x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The region’s problems are not marked by old lines in the sand

It’s anybody’s guess where Syria is heading, and a further break-up of the country remains a definite possibility, writes Michael Young

Recently, a prominent Lebanese politician well attuned to the twists and turns of the Middle East expressed concern about the future of Syria. He was displeased with US Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that certain countries were willing to send peacekeeping forces there in the event of a settlement, and that one of their objectives would be to protect minorities.

A second news story could not have reassured him. It came from the Sunday Times suggesting that President Bashar Al Assad of Syria had surrendered only a tiny portion of his chemical and biological weapons. He is allegedly hoarding them, the newspaper reported, in areas controlled by his Alawite community, as an insurance policy in case Syria is eventually partitioned.

What worried the Lebanese politician was that peacekeeping forces could serve to harden current lines of separation, facilitating a formal partition of Syria. The Sunday Times story appears to confirm a similar trend, with the journalist quoting a Russian expert as saying: “Down the line, Assad is doomed. His plan B, C, and D is to retreat to the Alawite enclave and try to protect the Alawite community.”

It’s anybody’s guess where Syria is heading, and a further break-up of the country remains a definite possibility. But there is a sweeping narrative taking hold today that the countries that emerged after the First World War Sykes-Picot agreement, which drew the borders of the modern Middle East, were destined to disintegrate, especially in the absence of a foreign power able to impose stability.

Germany’s former foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, has repeatedly echoed this view. Recently he wrote: “Indeed, the partial withdrawal of the US implies that the end of the enforced stability of the old Middle East will not spare the Sykes-Picot borders. Developments in Syria and Iraq already suggest as much, and the future of Lebanon and Jordan has become increasingly uncertain.”

The reality is far more complicated, in part because the premises are faulty. One cannot ignore two essential details: time has meant that the borders have taken on a legitimacy of their own; and Arab nationalistic aspirations after the First World War, often portrayed as more legitimate than those the Europeans imposed, would have created borders no less contentious and volatile than the ones today.

The time argument cannot be underestimated. Nearly a century later, those seeking to alter Syria’s borders, or Lebanon’s, or Jordan’s, or even Iraq’s, face an uphill battle. These borders may not be ideal, in light of political developments since they were formed, but they have taken on a durable quality of their own. Moreover, there is a stigma in the Arab world that opponents of unity serve foreign agendas.

None of the protagonists in Syria’s conflict has cast doubt on its borders, or has called for a Sunni or Alawite state. Their rhetoric has almost entirely been couched in nationalistic terms, with their aim being the control over all of Syria. Even Mr Al Assad has never expressed interest in falling back on an Alawite mini-state, and if he does so that would only be because he can no longer hold Damascus.

In Lebanon, national cohesion has been doubtful for decades, but even during the civil war between 1975 and 1990 none of the actors sought to formalise partition. At most, those who are unhappy with the unitary system today propose a federal structure to replace it. However, no one seriously believes that partition is possible, or would bring many benefits if it were adopted by the Lebanese.

The second argument – that the borders favoured by Arab nationalists would have been no less litigious than what the colonial powers created – is equally true. Many nationalists envisaged their ideal borders as far more inclusive than what Sykes-Picot outlined. Syrian nationalists sought to incorporate parts of Lebanon and Palestine, even though both had developed autonomously from Syria. Similarly, Iraq long considered Kuwait its 19th province.

Not only would Syrian nationalists have clashed with Lebanese and Palestinian nationalists had Sykes-Picot not existed, we have seen many examples of regional states seeking to impose their nationalist vision on others – as Syria did on Lebanon for nearly 30 years or on the Palestine Liberation Organisation as of the late 1960s; and as the Iraqis tried in Kuwait in 1990.

Sykes-Picot may have been a wretched product of western colonial hegemony, but Arab states have never shown any hesitation to push their own hegemonic ambitions. Throughout the last six decades, it’s not so much disintegration that has characterised Arab states, as efforts by regimes to consolidate centralised rule and, when possible, extend their influence beyond their borders.

That’s not to say that many Arab states do not have strong centrifugal social forces. However, these often are not a product of western colonialism or even necessarily artificial borders; they are a consequence of dysfunctional states and inadequate social contracts. The problem in the Middle East is the failure of the modern Arab state, the excess of bad government, not a colonial-era inheritance.

When mixed societies in the region cannot find a social contract to govern their relations, conflicts between sects and ethnic groups are exacerbated and signal a breakdown in the state. But the real trouble is that no adequate mechanism is in place to manage society’s differences, not that groups have an ingrained intent to separate.

That is why the region is likely to continue to manoeuvre in a no-man’s land of mediocre, autocratic states, within geographical entities that remain largely the same as the ones prevailing today. That’s not to say that states will never break up, but rather that they are more liable to break down within their present structures.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling