THE MIDDLE EAST AND ITS SANDY BORDERS
of the outstanding issues for the future of the Middle East is
whether the present-day configuration of States and micro-States
will continue to exist once the ISIS is defeated. The advent of
the caliphate has had the side-effect of re-igniting a series of
social, ethnic and religious contradictions that had been
forgotten for over a century, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed.
After all, the current regional layout was negotiated by two
individuals: a French diplomat, Marie Denis George Picot, and a
British politician, Mark Sykes. The secret deal they signed on May
19, 1916, the so-called Sykes-Picot agreement, split the Middle
East between French and British spheres of influence, regardless
of what the locals thought. Following the Bolshevik revolution,
Lenin was the first one to expose the deal after he found a copy
in the Tzar’s archives.
Each country pursued its own strategic interests. The UK was looking to create a territorial and maritime contiguity with India. While France aimed at preserving its historic links with Lebanon and the shores facing the Mediterranean. At no time were the tribes, religious groups or people taken into account. So it was that Paris took control of present-day Syria, Lebanon and part of northern Iraq. While London extended its influence over Jordan, Iraq, the zone around Haifa and the harbor of Alexandretta, that became a free port. The irony is that the Sykes-Picot agreement was never ratified by the respective Parliaments.
François Georges-Picot and Mark Sykes
The end of World War I
At the end of the World War I, the colonial powers decided to implement what they had agreed upon. The Sanremo Conference (April 1920), the Sèvres Treaty (August 10, 1920) and the Lausanne one (1923) split up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. What was left intact was Turkey, then led by Kemal Ataturk, and any hopes for the creation of an independent Kurdish entity were shattered.
The next step taken was to entrust the colonial powers with the mandate to rule over the region. And this is what the League of Nations did, giving France control over Lebanon and Syria, and the UK over Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan (present-day Jordan plus the West Bank). The international mandate basically replaced the generic sphere of influence and granted a legal status to the colonizers. The ultimate aim was to lead these countries to independence.
But the Balfour Declaration (November 1917) went in the opposite direction when it fueled the creation of a Jewish home for the Zionists, while, at the same time, supporting Hashemite king Hussein ibn Ali al Hashemi. This is how Israel was born and why the rest of the region was thorn to pieces.
The Middle East we know today was the result of successive agreements, wars and peace deals.
Lines traced on the sand
If we observe the region on a map, the mosaic portraying Arab countries is composed by a series of straight lines. Borders were drawn on paper and, in some cases, amended to allow a country to have access to the sea, like Jordan and its 15km stretch facing the Gulf of Aqaba or Iraq. Stateless nomadic families suddenly found themselves on the opposite side of a border they had never known before. The same thing happened for religious groups and holy sites. Almost none of these countries could actually trace a history of its people because it had none.
One of Sykes’ proposals – which was not put into practice – was to put central Palestine, i.e. Galilee and Hebron where the holiest sites of Islam, Christianity and Judaism are concentrated, under international jurisdiction. Had we done so, the Palestinian issues could have been prevented.
As expected, at the end of the international mandates, colonial powers failed to lead the people they had been entrusted with to emancipation after centuries of Ottoman rule. No one taught them democracy, human rights or how to build consensus. The colonizers were just colonizers. And in countries like Syria, for instance, the international mandate was imposed by brute force.
It is on these basis that after World War II the Middle East continued along the same lines. A military coup in Syria in 1966 paved the way for the rise of Hafez Assad, a series of putsches in Iraq saw Saddam Hussein take over, the same happened in Egypt, while uprisings and wars in Palestine and against Israel re-drew the boundaries of the region, while Emirates in the Gulf consolidated their dynastic and authoritarian rule. The combination of these elements made the Middle East one of the most turbulent areas in the world.
Questions on the future
The Gulf Wars and the rise of the Islamic State acted as a detonator for a geopolitical context that had been artificially created through non-existent borders and social, ethnic and religious incompatibilities. The problem is now whether it will be possible to mend the ties that were broken by sectarianism.
There are a number of questions we should pose ourselves. After 6 years of civil war in Syria, will Alawites and Sunnis be capable of living together again? After WWI the French were thinking of splitting the country in two: Christian and Alawites on one end, Sunnis on the other.
Can the Kurds continue to live in someone else’s country without a State of their own? In early March, Iraqi Kurdistan’s president, Masoud Barzani, has stated his region has become incompatible with the rest of Iraq. After having fought against ISIS, will Syrian Kurds be part of a Federal Syria, or will they try to break away? And will the Kurds in Turkey continue to fight a PKK-led insurgency, or will they seek some form of coexistence with the authorities in Ankara?
Sectarian violence in Iraq, before and after the rise of the Islamic State, has thorn Iraqi Sunnis and Shia apart. After so much blood has been spilled, will they be capable of forgiving? Will a Federal Iraq be enough or will the country dissolve? A number of minorities, who also happen to have their own militia, have begun to demand greater self-rule, such as the Turkmen, Assyrians, Christians and Yazidis.
As far as Lebanon is concerned, its institutional frailty was created on purpose by the French. Will the idea of splitting up power along religious lines (as stated by the first Constitution the country enacted in 1926, and then confirmed in 1943) ensure a united Lebanon despite the demographics have changed? The land of the Cedars has not held a census since 1932. And how will the Hezbollah behave once they return home after they have defeated the ISIS?
Furthermore, will the Palestinians ever obtain independence as stated by a number of UN Resolutions? And how big will their country be? These and more questions will shape the future of the region. What we can be sure about is that nothing will ever be the same again.