After 100 years,
it’s time to
redraw the map
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is at the center or untold and unnecessary massive human suffering.
During the five years of civil war that has destroyed what once was Syria, the list of failed nation states has dangerously multiplied.
Territories where government is unable to function at even a basic level for most citizens now include Iraq, Libya and Yemen. Others like Afghanistan, Somalia and South Sudan teeter on the precipice.
As the hundredth anniversary of the French-British-Russian pact that carved up the Middle East approaches in May, it is time for a radical, new approach that acknowledges this reality.
In most failed states, partition has become a fact on the ground. The sooner this is politically recognized, the sooner we can find a way out of endless war costing hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.
The nineteenth-century notion that these artificially assembled collections of warring religious and ethnic fiefdoms could ever endure as functioning nation states is obsolete.
A map of the Ottoman Empire in 1914. Note how much of the territory is now embroiled in violent conflict. Click image to enlarge.
The rough outlines of the national boundaries in the Middle East date to the Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916, which divided spheres of influence among the British and French with the agreement of Russia after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire.
Of most immediate concern is Syria, where President Obama just quintupled the number of US troops and ISIS controls vast swaths of territory. Neighboring Iraq is hardly better off despite Vice President Joe Biden’s drop-in this week. In Iraq, the central government effectively controls only one-third of the “country.”
The situation has deteriorated significantly since we broached this topic in Artificial nation states created in colonial times are not “countries” in June 2013.
Russia has propped up the Assad regime in Syria, ISIS has emerged as a global menace, Libya has three competing “governments” and Yemen has been pulverized by Saudi Arabia, which itself is faltering after the collapse in oil prices.
Despite its high risks and the difficulties with implementation, the “P” word (“partition”) has slowly crept into the international lexicon in recent months.
Frustrated at the repeated failure of peace talks in Geneva, even the US
Secretary of State John Kerry’s remark on partition of Syria was reported in The Guardian. Click image to enlarge.
secretary of state raised it in testimony before Congress in February.
The Guardian story John Kerry says partition of Syria could be part of ‘plan B’ if peace talks fail of February 23 reported it this way:
“John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has said he will move towards a plan B that could involve a partition of Syria if a planned ceasefire due to start in the next few days does not materialize, or if a genuine shift to a transitional government does not take place in the coming months.
“It may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria if we wait much longer,” he told the US Senate foreign relations committee on Tuesday.
Kerry is not the only one with impeccable credentials to raise the issue at least as it pertains to Syria.
Retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral and NATO supreme allied commander James Stavridis did so in his article It’s Time to Seriously Consider Partitioning Syria on March 9 in Foreign Policy magazine.
“What is increasingly apparent amid all this misery is that Syria as a nation is increasingly a fiction,” he wrote. “It is utterly riven by the civil war that has raged for three years, and large chunks of it are ruled by disparate actors with no allegiance and often bitter enmity toward what remains of the sovereign state. Like Humpty Dumpty in the children’s nursery rhyme, the odds of putting Syria back together again into a functioning entity appear very low. It is time to consider a partition.”
Splitting up Syria would not be easy nor without seriously distasteful compromises.
It would leave President Bashar al-Assad with a rump Alawite state along the coast, and might prompt the Kurds to demand an independent enclave carved from both Syria and Iraq. Neither Turkey not the Saudis would be happy with either of these.
Indeed, it might also involve separating the Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq (optimistically, perhaps under a federal system) and dividing Yemen along sectarian lines.
The task would be enormously complicated and require cooperation among a range of distrustful rivals all vying for their share of the pie.
But the current stalemate is clearly resulting in unspeakable human suffering on a vast scale with global consequences.
Redrawing the map will take statesmanship not seen in generations and serious goodwill from disparate parties. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that doing nothing is not an option. Realignment of national boundaries might be the best outcome possible.
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