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Posts tagged ‘Fred Kaplan’

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.

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.