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Artificial Boundaries and Durable Borders

By Taylor Marvin

T.E. Lawrence's proposed redrawing of the Middle East, via NPR.

T.E. Lawrence’s proposed redrawing of the Middle East, via NPR.

In his reflection on the tenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, Slate’s Fred Kaplan makes the interesting claim that the Iraq War has accelerated the eventual reordering of the Middle East’s artificial states. The borders of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and others, Kaplan argues, are only relics of the arbitrary divisions imposed by European colonialists after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. These boundaries ignore the ethnic and cultural geography they overlay, and have only survived for so long because autocratic rulers, mostly supported by outsiders, have successfully suppressed independence movements. These are all familiar arguments, and extend to so-called “artificial states” outside of the Middle East. In a recent paper Alberto Alesina, William Easterly, and Janina Matuszeski identified a number of the world’s most artificial national boundaries: of Middle Eastern states only Jordan ranked among the most artificial. But Kaplan expands the argument that artificial boundaries encourage conflict into the prediction that not only are the Middle East’s divisions unstable, the Iraq War’s Shiite-Sunni infighting has precipitated its wider reorganization:

“The question is how far this unraveling goes. Will civil wars erupt in one artificial state after another? That is, will the path of Syria be followed by Lebanon, then Jordan, then (hard as it may be to imagine) Saudi Arabia? Will Sunnis or Shiites, or both, take their sectarian fights across the borders to the point where the borders themselves collapse? If so, will new borders be drawn up at some point, conforming either to some historically ‘natural’ sectarian divisions?”

Kaplan is a perceptive analyst, and his reflections on the Bush administration’s criminal lack of foresight —  “if our leaders are going to intervene in another country’s fate, they should have some understanding of the country’s politics, history, and culture… ahead of time” — are insightful. But predicting a general reordering of Middle Eastern borders is something else entirely. Despite the artificiality of the region’s borders, their broad reorganization doesn’t seem particularly likely in the near-term, for a number of reasons.*

First, established states are often inherently durable entities. Redrawing the region’s borders to reflect sectarian and ethnic divisions would imply nearly all states losing territory, or being subsumed by larger bodies. It is difficult to imagine this process actually occurring, even violently — artificially conceived borders do not mandate failed states unable to retain their territory. As Steve Saideman recently remarked, “secession is damned hard” because “countries resist losing pieces of themselves.” For example, incorporating Iran’s Arab-majority southwestern border region into Arab-dominated Iraq would be sensible from an apolitical bird’s-eye view, sure. But there’s no reason to think Iran’s leaders would willingly sacrifice their territory, or that Iraqi Arabs would successfully take and hold it (as indeed, they failed to do during the Iran-Iraq War). Even accepting the argument that the Arab Spring has weakened state capacity throughout the Arab Middle East, national leaders still have strong incentives to keep their states together, and retain their ability to threaten or cajole potential secessionists.

Secondly, timing. Despite decades of predictions that their inherent instability makes reorganization imminent, colonial-imposed divisions in the Middle East and Africa have (mostly) endured for a half century. Given this durability it’s unlikely that these national boundaries will collapse in the near future. If the primarily Shiite-Sunni sectarian conflict the American invasion of Iraq became is the spark that leads to a general unraveling of the region’s borders, why didn’t this unraveling occur after the Iran-Iraq War? Though the majority of the war’s Iraqi combatants were Shiite, the conflict was framed by both sides’ leaderships as a general Shiite-Sunni conflict, and one that was significantly more intense than the Iraqi civil war. Despite the destabilizing effect of the Arab Spring, it’s difficult to imagine a reason why the region is significantly more vulnerable to conflict-driven reorganization today than any other moment in the last half-century.

Third, it’s similarly difficult to imagine a path from presumed widespread sectarian conflict to reorganized state borders. Kaplan simply questions whether reorganized borders would be the result of “new battles”, but who exactly would fight these border-redrawing battles, and why? Majority Shiite Iran and Iraq against other, Sunni-dominated states? Why would the internal sectarian struggles Kaplan imagines lead to the kind of state-on-state conventional warfare that has been largely absent from the region for the last two decades? How would this warfare result in new borders, especially when successful territorial conquests have been extremely rare in the postwar era?

Also notable is the absence of the word “Kurd” from Kaplan’s piece. As Saideman again noted, the Kurds are the largest stateless ethnic group in the region, but it is similarly difficult to imagine a pathway to an independent Kurdish state outside of Iraqi Kurdistan — if a Kurdistan incorporating Turkish territory is currently unfeasible, doesn’t this imply that the region’s other borders could be more durable than Kaplan supposes?

Again, it’s possible that the colonial-imposed borders of the Middle East are so inherently unstable that they will someday be broadly reordered. But this reorganization process would entail an extremely bloody conventional state-on-state conflict more comparable to one of the many European World Wars than the Iraqi civil war. Thankfully, there’s little reason to expect that this process has already begun.

*Kaplan bases his argument on David Fromkin’s 1989 book A Peace to End All Peacewhich I have not read.

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