The artificial borders delineated by Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot in 1916 haven’t yet died, but like old soldiers they’re just fading away. Iraq is in turmoil, Syria is falling apart and the Islamic State, ensconced in parts of Iraq and Syria, has erased the Iraqi-Syrian border.
Tim Arango, The New York Times’ bureau chief in Baghdad, writes: “it seems fair to ask a question that has bedeviled foreign powers for almost a century: Is Iraq ever going to have a functioning state at peace with itself?”
The same question is undoubtedly being asked about Syria, which was also created in accordance with the Sykes-Picot treaty. The two states are artificial constructs cobbled together by Britain and France – imperial powers once upon a time but by now neither powerful nor imperial.
Still, much of the world seems to have a fixation with the artificial borders drawn on the map of the Middle East at that time – a fixation that does not want to come to terms with the reality on the ground. The United States continues to invest resources in Iraq in a seemingly vain effort to maintain it as a single state incorporating Shi’ite and Sunni Arabs and Kurds. A parallel effort is being made by the United States and Russia to make an arrangement that will reconstitute Syria as it once was.
The carnage goes on, while success seems to escape them. Has the time come to abandon the fixation with artificial borders drawn a hundred years ago?
The same question is pertinent regarding the Golan Heights. The border between British-mandated Palestine and French-mandated Syria was determined by British-French negotiations in 1923 after World War I. It altered the lines defined by the original Sykes-Picot Agreement, moving the Golan Heights over to the Syrian side of the border.
For the next 44 years the Golan Heights were part of Syrian territory, first as part of the French mandate, and after World War II as part of an independent Syria. Then followed Israeli control, in response to the Syrian attack on Israel in June 1967.
It is now 49 years that the Golan Heights have been part of Israel. In 1981 the Knesset passed a law incorporating the area into Israel. Although not recognized by the international community, the facts on the ground speak for themselves. Quiet and order reign on the Israeli side of the border, while on the Syrian side fighting and killing has continued for the past five years.
An international refusal to take cognizance of the changes on the ground isn’t limited to Iraq, Syria and the Golan Heights. It includes the insistence that the 1949 armistice lines agreed between Jordan and Israel will determine the borders of a future Palestinian state, and a stubborn refusal to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel.
According to the second law of thermodynamics there are no reversible processes in nature. Nothing can return exactly to its original state. This law may not hold in international relations, but the exceptions are few and far between.
Like it or not, Israel is not going to abandon the Golan Heights. The enclave will not be turned over to the terrorists of the Islamic State, Al-Qaida or the Nusra Front, or whoever survives the Syrian bloodbath. Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it seems very unlikely that the armistice lines of 1949 will become Israel’s permanent borders.
The meeting of the Israeli cabinet at Ma’aleh Gamla in the Golan Heights, and the prime minister’s declaration that the Golan will remain a permanent part of Israel were no empty gestures. They were a call to the world to recognize the facts on the ground.
The notion that history’s clock can be set back, that historical processes can be reversed, that arbitrarily delineated borders by outside powers will in time become permanent fixtures, is surrealistic. In time that will be recognized by all.
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