One hundred years ago this week, on May 8, 1916, the Englishman Sir Mark Sykes and the Frenchman François Georges-Picot secretly signed a map destroying what was left of the Ottoman Empire. Today, the frontiers they crafted have collapsed, creating an opportunity to logically redraw national borders. But will the US lead?
Several days ago, Major General (res.) Noam Tibon, former head of the IDF Northern Corps, paper published an astonishing opinion article in which called for a re-division of Syria and Iraq into four new countries, along ethnic and religious lines. Only such a sweeping re-drawing of borders, he argued, could provide a new sense of security to the warring peoples of the region.
Indeed, the old colonial framework that formed Iraq, Syria and the other fragile nations of the modern Middle East has expired. One hundred years ago this week, on May 8, 1916, the Englishman Sir Mark Sykes and the Frenchman François Georges-Picot secretly signed a map destroying what was left of the Ottoman Empire.
Lebanon was chiseled out of Syria. Mosul and Baghdad were cobbled into Iraq. Palestine was handed to the British, who already had promised it to the Jews. The Kurds were completely stiffed, even though geographically and ethnically they were already then a distinct group living on easily-demarcated territory.
The English and French carved-up the region in order to thwart each other’s imperial aims, heedless of the human and political realities on the ground. The gross straight lines they drew across the region created artificial states that held together for a century only by repression.
But now Iraq and Syria have completely disintegrated into sectarian warfare, drawing in interventions by multiple regional and international forces. They longer exist as unitary states; they never will again; nor should they.
Yemen and Libya fall in the same category. These “countries” exist only virtually. They each have a vote at the United Nations and still appear in atlases and online maps, but basically they have passed from this world permanently. At the moment, they are ungoverned areas, as is much of the Sinai Peninsula – where ISIS and Al Qaeda hold sway. These areas are breeding zones for terrorism and international criminal activity.
Add to the chaotic mix the Hamas takeover of Gaza, Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon, and ISIS insurgency in Iraq and Syria – which threatens additional states like Jordan. There also are well-functioning Kurdish mini-states in Iraq and Syria. These are realities that will not be dislodged any time soon. We are faced with a completely transformed Middle East, with more convulsions to be expected.
Then there is the question of Israel’s borders, which because of 68 years of Arab rejectionism never have been agreed upon. As Prime Minister Netanyahu is increasingly emphasizing – sometimes explicitly (regarding the Golan) and sometimes implicitly (regarding Judea and Samaria) – it is illogical to expect Israel to revert to the 1949 armistice lines. The Palestinians seem incapable of ever forming the stable and democratic, demilitarized and peaceful state that many Israelis and the international community dreamt of.
WHAT SHOULD emerge from the rubble? General Tibon sees a new Sunni state in western Iraq and eastern Syria, once ISIS is knocked out of commission; a Shiite state in southeast Iraq, under Iranian influence; a Kurdish state in northern Syria and Iraq and perhaps part of southern Turkey; and an Alawite state in the Damascus region and along the Syrian coastline.
Other thinkers from the Israeli mainstream have begun talking again of an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian confederated structure for the West Bank.
These suggested contours will meet significant resistance, and they are not the only possible outlines of a reframed Middle East. Statesmen can also reference the new thinking on this matter offered by Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman (“New permutations in the Mideast game of camps”) and Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror (“Perfect Storm: The Implications of Middle East Chaos”) of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies; by Thanassis Cambanis (“The Middle East’s fading frontiers”) of the Century Foundation; by Jacob Olidort (“Rethinking how we rethink political Islam”) of the Washington Institute, and more.
In any case, there is no positive vector possible unless somebody assumes global leadership of an effort to think about new diplomatic structures in order to cure the mistakes and injustices of a century ago.
JUST WHO might that global leader be?
It ought to be the United States. David Ignatius pointed out recently in The Washington Post (“How to put the Middle East back together”) that at least a year before the end of WWII, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had the foresight to begin thinking carefully about the institutions that would maintain peace and security after the war. He began detailed planning for the IMF, UN and World Bank.
Today too, even before the war against ISIS (and the struggle against imperial Iran) is concluded, American should lead a global consultation on the foundations of a new order for the Mideast that can provide better security, governance, economic well-being and ethnic-national freedom for Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites, and for smaller minorities interwoven into the region, like Israelis and Christians.
I’m not talking about an imperialist fix for the Middle East, nor suggesting that new borders are a panacea for the radical and retrograde ideologies that afflict the Arab-Islamic world. Nevertheless, coherent new nation-state structures are in formation, and wise global statesmanship can steer a transition towards greater stability.
But with American “inwardism” on the rise, it is not clear that American leadership for such an effort will be available. Josef Joffee of the Hoover Institution sees a long, nasty and brutish wave of American isolationism taking root.
Evidence Donald Trump’s “America First” rhetoric along with his willingness to let NATO “break-up,” Japan “defend itself,” and Israel “manage without” US military aid. Then there is Bernie Sanders’ “welfarist isolationism”; expanding entitlements at home at the expense of everything strategic and international.
And Hillary Clinton? She cheered Obama’s failure to hold his “red line” on Syria’s use of chemical weapons, and backed the P5+1 sell-out to Iran. While she occasionally sounds the “traditional trumpet” about US leadership (as Joffe terms it), Clinton hardly seems a spectacular candidate to lead a sagacious Great Power effort to craft a new balance of power in the Middle East or elsewhere.
The world needs America to snap out of its Barack Obama-induced stupor and malaise. It needs America to lead.