the Syrian Civil War, by Reva Bhalla

International diplomats will gather Jan. 22 in the Swiss town of Montreux to hammer out a settlement designed to end Syria's three-year civil war. The conference, however, will be far removed from the reality on the Syrian battleground. Only days before the conference was scheduled to begin, a controversy threatened to engulf the proceedings after the United Nations invited Iran to participate, and Syrian rebel representatives successfully pushed for the offer to be rescinded. The inability to agree upon even who would be attending the negotiations is an inauspicious sign for a diplomatic effort that was never likely to prove very fruitful.
There are good reasons for deep skepticism. As Syrian President Bashar al Assad's forces continue their fight to recover ground against the increasingly fratricidal rebel forces, there is little incentive for the regime, heavily backed by Iran and Russia, to concede power to its sectarian rivals at the behest of Washington, especially when the United States is already negotiating with Iran. Ali Haidar, an old classmate of al Assad's from ophthalmology school and a long-standing member of Syria's loyal opposition, now serving somewhat fittingly as Syria's National Reconciliation Minister, captured the mood of the days leading up to the conference in saying "Don't expect anything from Geneva II. Neither Geneva II, not Geneva III nor Geneva X will solve the Syrian crisis. The solution has begun and will continue through the military triumph of the state."
Widespread pessimism over a functional power-sharing agreement to end the fighting has led to dramatic speculation that Syria is doomed either to break into sectarian statelets or, as Haidar articulated, revert to the status quo, with the Alawites regaining full control and the Sunnis forced back into submission. Both scenarios are flawed. Just as international mediators will fail to produce a power-sharing agreement at this stage of the crisis, and just as Syria's ruling Alawite minority will face extraordinary difficulty in gluing the state back together, there is also no easy way to carve up Syria along sectarian lines. A closer inspection of the land reveals why.
The Geopolitics of Syria
Before the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement traced out an awkward assortment of nation-states in the Middle East, the name Syria was used by merchants, politicians and warriors alike to describe a stretch of land enclosed by the Taurus Mountains to the north, the Mediterranean to the west, the Sinai Peninsula to the south and the desert to the east. If you were sitting in 18th-century Paris contemplating the abundance of cotton and spices on the other side of the Mediterranean, you would know this region as the Levant -- its Latin root "levare" meaning "to raise," from where the sun would rise in the east. If you were an Arab merchant traveling the ancient caravan routes northward from the Hejaz, or modern-day Saudi Arabia, you would have referred to this territory in Arabic as Bilad al-Sham, or the "land to the left" of Islam's holy sites on the Arabian Peninsula.
Whether viewed from the east or the west, the north or the south, Syria will always find itself in an unfortunate position surrounded by much stronger powers. The rich, fertile lands straddling Asia Minor and Europe around the Sea of Marmara to the north, the Nile River Valley to the south and the land nestled between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers to the east give rise to larger and more cohesive populations. When a power in control of these lands went roaming for riches farther afield, they inevitably came through Syria, where blood was spilled, races were intermixed, religions were negotiated and goods were traded at a frenzied and violent pace.
Population Density in the Greater Levantine
Consequently, only twice in Syria's pre-modern history could this region claim to be a sovereign and independent state: during the Hellenistic Seleucid dynasty, based out of Antioch (the city of Antakya in modern-day Turkey) from 301 to 141 B.C., and during the Umayyad Caliphate, based out of Damascus, from A.D. 661 to 749. Syria was often divided or subsumed by its neighbors, too weak, internally fragmented and geographically vulnerable to stand its own ground. Such is the fate of a borderland.
Unlike the Nile Valley, Syria's geography lacks a strong, natural binding element to overcome its internal fissures. An aspiring Syrian state not only needs a coastline to participate in sea trade and guard against sea powers, but also a cohesive hinterland to provide food and security. Syria's rugged geography and patchwork of minority sects have generally been a major hindrance to this imperative.
Syria's long and extremely narrow coastline abruptly transforms into a chain of mountains and plateaus. Throughout this western belt, pockets of minorities, including Alawites, Christians and Druze, have sequestered themselves, equally distrustful of outsiders from the west as they are of local rulers to the east, but ready to collaborate with whomever is most likely to guarantee their survival. The long mountain barrier then descends into broad plains along the Orontes River Valley and the Bekaa Valley before rising sharply once again along the Anti-Lebanon range, the Hawran plateau and the Jabal al-Druze mountains, providing more rugged terrain for persecuted sects to hunker down and arm themselves.
Syria's River Systems
Just west of the Anti-Lebanon mountains, the Barada river flows eastward, giving rise to a desert oasis also known as Damascus. Protected from the coast by two mountain chains and long stretches of desert to the east, Damascus is essentially a fortress city and a logical place to make the capital. But for this fortress to be a capital worthy of regional respect, it needs a corridor running westward across the mountains to Mediterranean ports along the ancient Phoenician (or modern-day Lebanese) coast, as well as a northward route across the semi-arid steppes, through Homs, Hama and Idlib, to Aleppo.
The saddle of land from Damascus to the north is relatively fluid territory, making it an easier place for a homogenous population to coalesce than the rugged and often recalcitrant coastline. Aleppo sits alongside the mouth of the Fertile Crescent, a natural trade corridor between Anatolia to the north, the Mediterranean (via the Homs Gap) to the west and Damascus to the south. While Aleppo has historically been vulnerable to dominant Anatolian powers and can use its relative distance to rebel against Damascus from time to time, it remains a vital economic hub for any Damascene power.
The Greater Levantine Region
Finally, jutting east from the Damascus core lie vast stretches of desert, forming a wasteland between Syria and Mesopotamia. This sparsely populated route has long been traveled by small, nomadic bands of men -- from caravan traders to Bedouin tribesmen to contemporary jihadists -- with few attachments and big ambitions.
Demography by Design
The demographics of this land have fluctuated greatly, depending on the prevailing power of the time. Christians, mostly Eastern Orthodox, formed the majority in Byzantine Syria. The Muslim conquests that followed led to a more diverse blend of religious sects, including a substantial Shiite population. Over time, a series of Sunni dynasties emanating from Mesopotamia, the Nile Valley and Asia Minor made Syria the Sunni-majority region that it is today. While Sunnis came to heavily populate the Arabian Desert and the saddle of land stretching from Damascus to Aleppo, the more protective coastal mountains were meanwhile peppered with a mosaic of minorities. The typically cult-like minorities forged fickle alliances and were always on the lookout for a more distant sea power they could align with to balance against the dominant Sunni forces of the hinterland.
Sectarian Divisions in Syria and Lebanon
The French, who had the strongest colonial links to the Levant, were masters of the minority manipulation strategy, but that approach also came with severe consequences that endure to this day. In Lebanon, the French favored Maronite Christians, who came to dominate Mediterranean sea trade out of bustling port cities such as Beirut at the expense of poorer Sunni Damascene merchants. France also plucked out a group known as the Nusayris living along the rugged Syrian coast, rebranded them as Alawites to give them religious credibility and stacked them in the Syrian military during the French mandate.
When the French mandate ended in 1943, the ingredients were already in place for major demographic and sectarian upheaval, culminating in the bloodless coup by Hafiz al Assad in 1970 that began the highly irregular Alawite reign over Syria. With the sectarian balance now tilting toward Iran and its sectarian allies, France's current policy of supporting the Sunnis alongside Saudi Arabia against the mostly Alawite regime that the French helped create has a tinge of irony to it, but it fits within a classic balance-of-power mentality toward the region.
Setting Realistic Expectations
The delegates discussing Syria this week in Switzerland face a series of irreconcilable truths that stem from the geopolitics that have governed this land since antiquity.
The anomaly of a powerful Alawite minority ruling Syria is unlikely to be reversed anytime soon. Alawite forces are holding their ground in Damascus and steadily regaining territory in the suburbs. Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is meanwhile following its sectarian imperative to ensure the Alawites hold onto power by defending the traditional route from Damascus through the Bekaa Valley to the Lebanese coast, as well as the route through the Orontes River Valley to the Alawite Syrian coast. So long as the Alawites can hold Damascus, there is no chance of them sacrificing the economic heartland.
It is thus little wonder that Syrian forces loyal to al Assad have been on a northward offensive to retake control of Aleppo. Realizing the limits to their own military offensive, the regime will manipulate Western appeals for localized cease-fires, using a respite in the fighting to conserve its resources and make the delivery of food supplies to Aleppo contingent on rebel cooperation with the regime. In the far north and east, Kurdish forces are meanwhile busy trying to carve outtheir own autonomous zone against mounting constraints, but the Alawite regime is quite comfortable knowing that Kurdish separatism is more of a threat to Turkey than it is to Damascus at this point.
The fate of Lebanon and Syria remain deeply intertwined. In the mid-19th century, a bloody civil war between Druze and Maronites in the densely populated coastal mountains rapidly spread from Mount Lebanon to Damascus. This time around, the current is flowing in reverse, with the civil war in Syria now flooding Lebanon. As the Alawites continue to gain ground in Syria with aid from Iran and Hezbollah, a shadowy amalgam of Sunni jihadists backed by Saudi Arabia will become more active in Lebanon, leading to a steady stream of Sunni-Shiite attacks that will keep Mount Lebanon on edge.
The United States may be leading the ill-fated peace conference to reconstruct Syria, but it doesn't really have any strong interests there. The depravity of the civil war itself compels the United States to show that it is doing something constructive, but Washington's core interest for the region at the moment is to preserve and advance a negotiation with Iran. This goal sits at odds with a publicly stated U.S. goal to ensure al Assad is not part of a Syrian transition, and this point may well be one of many pieces in the developing bargain between Washington and Tehran. However, al Assad holds greater leverage so long as his main patron is in talks with the United States, the only sea power currently capable of projecting significant force in the eastern Mediterranean.
Egypt, the Nile Valley power to the south, is wholly ensnared in its own internal problems. So is Turkey, the main power to the north, which is now gripped in a public and vicious power struggle that leaves little room for Turkish adventurism in the Arab world. That leaves Saudi Arabia and Iran as the main regional powers able to directly manipulate the Syrian sectarian battleground. Iran, along with Russia, which shares an interest in preserving relations with the Alawites and thus its access to the Mediterranean, will hold the upper hand in this conflict, but the desert wasteland linking Syria to Mesopotamia is filled with bands of Sunni militants eager for Saudi backing to tie down their sectarian rivals.
And so the fighting will go on. Neither side of the sectarian divide is capable of overwhelming the other on the battlefield and both have regional backers that will fuel the fight. Iran will try to use its relative advantage to draw the Saudi royals into a negotiation, but a deeply unnerved Saudi Arabia will continue to resist as long as Sunni rebels still have enough fight in them to keep going. Fighters on the ground will regularly manipulate appeals for cease-fires spearheaded by largely disinterested outsiders, all while the war spreads deeper into Lebanon. The Syrian state will neither fragment and formalize into sectarian statelets nor reunify into a single nation under a political settlement imposed by a conference in Geneva. A mosaic of clan loyalties and the imperative to keep Damascus linked to its coastline and economic heartland -- no matter what type of regime is in power in Syria -- will hold this seething borderland together, however tenuously.