The present turmoil raging across the Middle East is unfolding on several levels, reflecting the multitude of forces and tensions involved. There is civil war in Syria, an insurrection in Iraq, domestic political unrest in Egypt and others countries and the relative peace that earlier existed between the majority Sunni and minority Shia communities have now been breached with break out of inter-religious conflict across the region. One way to understand this turmoil is as an exercise in fundamentally redrawing the region’s map. But the mapmakers have vastly different objectives.
The Middle East since World War I is the legacy of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the efforts of the European powers to redraw it in their interests. New states were created by Britain and France to reward wartime allies, to protect key imperial routes and to assure access to oil. But these new states rarely aligned with the tribal, religious or other realities of the region.
Thus were born Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and others. Some have established coherent political spaces, such as Jordan. Others were held together by force. The rulers and systems which did this in places like Iraq, Libya and Syria have been ousted or are under threat, and centrifugal forces are pulling these countries apart.
It seems likely that several of these countries will not survive. Syria and Iraq are foremost, but places like Yemen and Libya are not far behind. They will probably become several smaller states in the coming years, despite western policy preferences for their survival in their present form. It will be a messy few decades.
What will make it even messier is the fact that those vying to replace the existing order have differing aims. Some wish to achieve statehood in terms that we understand – the Westphalian model of sovereign political spaces. Even if some don’t like the idea of some of these peoples achieving statehood because it will complicate the regional picture, groups such as the Kurds do not seek to upset the present international system; they seek to join it. As the chaos of Syria descends even further, groups such as the Alawites may decide to seek their own sovereign spaces for protection.
Others are motivated by objectives incompatible with our conception of the international system. The Islamic State, Al Qaeda and others do not seek statehood as we understand it. Rather, they seek to establish a new order based on a misreading of a mythical idea to bind a community of believers together through common allegiance to religious precepts as to how society should function. It is the ideology of these groups which appears to have influenced those who have carried out the recent attacks in Canada and elsewhere.
Such groups will fail because they have nothing but brutality to offer; they cannot deliver the services that people expect. The likely trajectory for these groups is eventual disintegration into ever smaller groups of extremists, fighting each other as much as anyone else, with considerable attendant chaos and bloodshed. But, in the meantime, they represent a capable set of forces bound together by deeply-held goals. Those seeking to redraw the map along Westphalian lines are fighting each other as much as anyone else.
The making of the new Middle East map can thus be understood, at least in part, as the collapse of the post-Ottoman order, which has unleashed a violent confrontation between those who seek to draw the region’s map based on the idea of statehood, and those who seek to establish another kind of order in the region. The latter seem to have the upper hand in the fighting, for now.
Policy based on fear
The current U.S. policy that countries like Iraq, Syria and others should remain unified is based on a fear that complicated new realities will emerge if they disintegrate. But those complications are already here. Moreover, the West is manifestly unwilling to use the levels of force that would be required to achieve its goals; to put ‘boots on the ground’ over a long period in sufficient numbers to keep existing states together.
The U.S. also says, at least for now, that it is unwilling to countenance the return, or continuation in power, of the kinds of leaders who have shown that they could keep these spaces together, such as Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad. This may change as and if the Islamic State and others continue to spread. By initiating air strikes, the U.S.-led coalition has effectively thrown in with at least some of those seeking to remake the region along Westphalian lines (turning a blind eye to the fact that most of the new states that emerge will probably not be democratic bastions of human rights). It does this in order to help them stop those who see a very different future for the region; one of constant sectarian and religious bloodshed in the service of mythical goals which justify terror and brutality on a level which makes any civilized person shudder. Success is far from certain, and the strikes may just make things worse.
The current turmoil has the prospect to make for new alliances. Iran is as much concerned by the way things are unfolding as we are. Revolutionary rhetoric aside, Iran is a profoundly status-quo power when it comes to questions of sovereignty and statehood. If the nuclear impasse can be breached, the collapse of a regional order may make for some interesting bedfellows.
Peter Jones is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, and an Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
This article first appeared in The Hindu, one of India’s largest newspaper. Click here to go to the original.
Filled under: Middle East, World