Caution: Middle East Under Construction

Popular uprisings and internecine hostilities will lead to the redrawing of regional maps, which will be a far cry from those underlying the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement and other accords

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
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Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

The struggles for survival of Libyan Col. Muammar Gadhafi, Syrian President Bashar Assad and their counterparts elsewhere herald the last days of the Sykes-Picot agreement from World War I, which in effect divided the region of the Middle East into separate states. Now it is apparent that maps drawn in the coming years will show new or renewed independent states such as South Sudan; Kurdistan; Palestine; maybe also Cyrenaica in eastern Libya; the Western Sahara, which will no longer be in Moroccan hands; reconstructed Southern Yemen; and Gulf states that will separate from the United Arab Emirates. It's even possible that there will be a split in Saudi Arabia between "the state of the holy sites" in the Hejaz and the petroleum powers in the east, and of Syria into Sunni, Alaouite and Druze states. The basis for these divisions will be implementation of the principle of self-definition of nations and tribes, which until now unwillingly and without any alternative have been wrapped up together in the same national package with their foes.

The foreign policy of Israel, even before statehood, has always been built upon the rivalries of Arab and Muslim neighbors. Furthermore, pan-Arab and pan-Islamic unity has relied to a great extent on hostility toward Israel, which for its part has preferred the separatism and nationalism of its neighbors. The more states there are in the region in the future, the easier it will be for Israel to maneuver among them.

Libyan rebels in Ajdabiya, eastern Libya. The West will not try to thwart the process of fission in the region.Credit: AP

The borders in the Middle East were determined between 1916 and 1922 in negotiations involving the European powers, conducted in majestic palaces by officials wearing suits and ties. Those borders are being redrawn in the 21st century by force, by wars and by popular uprisings. This began with America's invasion of Iraq eight years ago, which crushed the central regime and created de facto ethnic enclaves. It continued with the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which led to the establishment of a de facto state controlled by Hamas, and later with the referendum on the partitioning of Sudan at the end of a long and cruel internecine war there. The process has been accelerated with the recent revolutions in the Arab countries, which are still in their early stages and have already led to a war in Libya.

In his new book "How to Run the World" (Random House ), which was published just before the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Parag Khanna, a researcher at the New America Foundation, predicts a world comprising 300 independent, sovereign nations in the next few decades, as compared to about 200 today. At the basis of this fission is what Khanna has called "post-colonial entropy": Many states have developed from former colonies, he observes, and since their independence have "experienced unmanageable population growth, predatory and corrupt dictatorship, crumbling infrastructure and institutions, and ethnic or sectarian polarization." Exactly the same reasons can be used to explain the current vicissitudes in the Arab countries.

In many cases, writes Khanna, current borders are the cause of internal strife - for example, in failed states like Yemen, Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In his view, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are not "America's wars," but rather "unexploded ordinance left over from old European wars, with their fuses lit on slow release."

America is not to blame for the Congress of Berlin in 1884, which divided up Africa without taking its inhabitants into account, or for the British partition of Pakistan and Afghanistan. But America - together with the other powers - can and must help today with solving the resultant problems. Nor only by drawing up new borders or in votes at the United Nations, but also by building infrastructures that will provide sound economic foundations to the new countries, and will free them from dependence on powerful neighbors like Turkey and Israel.

In the early 20th century, the Western powers controlled Asia and Africa and identified a wealth of assets in the Middle East. In 1916, Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot - a British official and a French diplomat, respectively - drew up an agreement on behalf of their governments describing a tentative division of the Ottoman Empire, which was fighting alongside Germany against the Allies. The document and map they came up with were theoretical and the chances they would be implemented seemed slight: The Turks were still far from defeat and the Western armies were bleeding along Europe's western front. In essence, Sykes' and Picot's governments coveted Syria and most of Palestine for France, and what was later to become Iraq for Britain.

In his fascinating book "A Peace to End All Peace" (1989 ), American historian David Fromkin describes how the great powers shaped the map of the Middle East in World War I and thereafter. According to Fromkin, the anti-Semitic view that the Jews had the ability to influence those powers and foment conspiracies underlay the diplomacy of the Western countries, which hoped to harness Jewish might on their behalf.

After reaching the agreement with Picot, Sykes was about to set out for Saint Petersburg, the capital of the czarist empire, to present the details to the Russians - who had always wanted to gain control of Istanbul and have access to the Mediterranean Sea. En route, Sykes met Capt. William Reginald Hall, head of Royal Naval Intelligence, in London and showed him his map. Hall told him Britain should send its forces to Palestine and only then would the Arabs switch to its side in the war. "Force is the best Arab propaganda" to use when dealing with the Arabs, the intelligence officer explained to the diplomat. (Or translated into our present-day Israeli lingo: "The only thing the Arabs understand is force." )

Sykes was convinced the agreement he had concocted with the French would satisfy Sharif Hussein of the Hejaz, the progenitor of the Hashemite dynasty, who sought independence for his people from the Ottoman Empire in exchange for support of the British. And then Hall surprised his British interlocutor by introducing a new factor into the power equation: The Jews, he said, had "a strong material, and a very strong political, interest in the future of the country." Sykes was dumbstruck. He had never heard of Zionism before then. He rushed to a meeting with the Jewish minister in the British war cabinet, Herbert Samuel, for an explanation.

This was the start of the process that would lead later to the Balfour Declaration, the conquest of Palestine, the establishment of the British Mandate, and the appointment of Samuel as its first high commissioner. At this point were sown the seeds of Arab anger at the Western powers, which had dismantled and then reassembled nations and states in the Middle East and promised Palestine to the Zionists.

The final borders in the Middle East were set by then-Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill at the Cairo Conference in 1922, which separated Transjordan from the boundaries of the Palestine Mandate. The Israeli right mourns that "tearing apart" to this very day.

With the end of colonialism, maintenance of those borders constituted the basis of political order in the region, even though it left many peoples unsatisfied - for example, the Kurds, who were split up among Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. The reaction to colonialism was Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser's pan-Arabism, which reached its peak in the union of Syria and Egypt (the United Arab Republic ) at the end of the 1950s, though it did not last long. Now, nearly 100 years after the talks between Sykes and Picot, the United States' withdrawal from Iraq will afford the Kurds a chance for independence, despite Turkey's opposition. For their part, the Palestinians are working on international recognition for their country by this coming summer, despite Israel's objections.

Other "artificial states" like Libya, which was made up of three former Italian colonies, as well as Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia, could all disintegrate. In all of them there is serious internal tension among tribes and groups or a minority government imposed on the majority. Yemen was divided in the past and could once again split into north and south. In Saudi Arabia, distances are vast. But how is it possible to partition Jordan, where the Bedouin and the Palestinians are mingled? The redrawing of borders is not a panacea.

Meanwhile, the war in Libya is splitting it de facto between Cyrenaica, the bastion of the rebels in the east, and Tripolitania, under Gadhafi's control. The Western powers' entry into the war on the side of the rebels shows they want to create a protectorate under their influence adjacent to the border with Egypt, which is at risk of becoming an Islamic republic hostile to the West. It is hard to find any other strategic rationale for the decision to become involved in Libya.

The battles between the British forces and Rommel's in World War II were fought exactly in those same places and had the same aim: protecting the eastern flank of Egypt and the Suez Canal. Rommel and Montgomery fought there well before oil was discovered in Libya.

The West, like Israel, prefers a fragmented and squabbling Middle East and is fighting on several fronts against pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism led by Osama bin Laden (and, in different ways, also by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ). Therefore, it is possible to assess that the West will not try to thwart the process of fission in the countries of the region, but rather will contribute to it.

Israel is directly involved in the struggle over the establishment of an independent Palestine and the shaping of its borders, and would be significantly affected by the disintegration of its neighboring states, chiefly Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. A smart Israeli policy, which correctly identifies the opportunities inherent in the emergence of new states and knows how to take advantage of these opportunities, will be able to leverage the inevitable process to reinforce Israel's power and influence in the region.



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