When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918 after defeat in World War I, the comic opera borders of many of today's Middle Eastern countries were drawn by the British and French Foreign offices, in secret and in the supposed national interests of European colonial powers. Local matters of religion, language and tribes appeared to hold little interest for the map drawers. It's hardly any wonder that, for generations, post-colonial national borders in the Middle East have accompanied one failed state after another and conflicts time and again break out in the region, for generations, conflicts that the participants, the neighboring powers and the international community forever manage to not solve.
For a very long time, failed states have festered in Afghanistan and the Western autonomous regions of Pakistan. For a time, strong arm regimes enforced the old colonial borders in Iraq and Syria. Now, revolutionary Syria is a fractured rubble of a State and, at the same time, the area once encompassed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq, finds its national borders dissolving. New demarcations are reorienting Iraq's former territory on religious, ethnic and tribal lines. A Civil War rages there that became inevitable the moment President George Bush decided to carry out regime change against Saddam Hussein.
An opinion piece in Al Jazeera America reflects on the origins of 20th Century Middle Eastern borders and the influences now erasing them. Follow me out into the tall grass for some of the AJA piece and a bit of discussion.
In 1916 as the Great War dragged on in Europe, a British diplomat named Sykes and a French diplomat named Picot, with the support of war torn Tsarist Russia, agreed on post-war national boundaries and British and French spheres of influence for what have since been the borders of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and what was then Palestine. The Sykes-Picot Agreement remained secret until the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia took the Eastern Front out of the War. Lenin's government finally disclosed it.
"Whoever drew that map was on drugs," an influential figure in the opposition told me, tapping on a map of modern-day Syria. "It lumped a whole lot of people with little in common together in the same country. Add to that the gunpowder of the Assad regime, and it produced a century-late explosion."But the collapse of Syria is only part of the story. The AJA piece noted that the colonial borders of Iraq are also changing in the wake of the Big Topple.
the most important news is the birth of a new Arab state, called by Arab and regional observers the Emirate, or the Emirate of Iraq and Sham, or colloquially the Emirate of al-Jazira (the Arab heartland).The Emirate of Iraq and Sham. Okay, I know I'm just focusing on a coincidental homophone between English and Arabic, but Sham sure seems like a great word for how Bush and Cheney and their enablers lied America into war with Iraq. Anyway, the AJA opinion piece notes that Iraq now has been effectively partitioned among Shia, Kurdish and Sunni interests. The al Malaki government's loss of Fallujah and Sunni tribal domination of Anbar Province have wrested control of that region, under an Al Qaeda banner, away from the Shia dominated, Iranian allied Nouri Al-Malaki government in Baghdad.
The newborn Emirate stretches from the west gates of Baghdad to the ruins of Aleppo in northwestern Syria. It is a blend of traditional and ideological elements that are struggling mightily for areas of influence within the vast landscape. Along the lower Euphrates between Ramadi and Fallujah, my sources tell me, Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are scrapping with the local tribes. In Syria, it is the jihadist Al-Nusra Front battling with the local Sunni tribes. Also in the mix are the regional minorities that fill the margins of the Emirate, such as the Kurds, the Druze, the Alawites, Ismailis, Christians and Jews.
The Emirate redraws the map by erasing the sovereign state borders created by the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 between England and France and their subsequent division of the Ottoman Empire following its defeat in World War I.
Along the north of the Emirate, the Kurdistan consolidation defines a buffer from the Shias of Iran. Along the south of the Emirate, the Arabian Peninsula is fracturing into tribal confederations. The Buraida tribe to the northwest of the peninsula has largely detached from Riyadh’s authority. The central tribes look to Israel and others (Egypt, Russia) for military support.When developments in Iraq combine with the devolution of revolutionary Syria along its natural fractures, the colonial borders no longer matter. De facto realignments on the ground have finally overtaken the colonial agreements. The AJA author concludes that this renders problematical attempts at international negotiations with "Syria", one of "the nationalist ghosts of the last century." What if there is no Syria? For that matter, what if there is no Iraq?
The Emirate creates surprising facts on the ground that may define the immediate and distant future.
The rising in Iraq’s Anbar province is driven by extreme hostility toward the Shia-dominated Maliki government. Back in 2007–08, during the U.S. surge of troops to increase security and stability in Iraq, the local Sunni tribes aligned with the American forces to drive the jihadists out. Now the local Sunni tribes align with the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Sham to deny the Shia Maliki any authority.
It's tiresome to have to go out again to get the kids a new globe of the World. But the lines on the old one just don't matter any more in the Middle East as, once again, religious and tribal realignments erase obsolete national borders originally drawn by colonial powers. For now, I suppose, it might be useful to label this region of the globe "Here there be dragons", to signify that this region continues to destabilize into a very dangerous part of the World.