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Remapping the Middle East, Part II

By Taylor Marvin

In what is apparently a popular sub-genre, last week the New York Times published a map by Robin Wright speculating how Libya, Syria, Iraq, and other Middle Eastern countries could soon split along sectarian, ethnic, and regional lines. After the destabilizing Arab spring and widening Syrian war, Wright writes, “countries could unravel through phases of federation, soft partition or autonomy, ending in geographic divorce.” Citing the Syrian civil war, regional sectarian rivalries, and the unresolved legacy of colonial borders imposed by the British and French after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, Wright speculates that Saudi Arabia could divide into five new independent states, Yemen could once again split in two, and that a formally independent Kurdish state could emerge in northern Syria and Iraq.

middle east map

Click through to the New York Times for labels.

On Twitter, Kal of the blog The Moor Next Door criticized the Wright’s speculation, noting that it, like many popular conceptions of Middle Eastern violence, attributes the region’s weak states to to sectarianism rather than the colonial mandate system and historical regionalism. Worse is the map’s use of the Persian “-stan” suffix to name hypothetical states like “Sunnistan”, “Shiitestan”, and “Wahhabistan” — with no relevance to these Arabic-speaking countries, the “stan” suffix is perhaps only used because the term Kurdistan entered the American lexicon after the invasion of Iraq and hey, it’s the Middle East, right?

Aside from these objections, Wright’s analysis does reflect a broadly-held theory that the borders imposed by the 1916 Sykes–Picot Agreement are uniquely unstable and are at the start of process of violent reorganization. In a March piece in Slate Fred Kaplan wrote that the US invasion of Iraq accelerated the “collapse” of the Middle East’s system of colonial borders, questioning how “far this unraveling goes” and whether new borders will “be drawn up at some point, conforming to some historically ‘natural’ sectarian divisions”; at the time I doubted that the last decade was a sufficient catalyst for the change Kaplan predicted. This August David W. Lesch asked whether the Syrian war heralded the end of the Sykes–Picot borders, concluding that “we seem to be witnessing much of the Levant returning to its constituent parts, where the nation-state as a unit of analysis may no longer be valid.”

What I think is most interesting about the redraw-the-Middle-East theory is while many apparently agrees that Middle Eastern countries’ artificial borders are due for violent revision, as Kaplan noted there is absolutely no consensus on even the broad outlines of a redrawn map of the Middle East. While Wright imagines Saudi Arabia perhaps splitting into five regions, a September 2012 piece by Frank Jacobs and Parag Khanna — again published in the Times — imagined Saudi Arabia uniting with Yemen, Oman, and the Gulf States into an Arab Gulf Union “to counter the rising Iranian threat”; or exactly the opposite! In a 2006 piece in the Armed Forces Journal, Ralph Peters presented another view of a redrawn Middle East.* While Peters’ analysis presented simply a view of how a “better Middle East would look” rather than a prediction of future border changes, it is notable that Peters’ map again looks nothing like Wright’s or Jacobs and Khanna’s. Yemen grows rather than shrinks, and southern Iraq’s “Shiitestan” (to use Wright’s term) gains Iranian territory, as does Azerbaijan. Like in Wright’s and Jacobs and Khanna’s analysis coastal Syria splits from the country, though here it is incorporated into a “Greater Lebanon” rather than an independent Alawite-dominated state.

The Project for the New Middle East

Map by Ralph Peters, 2006.

In my mind these maps reveal more about the biases of the year in which they were created than any truths about the Middle East. Peters’ map was devised in 2006, and it is easy to see his shrunken Iran as suffering from the era’s strong US animosity towards towards the country (though again, it is important to note that Peters is not attempting to predict the future) even though during the Iran-Iraq War Iran’s Arab-settled western Khuzestan province did not rebel to the extent that Saddam Hussein’s invasion plans counted on. Similarly, Jacobs and Khanna’s map shows Azerbaijan gaining Iranian territory despite the fact that Iran’s Azeri minority is not particularly restive and the Iranian state, counter to Jacobs and Khanna’s claim, is not at risk of “implosion”. Today the Syrian conflict has brought the Alawite minority’s domination of Syria to wide attention, so now Alawites gain a state, as may well be a result of the Syrian war. But complicating this possibility is a very real chance that in the event of a rebel victory, in Steve Saideman’s words, “the folks who win in Syria are not going to let their former oppressors escape, especially if they take the coastline along with them” and no one knows how a stalemate could affect Syria’s de jure borders.

Similarly, while Peters’ depiction of a large independent Kurdistan is perhaps only just, it also reflects the dynamics of the US occupation of Iraq that made Turkey unpopular in American circles, Kurds close US allies, and attracted widespread popular sympathy to their cause. Wright’s contemporary prediction that the de facto independent Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq could one day unite into a formally independent state completely glosses over the problem of Turkish and Iranian objections — two of the region’s most powerful players, and both of which have a strong incentive to block the emergence of an independent Kurdish state that could stoke nationalism among their own Kurdish minorities.

Again, all of this isn’t to say that the artificially-imposed borders of the Middle East aren’t an impediment to state consolidation, or to criticize different authors for their differing speculations about the future. But I do think it is telling that these three views about what the “right” or “future” Middle East would look like differ so substantially. Modern observers frequently joke about arrogantly oblivious European diplomats dividing the Middle East with straight lines drawn between letters on a map. But predicting that the region will divide based on a bird’s-eye view of “natural” sectarian distributions strikes me as perhaps similarly misguided — after all, it is the same logic that Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini followed during the Iran-Iraq war, to disastrous results.

*Peters apparently expands on this argument in a book that I have not read.

Updated for clarity.

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