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History's lesson on Balkanisation and the fate of patchwork states

Like Yugoslavia, the borders of Syria were shaped after the First World War. Will it, like Yugoslavia, soon split into various fragments?

Last week I sat down with a friend to discuss the geopolitical repercussions of the so-called Arab spring. We didn’t talk about the latest news from Syria, where I have friends who are still trapped in Aleppo, nor about car bombings in Iraq, nor about kidnappings in Lebanon. Instead, we wondered about the outcomes of the current conflicts.

My friend and I have followed regional politics closely for well over 40 years. We are not dispassionate academic observers, but we have studied the region’s history, from the break up of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War to the emergence of today’s states after the Second World War. The conflicts generated by the emergence of Israel has been part of that study, but regional developments cannot be analysed solely through the narrow, though important, prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

It might take a couple of decades, and much loss of life, before the region returns to stability, and the political landscape might then look very different from today’s.

The era of states ruled by military regimes appears to be coming to an end. The Assads’ effort to crush opposition represents the last, reprehensible death throes of an era. What will come next is difficult to predict.

The political landscape of the Levant was created at the end of the First World War. The map drawn up by the European victors of the war largely survives today, with the exception of Israel.

That map, as its long straight lines suggest, was drawn with little regard for the location of various ethnic and religious communities, let alone for geography. Yet it has stood the test of time, although in Syria several statelets, including a “state of the Alawites”, enjoyed separate identities during the French mandate for most of the period between the two world wars.

States in the region have survived, despite their heterogeneous demography and their complex mix of religious identities. This has happened as a result of direct or indirect foreign influence, or because of strong central governments (harsh military ones in Syria and Iraq).

Yugoslavia, the outlines of which emerged at the end of the First World War, survived until 20 years ago. The Kingdom of Serbia, its heart, had taken Kosovo and Macedonia from the Ottoman Empire shortly before the First World War broke out. At its end, Serbia expanded further, taking over Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the independent Kingdom of Montenegro.

Ruled by Serbian kings and then, after the Second World War, by a strong central communist government within a federal framework, Yugoslavia remained a patchwork of a state, where ethnically distinct communities were divided by religion and spoke different languages.

Yugoslavia’s long-time leader Josep Tito died in 1980, and tensions began to grow among the self-governing republics, with a rise of separate nationalisms – Serb, Croat, Slovenian, Bosnian and so on. Yugoslavia disintegrated and after much bloodshed and international intervention, six separate independent states have emerged.

Looking back, it now seems almost self-evident that the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s were at least in part a completion of unfinished business from 1918 – the emergence of ethnically and religiously distinct states that had been held together only by a dominant central government.

A couple of decades from now, will observers look at the Levant and its recent history, note today’s borders, and come to a similar conclusion about unfinished business from the First World War?

It’s a gloomy prospect, not least because many more lives may be lost. All the more reason, then, for the international community, in particular the leaders of the Arab world, to redouble efforts to bring to an end the bloodshed in Syria and the intensification of the ethnic and religious divisions that are spreading throughout the land and, increasingly, to its neighbours.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and cultur

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