North Africa, West Asia

Why it would be sheer folly to redraw Middle East borders along ethnic lines

However groundless the Sykes-Picot Agreement, is a Balkanisation of Syria and Iraq really the way forward?

Giovanni Pagani
9 December 2015

Shutterstock/Wead. All rights reserved.Territorial integrity and preservation of existing borders have always seemed essential preconditions for any international resolution over Syria. Diplomatic efforts were made to foster a dialogue among the parties; a feeble military coalition was formed to “degrade and destroy” Daesh; and military advisors sent on the ground to simultaneously assist “moderate rebels”, the Kurdish Peshmerga and a crumbling Iraqi Army. However fanciful such a strategy may appear, it is safe to say that these operations were all supposed to work in the same framework: maintain existing borders, facilitate a political transition in Syria and fully restore Damascus and Baghdad’s territorial sovereignty.

The last weeks suggest a trend reversal. Diplomats, analysts and generals from various political environments have started toying with the idea that remapping the region along ethnic lines might be the key for a resolution to the conflict. In other words, the possibility of partitioning Syria and Iraq into minor ethnic states has become a more tangible option. The proposal never came out coherently, but started appearing on media commentaries; and as some observers noticed, it was circulating in the corridors of the last Vienna Talks. The reality is that a reshuffling of borders in ‘Syraq’ would probably meet positive consideration in more than one capital city, from Jerusalem to Tehran.

It would grant the Kurds a nation. It would safeguard Moscow’s sole port on the Mediterranean, keeping an Alawite state with Latakia as capital, and Tartus as Russian military garrison. It could be accepted by Riyadh, as it would entail a Sunni state stretching from Damascus to Baghdad, including part of the territories currently under Daesh’s control. It would be also welcomed in Tehran, taking southern Iraq—and the holy Shia sites of Karbala and Najaf—into the Islamic Republic’s arms. And, not surprisingly, it would not be disdained in Jerusalem either, in a country that already offers a doubtful example of how citizenship, religion and ethnicity can intertwine with one another. Overall, the hypothesis of partitioning ‘Syraq’ into minor ethnic states has been forging ever forward; so much so that even the UN and Arab League Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has defined such a scenario as dramatic but possible.

Those supporting the ‘partition thesis’ tie their argument to the idea that borders in the Middle East were drawn as lines in the sand by the Sykes-Picot Agreement; through which Britain and France divided up the Ottoman Empire into four proto-nation states. The secret pact—signed by the British diplomat Mark Sykes and his French counterpart George François Picot in 1916—partitioned in fact the empire’s eastern territories into minor areas of influence, where Paris and London would exert their Mandate. Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Transjordan, which had never existed as state entities, first emerged from that division.

The implicit assumption is that ethnic divisions have always been there and that turning such transnational loyalties into citizenship is key to a resolution.

What is increasingly argued in some political environments is that the failure of Iraq and Syria as nation states results from that pact’s unfounded nature; while the re-emergence of transnational loyalties—as sectarianism—from Beirut to the Iranian border should actually suggest a radical map revision. Alawites, Shi’as, Sunnis, Druzes and Kurds are hence portrayed on detailed thematic maps as corresponding to homogeneous regions, while gentler frontiers are drawn as if they were more respective of cultural diversity than current off road borders. The implicit assumption is hence that ethnic divisions have always been there; that we simply didn’t want to acknowledge them; and that turning such transnational loyalties into citizenship would be key to a resolution. The reality is a bit trickier.

A first attempt to constitute an ethnic state in the region was made by the French Mandate in Lebanon, where Paris wanted to establish a Christian nation as a western outpost in the ‘Muslim world’. The plot did not succeed, but it certainly had major responsibility for the Lebanese state’s future fragility: Lebanese Christians and Muslims—regardless of their sect—fought each other between 1975 and 1989; and Beirut remained divided into a Christian East and a Muslim West for at least two decades. However, history moved forward, and as the recent jihadist attacks in (predominantly Shia) South Beirut show, Lebanese state is now struggling to keep together Sunnis and Shias; not Muslims and Christians.

This obviously does not mean that violence in the region is more likely to be produced by a perennial clash within Islam, but that religion, as ethnicity and sect, are necessarily subjected to political modification and people’s emotions. Lebanon is particular, but not unique; and if we look for instance at the Iraqi history we should reach analogous conclusions.

The country—now used as a proof for the partition thesis—had almost never faced sectarian strife until the war against Iran (1980); when the confrontation with a Shia state—namely the Islamic Republic – provoked the alienation of the Shia communities in southern Iraq. Until that time, the Pan-arabist discourse of the Ba’ath had been ethnocentric, and sectarianism had rarely represented an issue for the country’s stability. Finally, and taking a step back to Syria, Assad’s dynasty certainly did not champion human rights and democracy, but it was particularly successful in creating a cross-confessional social pact. This does not mean that he did not take advantage of sectarian cleavages for crafting political coalitions, but that Syrian national history is not necessarily one of inter-ethnic conflict. The cross-confessional fashion of 2011 uprisings—extensively praised in western media—should at least suggest so.

To sum up, contrary to what an increasingly large group of ‘experts’ is trying to argue, it would be highly misleading to believe that Syrians and Iraqis have always been inclined to kill each other for ethnic reasons. Both Syria and Iraq have gone through their own national history; a history of military coups, authoritarian regimes and foreign encroachments, certainly, but not deserving for this reason to be erased with a simple map revision. Moreover, ethnic states have never featured in the region, where the Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire constituted the two political realities before 1916. Here, the devious and groundless character of the Sykes-Picot Agreement is certainly indisputable; but is a Balkanisation of the Middle East really the way forward?

In creating such a precedent, how will it then be possible to avert sectarian strife in Lebanon—a country constantly on the brink, which shares with Syria porous borders and an analogous ethnic composition? How will Libya’s breakdown into a myriad of tribal states be avoided? What political solution can we hope for in Yemen? And finally, how will we be able to create multicultural societies in Europe, when we encourage ethnic segregation in the same countries migrants escape from? Pandering to every voice calling for fragmentation will only exacerbate parochialism and communal hatred. A peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis has to pass by the Syrian state; maintaining continuity with history and not reinventing it.

Also published on Your Middle East.

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