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Post-Ottoman map of Middle East must be dumped Comment on this post ↓
October 2nd, 2013 by Warren Swil

Strife in Syria threatens

region’s artificial nation-states

How to get there from here?

The map of the Ottoman Empire before World War I. It’s remnants are imploding. Click image to enlarge.

DESPITE THE HOPEFUL developments over chemical weapons in Syria, the sectarian strife in that strategically located country is spilling over into neighboring Iraq.
In fact, it’s causing instability in the entire region as ethnic and religious rivalries turn violent in country after country.
It seems as if the remnants of the Ottoman empire created by the British and French colonialists a century ago are imploding as nationalism fails and each country’s internal divisions fissure into armed conflict.
The process is spiraling out of control. Unless some mechanism is found to make the re-drawing of national boundaries more realistic, the world could witness five “countries” splitting into as many as 14 ethnic and religious enclaves, each with long-standing grievances against their neighbors and a propensity for violent retribution.

THE VIOLENCE IN SYRIA has not diminished at all since the U.S. and Russia – and the United Nations – made a deal to disarm President Bashar al-Assad of his chemical weapons.
The evidence is not hard to find: it is making headlines daily, like In Pushing Its Own Agenda for Syria, a Qaeda Franchise Turns Rebels Into Enemies from The New York Times on Tuesday.

The story Tuesday in The New York Times about intensifying carnage in Syria. Click image to enlarge.

Ben Hubbard reports from Lebanon: “Fighters from the fastest-growing Qaeda franchise in Syria have repeatedly clashed with other rebel brigades, seizing towns, replacing crosses on churches with black flags and holding classes to teach Syrian children about the importance of battling “infidels,” meaning anyone who is not a Sunni Muslim.
“Since the group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, announced its presence in Syria this year, it has emerged as the leading force for the foreign fighters streaming into the country, exploiting the chaos of the civil war as it tries to lay the groundwork for an Islamic state.”
We have written about the need for a long-term solution repeatedly since June.
We first suggested it June 18 in Are Ottoman Empire remnants imploding?
Then again, when the violence flared in Egypt in August, in Islamists vs. secularists: Battle between world views
Then, on Sept. 19, after a 10-day trip to the region prompted by the threat of a U.S. strike on Syria, it was Map must be redrawn to reflect ethno-religious realities on the ground

The most significant, insightful and detailed story on the topic was buried deep inside The New York Times on Sunday.
Imagining a Remapped Middle East was written by Robin Wright, author of “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World” and a distinguished scholar at the United States Institute of Peace and the Wilson Center.

The Guardian in the U.K. noted explicitly on Tuesday the violence spreading from Syria to Iraq. Click image to enlarge.

“[T]he longer Syria’s war rages on, the greater the instability and dangers for the whole region,” Wright concluded.
The rest of her thesis-like exposition is remarkable for its depth, clarity and comprehensiveness.
“Syria’s prime location and muscle make it the strategic center of the Middle East. But it is a complex country, rich in religious and ethnic variety, and therefore fragile.”
That’s a bit of an understatement; it is already fragmented, and the factions are killing thousands of “fellow-Syrians” every day.
“Syria has crumbled into three identifiable regions, each with its own flag and security forces,” she continues.
“Syria’s unraveling would set precedents for the region, beginning next door … But Syria is now sucking Iraq into its maelstrom.”
Americans are not as familiar as they should be with the violence that has engulfed Iraq since the Bush/Cheney administration’s disastrous invasion in 2003.
This internecine warfare has intensified of late, with many already calling it a civil war.
Wright then notes an important relationship between the two so-called countries:
“Over time, Iraq’s Sunni minority — notably in western Anbar Province, site of anti-government protests — may feel more commonality with eastern Syria’s Sunni majority.”
With this she nails the omnipresent problem with the entire region: the boundaries of Syria and Iraq were artificially imposed by British and French colonialists right after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. They were drawn without regard for religious and ethnic divisions.
Thus, the Kurds – a cohesive tribal unit – were split amongst four countries.
Now they are reasserting their identity.
“The dominant political parties in the two Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq have longstanding differences, but when the border opened in August, more than 50,000 Syrian Kurds fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, creating new cross-border communities,” Wright observes.
There also are large Kurdish minorities in Turkey and Iran, and they are stirring.
“Massoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, has also announced plans for the first summit meeting of 600 Kurds from some 40 parties in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran this fall,” Wright reports.
She includes the artificial nations of Yemen and Saudi Arabia in her analysis, and postulates they too could be ripe for subdivision into ethnic or religious enclaves.

THE PROBLEM, however, is getting there from here. The devil is in the details.
Under whose auspices will Syria be partitioned? Will Iran – chief sponsor of the Assad regime – and Saudi Arabia (upon whose largesse the rebels depend) agree to it?

TIME’s report Tuesday that the death toll in Syria has reached 115, 000

Turkey, which has been battling its own Kurdish insurrection for decades, might object to the new “country” of Kurdistan on its doorstep. It’s highly unlikely to voluntarily surrender any territory – unless, perhaps, the alternative was conflagration of the entire region.
Iraq’s Shiite majority certainly doesn’t want to see oil-rich Kurdistan break away. Iran may prefer to hang onto a weak and violent Syria than be satisfied with just the Alawaite strip along the north coast.
The problems are huge. But, they are in essence political problems of a bygone era.
The Arab Spring reawakened a yearning for self-determination in countries ranging from Libya in the west through the entire arc of the southeastern Mediterranean to Ankara, in Turkey.
Either the west can stand by idly and watch the region implode, with the death, destruction and global economic fallout that entails, or we can try to contain the damage through cajoling, threats and diplomacy.
Men and women of good conscience everywhere should begin a serious discussion of this vitally important, globally significant development of historic proportions. It is not too late to start the debate.

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3 Responses  
  • PierreGarenne writes:
    October 3rd, 2013

    Much appreciated Robin’s accurate and perspicacious article. As a complement I suggest we need to analyse what US strategy could be taking the following points into account amongst others:

    Given the civil war in Syria, and that Assad is anything but a democratic leader with majority support within his realm, that he is a member of the Alawite Shiites who comprise some 15%-20% of Syrians; his regime would appear to have committed serious war crimes…

    Given that Saudi Arabia was “invented” by the British in the early 1930’s out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and subsequently “taken over” by the US, and is now an autocratic Sunnite monarchy. It appears to provide financial and other support, largely informally, to Al Qaeda and to other Sunni regimes or groups throughout the Middle East… It would itself appear to be potentially threatened by Al Qaeda-type Salafist and other fundamentalist groups within its own borders as well as its large Shiite minority. It has provided armed forces to support the Sunni Bahrain government in labor disputes with the latter’s Shiite minority. Sunnis comprise around 80% of Muslims world-wide including the ruling “sheikdoms” on both sides of the Red Sea: in East Africa and the Persian Gulf, Pakistan, the Taliban… These regimes are anything but democratic and exploit and suppress Shiite and other minorities in their countries. The government the US set up in Iraq is Shiite and threatened by Sunni Al Qaeda and minority Sunni inhabitants supported by powerful sections in Saudi Arabia…

    Given that ME Sunni countries have for decades been the Western world’s primary suppliers of petrol they often have close links with US, English… decision-makers… These relations will most likely evolve significantly with the advent of the US’s energy sufficiency…

    Given that Sunni leaders have close relations of many different kinds with some US politicians and corporations including US arms and oil companies and those providing US security and other paramilitary services throughout the ME…
    Given that the CIA’s past own-account and freelance activities in the area have left its imprint on US foreign relations and foreign policy…

    What is the State Department’s strategy for the larger region? How will it coordinate its strategy and objectives with the CIA, the Defense Department and other US paramilitary quasi-government organizations which may have differing objectives?

    What are its specific short and medium-term objectives and how does it propose to achieve them at what cost? Then back to Robin’s map!!!

    • Warren writes:
      October 3rd, 2013

      Wow! You raise some fascinating questions … I wish I had some good answers!
      Of course the geo-polticis of oil plays a major role.
      But the US is rapidly becoming independent of Saudi oil, in fact may surpass it as the world’s largest producer by 2020!
      Trouble is, very few that I know of are even THINKING about re-drawing the map.
      There is very little evidence anywhere that I can find that this is a serious topic of debate.
      Robin’s article was the first (well, my post of June 18 may have been the first!) serious analysis.
      (Maybe NYT will follow with some NEWS analysis of the topic … it should.)
      I am hoping that a serious discussion of this topic will begin.
      Thank you Pierrre for your thoughtful contribution.

  • Fossil fella writes:
    October 4th, 2013

    Let them implode, that’s what I say.
    Then we can go in and steal all their oil.
    Bush should’ve waited 10 years.


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