Amidst the faint flutterings of peace and the concurrent rumblings of war, a new Middle East geo-political map is taking shape that is more complex, contradictory, unpredictable and dangerous than at any time over the last hundred years of unfolding regional drama.
The new fault-lines
More than half a dozen simultaneous conflicts (16 by my count) jostle with each other; un-resolved (perhaps un-resolvable), interconnected and overlapping; one thread leading into another to weave a giant regional tapestry of uncertainty and contradiction; from the tribal fissures of North Africa, to the youthful demands for democratic change; from the inter-Islamist dispute over governance, to the Gulf monarchies’ aspirations to regional dominance; from long-festering urban/rural frustrations to the stirrings of a new Cold war.
Somewhere in all this, of course, the familiar Israel/Palestinian conflict seethes and suppurates. In fact, it is today the object of renewed efforts to find a negotiated settlement propelled by the energetic drive of US Secretary of State John Kerry that may yet yield some tender fruit. But it would be difficult for even the most Palestino-Israeli-centric observer to pretend that this conflict, despite its profound historical significance, is the most salient or visible of all the frictions and tensions now coursing across the region.
The truth (I would say, sad truth) is that amongst the multiple collisions that mark the current Middle East scene, the most significant divide draws on the deep-rooted historical animus between Muslim Sunni and Shiite. Apparently superseded or suppressed by twentieth century modernisms such as pan-Arabism and secular nationalism, this antagonism has never truly subsided, and is now back with a vengeance to dominate many regional arenas with a virulence that may be most evident in, but is not exclusive to, Syria today. A broad sweep across the region reveals its malignant spread across the entire Levant with Iraq as another critical Sunni/Shiite front along with Lebanon, and with various extensions reaching down the Gulf and Iran via Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and into the Arabian Sea littoral and Yemen. Few Arab domains have escaped this insidious virus: even in Egypt where there are very few indigenous Shiites, Sunni Salafi alarmism has transformed the potential presence of a clutch of Iranian tourists into the spearhead of giant conspiracy to ‘Shi-‘ify’ (tashyee’) the innocent Sunni populace.
All this did not arise from nowhere. In recent times, and ever since the Shah, Arab fears of Iranian/Shiite expansionism have added an incendiary overlay to the historic Sunni/Shiite divide, fuelling Gulf worries about Iran and stoking deep-rooted Arab/Persian rivalries and antagonisms. The very language of this contemporary conflict exposes its historic depth: Confronting the ‘Savafids’ (the thrusting Persian Shiite Empire of the sixteenth - eighteenth century) is today’s rallying call for Sunnis to stem the putative Shiite tide.
For the more extreme Salafi fundamentalists, the Shiites (and their alleged Alawite offshoots) are not even Muslims at all, but heretics whose blood may be shed as sanctified by the increasingly extreme fatwas of the jihadi sheiks of North Africa and the Gulf and their al-Qa’ida inspired worldview—the latest hateful twist of which - jihad al-nikah’ - urges Sunni virgins to sacrifice themselves to the greater struggle of the jihadi fighters, and gives licence to the latter to rape the heretic female [i.e. non-Sunni] population at will, something that has rarely been witnessed in all the terrible previous convulsions in the area.
The Sunni/Shiite and Arab Gulf/Persian nexus explains much of what has been happening in Syria over the past two years. The minority Alawite Syrian regime has long been portrayed as an extension of an Iranian Shiite thrust into the Levant and onto the borders of the Arab/Israeli conflict via Hizbollah and South Lebanon. Despite the ambivalent status of the Alawites as Shiites, the other main external players on the Syrian scene – ranging from Ankara, to Riyadh, to al-Qaida’s expanding redoubts, have had no qualms about emphasizing this conflation; thus effectively reinforcing the Syrian Alawite/Iranian/Hizbollah alliance, as they seek to tear it apart.
Meanwhile, Israel has taken on a new role as the indirect spearhead of the Sunni Arabs’ attempt to break the back of the ‘Shiite Crescent’ by forcefully quashing Iran’s nuclear ambitions if need be (‘severing the snake’s head’ as eloquently put by Saudi King Abdullah), and by threatening to finish off Hizbollah should it intervene on Tehran’s behalf, or attempt to reinforce its own deterrent force via the redeployment of Assad’s arsenal. To this already explosive melange, further elements can be added: Turkey’s regional profile has taken on a sharp Sunni edge, as the ruling AKP has increasingly donned a neo-Ottoman garb and aligned itself with the leading Arab Sunni actors, and with the Saudi/Qatari duo in particular. Ankara today is not only a direct party to the Syrian civil war via its active support and role as an intelligence and logistical base for the armed Syrian opposition, but has effectively joined the international front against Iran via last year’s decision to host the NATO anti-missile radar system that is meant to detect any long-range Iranian missile launch against Europe, or more relevantly, Israel.
This apparently incongruous Sunni Gulf Arab/Israeli/Turkish line up against Syria/Iran/Hizbollah may not be that hard to understand in terms of the broader regional struggle for power largely triggered by the US-led overthrow of Saddam and the subsequent events leading up to the Arab Spring. For three decades or so Saddam represented the Sunni/Arab world’s ‘guardian of the Eastern gate’; first, against the Shah’s imperial ‘Safavid’ ambitions and then against Islamic Iran’s perceived Shiite revolutionary threat to the regional status quo - particularly to the Gulf monarchies. The truth is that despite his subsequent fall out with the Sunni Arab Gulf Sheikhdoms, Saddam was their first strategic line of defence against Iran in any of its imperial, revolutionary or Shiite manifestations.
His overthrow not only created a massive breach in the ‘Eastern gate’, but a total strategic turn-around in the region. Much of what we are now seeing in the Middle East is the consequence of the neo-con fantasy that a post-Saddam, Shiite majority-led Iraq would not only counter-balance Tehran, but act as the edge of an ‘Arab’ scimitar wielded against Iran (Iraq’s Arab Shiites supposedly all-too-ready to assert their Arab-ness over their Shiite-ness). What happened was almost the exact opposite; Iran and its Shiite allies are now the dominant if not the sole force in Iraq and the emergence of a Shiite/Iranian Iraq has only driven the Sunni Arabs to react in fearful fury: today’s Sunni/Shiite regional war is the direct product of the Bush/Blair war on Iraq.
Nations and borders
As we survey this increasingly blood-drenched and tumultuous regional scene, one of the most significant aspects of the changes taking place under the rough rubric of the ‘Arab Spring’ that has been occasionally noted but perhaps not sufficiently understood or assessed, is the extent to which the events of the past two-and-half years are actually changing the political boundaries of the states in the region, and consequently, the very nature and notion of the states and peoples that lie within them.
Jordan and its neighbours. The very large triangle of land in Saudi Arabia that is pointing towards the Dead Sea is known as ‘Winston’s hiccup’. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain.
The borders of Palestine, as we know them, were of course, defined by the British in 1923. Jordan was effectively created in 1921 by a stroke of Mr. Churchill’s pen (we can see this in its nice straight-lined borders marred only by what is known as Winston's Hiccup or Churchill's Sneeze; that huge zigzag in Jordan's eastern border with Saudi Arabia, allegedly because Churchill set the boundaries after a generous and lengthy lunch.) Iraq’s 1920 borders were defined by British colonial design; France’s ambitions led to an autonomous Lebanon, carved out of parts of Syria in 1926. Essentially, all the post-Ottoman Arab states reaching all the way down to the Gulf Sheikhdom’s and across North Africa [with the important exception of Egypt] were artificial constructs imposed by the collapse of the pre-World War I order:
Forging national identities and separate nation states out of the debris of the Ottoman Empire required a process of reverse geo-political engineering; first (The West) would set the borders of the state; and then the peoples within them would take on the attributes of its citizens. The age of western colonial map-making thus produced borders that created ‘nations’ and ‘peoples’, rather than the other way around. This is not to say that there were no indigenous demands for independence and statehood. Indeed, much of the swirl of Middle Eastern politics during the first half of the last century revolved around nationalist demands for separate statehood - including that of the Palestinians.
These impulses were inspired by Wilsonian notions of self-determination and the power of Arab national sentiment that railed against centuries of Ottoman rule. But Arab nationalism could never quite resolve the conundrum set by these colonial borders: for one thing, their artificiality was constantly derided and their legitimacy challenged; for another, the competition between Arab local nationalism (wattniyah) and pan-Arabism (qawmiyyah), not to mention the continuous friction between nationalism and Islamism, rarely allowed the nation-state to fully settle [the sole and most important exception to this being Egypt with its long lineage of strong national consciousness].
The tenuousness of the nation-state was evident in the repeated and failed attempts to alter the Arab map; Nasserite pan-Arab sentiment brought about the abortive UAR experiment between 1958 and 1961. Scores of other attempts at redrawing the colonial borders or transcending them followed in the sixties and seventies; Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Libya joined hands in joyful and varied unifying choreographies, only to recoil from each other after a more intimate acquaintance.
But these failures and their often quixotic character eventually had a paradoxical, if temporary, stabilizing effect. In the Levant, for instance, and for a brief moment, it appeared as if a specifically Lebanese political identity had begun to take shape amongst Lebanon’s Muslims as well as its Christians, partially in reaction to the long years and heavy hand of Syrian ‘occupation’ and partially in revulsion from the terrible divisive experience of civil war. The Syrian Baath - if only in defence of the ruling Alawis -emphasized the primacy of Syrian citizenship. Ditto in Iraq. A distinct ‘Jordanian’ (some would say East Bank) political identity began to emerge, partly as a means of stemming the tide of Palestinian national consciousness, but also as a consequence of Jordan’s sheer survival as a Hashemite state. The Arab defence of Kuwait in 1991 is also instructive; Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia joined hands to assert the inviolability of Kuwait’s borders and sovereignty, and in doing so effectively asserted the inviolability of the Arab state system itself.
Many of the components of the pre-Spring Arab order were truly repulsive, of course. The Arab state system’s external borders may have been formally sanctified and trans-border state-inspired conspiracies may have largely receded, but the price was paid in repression, torture, the domestic loss of basic rights and freedoms, and in terms of human respect and dignity. Coupled with the absence of tangible economic development (except for the glitter of the Gulf) this was unsustainable, and we have witnessed the ultimate result.
Whatever the multiple causes behind the dramatic developments of the last couple of years, one thing is for certain: the political boundaries of the regional state system are no longer stable or inviolable, and the nature of the societies and peoples within them are in a historic process of transformation; in short; what is happening comprises amongst other things, the breakdown of the strong central state on the one hand, and the emergence of new consolidated ethnic and confessional entities and tendencies, on the other.
Take a glance at the picture today: South Sudan has formally seceded as of July 2011. Iraq’s federal post-Saddam formula has created a self-contained ethnic Kurdish entity that is all but formally independent of Baghdad. Gaza is in effective political and ideological (some would say religious) secession from Ramallah. Yemen is liable to divide along Zaidi/Shiite or Southern (Hrak) lines; and Libya is a constant candidate for tribal and ethnic secessions as is Algeria. And, no matter what happens, the political borders of Syria are very unlikely to return to what they were before March 2011. As in Iraq, the Syrian Kurds are in de facto secession, and the dynamic unleashed by the ongoing peace process between the AKP government and the PKK - if sustained - is likely to produce a new Kurdish entity/state that includes parts of Syria, Iraq, and may even redraw the internal or external borders of Turkey and Iran.
The worst-case scenario for Syria adds a couple of layers of fragmentation to the current picture: One prospect is that of an Alawite State entrenched in Damascus in control of a broad central swathe that links up to the Mediterranean coast and is protected by its Shiite Hizbollahi flank. This could be joined (or perhaps confronted) by smaller confessional/sectarian entities; Christian enclaves, non-salafi Sunni tribes; or other local mutations; possibly extending into neighbouring countries as well (it is worth remembering that Assad/Hizbollah’s strongest local ally is the Lebanese Maronite Christian movement led by Michel Aoun).
The Shiite/Sunni divide may be pre-eminent but it is not always clear cut. In Syria, Iraq and Lebanon there are elements from one side that have joined up with their ostensible opponents; moderate Sunnis amongst the Syrian opposition are in ideological and political contradiction with their jihadi co-insurgents. Even should Assad fall - which looks less likely today than it might have seemed some months ago - most expectations are of a new internal struggle that may eventually include Baathist Alawites lining up with their former Sunni adversaries against the jihadists.
Under any conceivable scenario, Syria will have a weak central government with very strong regionalisms along the lines of Iraq - which is already a federation, and in my humble opinion, itself on its way to potential partition. The borders between Syria and Iraq are already highly permeable and the Sunni/Shiite divide and tribal and confessional loyalties straddle them in both directions. (Deir az-Zour, the main headquarters of the Nusra Front abuts Iraq’s Sunni-dominated borders to the West) The confessionalisation of the conflict has already necessarily drawn in Lebanon which needs little to nudge it towards its own long-standing fractures, and is slowly but surely making its way to Jordan, which may be relatively free from domestic confessional-ism, but cannot evade the fallout from its insidious regional dimensions.
What we are seeing, in fact, is one giant unified Levantine area of operations within which there is a concurrent struggle for power in Syria/Lebanon/Iraq and to some extent Jordan. The future borders and political entities of the entire Middle East hinge to a large extent on the outcome of this epic collision which has taken on an existential edge: for the current regimes on both sides of the divide this is today a struggle for survival. (It is instructive to note here the report that the Emir of Qatar has informed his US friends that Assad must go because he is bound to seek revenge if he doesn’t).
For those who may have hoped for a better outcome for the youthful yearnings manifest in the early days of the Arab Spring, the outlook is not so promising. The demise of the colonially manufactured nation-state does not appear to herald the emergence of liberal tolerant democratic and multicultural societies, but rather the opposite: that of the religiously garbed enclosed and ‘purified’ ethno-confessional state or entity.
The shift is a dramatic one: in the emerging regional map ‘Arab’ has given way to Sunni and Shiite. There is a rapidly diminishing space for ‘Iraqis’, and more for Kurds and Arabs; less and less for ‘Lebanese’, but more for Christians, Druze and Muslims; there may be a residual sliver for ‘Syrians’ but there is a much greater space for Sunnis and Alawites. In this picture, the Sunni/Shiite divide is all the more dangerous in the Levant precisely because of its confessional mosaic; here we are already witnessing large-scale ethnic and confessional cleansing; Iraq first, and now Syria with Lebanon as the next potential candidate and the Gulf with its Shiite Eastern seaboard population not too far behind. The atrocities committed in the name of either branch of Islam are being translated into the borders of the new regional map; the danger is that this fierce war will not subside until the lines have been drawn on ‘purer’ or purified lines.
There is, of course, nothing inevitable about all this. But it would appear that the dynamics that have been unleashed are driving matters in this direction. In one sense, this is understandable as people are searching for some kind of authentic sense of belonging and citizenship that springs from their own experience culture, and above all their need for safety and security, rather than from lines arbitrarily drawn on a map by foreign powers. This is not a peculiarly Arab problem: Turkey is already beginning to grapple with it, and Israel today is evidently undergoing a process of ethnic/religious retrenchment; indeed, its enemies would say it exemplifies its ugliest manifestation.
Palestine new borders; internal and external
Where, you may ask, is Palestine in all this? I have already briefly alluded to the Gaza secession and will elaborate some more here. Ever since its 2007 putsch (or pre-emptive counter putsch depending from which perspective you may chose to see it) Hamas in Gaza has been systematically building the basis of its Islamist-inspired authority, all mutually pious and insincere words about national reconciliation with the PA/PLO in Ramallah notwithstanding. As Hamas has consolidated its rule and developed its system of governance and web of external relations, there are almost no foreseeable circumstances in which it is going to relinquish its control of the Strip in favour of the PA/PLO in Ramallah - or vice versa, for that matter. In short, the chances of a single Palestinian umbrella, unified polity or political entity are fading with each passing day.
The consequences of this have not been sufficiently addressed; but they are of massive import because they alter the whole shape and contour of the Palestinian national project. If Gaza is subtracted from the West Bank, then the entire concept of a Palestinian state, its demographic weight and population, its access to the Mediterranean Sea, its borders - everything -changes; including the very terms of a two-state solution as they have been established ever since the mid-seventies. A systemic and irreversible secession in Gaza means that the remaining area of dispute between Israel and Palestinians is fundamentally that of the West Bank - with or without Jerusalem. And with this, the influence of Jordan’s gravitational pull on its ‘Bank’ gets stronger, as does Egypt’s influence on Gaza. Any way you look at it, the fact remains that Palestine’s borders may have now become more elastic and problematic than at any time in the past, not just in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli concept of boundaries and where if at all to draw the line between Arab and Jew, but in terms of the Palestinian’s own internal boundaries as well.
The Hamas secession may not appear to fall readily under the ready-made rubric of the Sunni/Shiite divide, as this is irrelevant in the immediate Palestinian context (there are very few Shiites in Palestine anyway). But it is extremely significant in two other senses. First, insofar as it aggravates the already existing socio-political and psychological gap between Gaza and Ramallah. This has slowly taken on a more deeply entrenched social and institutional form that has been described as a process of ‘Talibanisation’ in Gaza - including a draft law that suggests amputation for thieves and a death penalty for adultery. But the existing legal chasm between Gaza and Ramallah is bad enough. Just one example suffices: the new Hamas legal system promulgates for women to cover up and segregates between the sexes in the universities; meanwhile, West Bank women have lately been empowered to unilaterally dissolve [faskh] a marriage. (A quick glance at the young man and women decorating Ramallah’s bars and beer-halls should be enough to reinforce the visual contrast between the two parts of Palestine). The real point is that the Islamicization of Gaza is proceeding in parallel to the rising tide of the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam in the region as a whole, and is creating its own separate religiously inspired sphere that is a world apart from the nationalist cosmopolitan universe of Ramallah and its PA. This, in itself, is an ever growing impediment to reconnecting the broken parts of the Palestinian polity. Gaza may not be ‘independent’ today, but the world may be increasingly drawn towards dealing with it as such.
But that is not all. On the Israeli front, Hamas is slowly transforming itself from long-term antagonist to potential interlocutor. Its initial ambition was to replace Fateh/the PLO as a partner to Israel in war. Now, and without declaring itself as such, it may be moving towards positioning itself as a partner in ‘peace’. This view of Hamas may be both speculative and premature, but it chimes with a number of other developments. The first has to do with Hamas’s place in the emerging regional order and its position within the regional Muslim Brotherhood network. From this perspective Hamas slots nicely into the Sunni axis via its close relations with Egypt, Qatar and Turkey - indeed, a number of sharp observers have argued that, as the nationalist PA/PLO fades by dint of its failure and the biological expiry date of its leaders, the Sunni/Brotherhood axis will eventually posit Hamas as the ready-made alternative peace partner: not on the basis of the traditional comprehensive peace/end of conflict formula; but on the basis of Hamas’s Islamic concept of a long-term hudna that avoids dealing with all the hard existential issues (i.e. refugees) and where Israel is offered what it wants most (i.e. security) for a defined and renewable period of time: in return for mutual coexistence and Hamas’s freedom of action to rule. The prototype of this model may have already been tested in Gaza since November last year.
My reading is that Hamas and the Brotherhood have even more ambitious plans. They believe that when the moment is ripe they will move into the West Bank via Amman. With the Jordanian Brotherhood they will eventually take over both banks of the Jordan. Much is contingent on what happens in Syria, but if Assad goes they believe that they can inevitably take over in Jordan - one way or another. And through their presence on the East Bank, they believe that they will be able to exert their gravitational pull on the West Bank. Just as Cairo exerts its influence and draws in Gaza, so Amman will draw in Ramallah. This is the Brother’s strategic vision of their ‘two-state solution; its exact borders and extent remain fuzzy and highly speculative (exactly what part of the West Bank do they expect the Israelis to vacate on their behalf?). But this may well be the emerging Islamist version of the two-state solution whose boundaries and peoples are still in the process of being defined.
None of this is straight forward or irreversible. Hamas is not of one mind, and the residual pull of the Iranian-led axis of resistance remains strong, despite the Sunni/Shiite divide. While backed by Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood is having its own problems with leading elements of the Sunni axis, in particular with Saudi Arabia and the UAE who view the Brothers’ revolutionary aspirations with profound suspicion. Qatar and Turkey may be in line over Hamas but they are not entirely on the same page as Saudi Arabia who also has its own differences with them over Syria. Hamas’s elder ruling Brothers in Egypt have even gone so far as to flirt with Iran, simply to assert their independence from the Gulf.
And on another front, it would be a foolish analyst indeed who would claim that a potential breakthrough or at least ‘significant move’ in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process is impossible. The recent Qatari-led amendment to the Arab Peace Initiative and Secretary of State Kerry’s repeated visits to the area send a strong signal that something may be cooking behind the scenes. But what is clear is that the Gaza/West Bank divide poses more than a simple problem of reconciliation; it raises the issue of where Palestine’s borders are and what lies behind them.
Peace and borders
There can be no comprehensive deal without a clear determination of the borders between Palestine and Israel. These will be necessarily described as final and inviolable. But the harsh truth is that this is a-historical; since borders are rarely final in history, and the Arab world today offers us vivid illustration of this.
The presumption of final borders is essentially a Westphalian article of faith latterly revived by the attempt to build a stable world order in the wake of two world wars and the subsequent fear of nuclear war in the twentieth century. But even in Europe, the recent collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have demonstrated that border changes are as much a part of contemporary history as in the past. This is not to argue for the impermanence of a partition deal in Palestine, only to set it in its proper historical context. The finality of borders may be a political and psychological must but we should recognize it for what it is; a historical anomaly.
Historically as well, an agreement is unlikely to induce both sides to abandon their narrative about who they are, and where they come from. Indeed, a peace agreement is likely to accelerate the reconstruction of such a national narrative; particularly that of loss in the Palestinian case. Eventually, some revisionism may emerge but this will take a long time to take shape; it took approximately 50 years in Israel’s case, and yet the prevailing account of the birth of the state is still very firmly rooted within the parameters set by Leon Uris’s Exodus in 1958 (Lest I be accused of exaggeration please examine the classic Zionist tropes in President Obama’s speeches in Israel in March; from ‘making the desert bloom’, to ‘thriving democracy’ to rockets that fall on Jewish children simply because of ‘who they are and where they live.’).
We are not alone here, of course. The Turks, Serbs and many others have yet to begin to re-examine their past in any meaningful manner. Germany, thoroughly defeated, has deliberately opted for national contrition and has done well out of it. Japan, equally thoroughly defeated, has not followed the exact same path but has also done well, possibly because the scars of WW2 in the Far East have unfortunately had less impact on global consciousness than those in Europe. Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis have been defeated - or defeated soundly enough - to be contrite, so that aspect of conflict will remain unchanged. The Israelis have made strenuous efforts to memorialize their narrative, the Palestinians are in the process of doing so by building a national heritage museum; it contents will not please the Israelis now or after a peace settlement - if there ever is one.
We also have another internal border to worry about; that within Israel itself; I believe that the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel increasingly represent a likely future frontline, even if the other elements of the Palestinian national struggle may recede or proceed towards some shaky resolution. Their political discourse, language, and demands are understandable to many in the outside world: equal rights, equal citizenship, and a state for all the citizens have universal appeal - it is hard to argue against them as a matter of principle.
Today and on the eve of the 65th anniversary of the nakba, it appears to me that the Arab citizens of Israel have inherited much of the burden of Palestinian history. Their fight for ‘equality’ is likely to continue regardless, even (or particularly) in the aftermath of a two-state solution. But either way, the national issue is not going to fade away merely because of a final status agreement that defines the physical borders between the two sides. Any such agreement, however, should put an end to armed conflict and violence. It could open the door to progressive degrees of coexistence and mutual peaceful exchanges. It may also shift the conflict onto another non-violent plane. The hope must be is that this is a goal worth striving for.
This talk was first given at the LSE's Middle East Centre on May 13, 2013.