Borders imposed on the Middle East by European powers a century ago are proving remarkably resilient, even as Syria risks breaking into a failed state similar to Somalia, writes Michael Young.
Dysfunction of Arab states puts stress on colonial borders
The capture of Mosul by militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has shown the increasingly nominal nature of Middle Eastern borders. Ironically, these borders, created by Britain and France after the First World War remained durable for a century.
In the past week, two prominent Arab figures expressed doubt that Syria would remain as it was, with its war into its fourth year. Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt told the Associated Press: “We are still at the beginning of the war in Syria. In the long term, the map of the Middle East will be redrawn.”
Meanwhile, the former United Nations envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, declared to Der Spiegel that Syria would “become another Somalia. It will not be divided, as many have predicted. It’s going to be a failed state, with warlords all over the place”.
Mr Jumblatt and Mr Brahimi have differing views of Syria’s destiny. The Lebanese Druze leader believes that, ultimately, Syria will break down into new entities, which will affect the region as a whole. Mr Brahimi disagrees, arguing that Syria will remain united, but only in name. Fragmentation is assured, he believes, also impacting negatively on the region.
Just as the borders of the Middle East were drawn by outsiders, they may continue to be preserved, or threatened, by outsiders. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, it was the United States that expelled the Iraqi army. By and large, Western states have defended the status quo in the Arab world, even urging their Kurdish allies to remain a part of an Iraqi federal state.
Only in the Israeli-Palestinian context has there been a project to create a new Palestinian state, while the establishment of South Sudan in 2011 merely formalised a longstanding rift between Khartoum and Sudan’s south.
The fear of fragmentation in the region derives from an understanding not that its states were created by Western colonial powers, but from the fact that they have become more contested by their own citizens. This has been true of Syria, Iraq, Libya and even Lebanon, which yet remained one country despite a terrible civil war.
This dysfunctional nature of the Arab state is the consequence mainly of social contracts that promise citizens only intimidation and repression, usually under the eye of a brutal ruling class, with little by way of rights or economic and human development.
Syria has been a prime example of this pattern. Other than the prospect of ending the violence, little encourages Syrians to return to the sordid state in place before 2011. At the same time, the incentive to see Syria divided into mini-states, constructed around sectarian or ethnic identities, is no stronger. Both sides in the conflict seek to defeat the other and win all of Syria.
But is that true of everyone? President Bashar Al Assad’s staunchest ally, Iran, appears to have a different agenda, at least in the medium term: to consolidate the Syrian regime’s hold over “vital Syria” – Damascus, the border with Lebanon, the Syrian coast, and communication lines in between, through the city and province of Homs. Outside those areas, Iran has neither the manpower nor the incentive to help Mr Al Assad recapture territory and hold it for an extended period.
The implications are very serious. Unable to impose its allies’ control over large swathes of Sunni-dominated areas in Syria and Iraq, a hegemonic Tehran may prefer fragmentation, allowing it to dominate digestible components of disintegrating Arab states.
Nor can Mr Al Assad challenge this, given his dependency on Iran and its Lebanese and Iraqi Shia clients for his own political survival. But whether Syria’s divided territories consolidate into lasting entities is a question that remains unresolved.
The possibility of a parting of the ways between Mr Al Assad and Iran is improbable, but possible. The Syrian president has not sought to build up an Alawite mini-state in northeast Syria, while he has done his utmost to maintain a grip on Damascus.
Perhaps he feels that a resort to a blatantly sectarian project would not only undermine the idea of Al Assad rule over all of Syria, it could destroy the family’s standing among Alawites. In the past half-century the story of the Alawites has been one of expansion outside their traditional areas and integration into the Syrian state. To be forced back into the mountain now could prompt them to turn against Mr Al Assad’s rule.
The Syrian state as we knew it is not likely to return in the foreseeable future, if ever. But if anything helps achieve this it’s the efforts of regional powers to accelerate the breakup of Syria – or Iraq, for that matter – in order to better exploit the aftermath.
Colonial-era borders in the Arab world have proven far more resilient than critics of colonialism will admit. But post-colonial Arab regimes, by presiding over failing states, have made the task that much easier for countries gaining from their divisions.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.
On Twitter @BeirutCalling