Current battles raging in Northern Iraq and Syria have put politicians and experts on the defensive, vowing to secure the stability and integrity of these countries. In Iraq, Prime Minister al Maliki has put together a coalition of Shias to fight The Islamic State, and the US has followed suit by sending troops to safeguard the country. But what if there’s a different approach that we ought to be taking? What if what we’re witnessing is simply the natural break up of post-colonial states?
To understand how the Middle East was divided we must first take a trip back to 1916, when Mark Sykes of England and Francois Georges-Picot of France got together to devise a new map for the region. Each had specific interests to control within the area, and an agreement was hammered out which split the territory in two. With backing from their respective governments, a gently sloping line was drawn from central Iraq (near Kirkuk) to Haifa in Israel.
The French took control of the northern sphere and the British the southern half. Arbitrary borders were devised, and slowly the Middle East began to take shape into a region we now recognize today.
During the creation of these borders, numerous experts have noted that tribal lines, religious sects and ethnic affiliations were ignored in favor of colonialist interests such as shipping routes and supply lines. Even further, many of the borders we now see today were created with the hopes of keeping Arab states weak, divided and dependent on western influence.
So when we look at the infighting within the current Middle East we must keep in mind we are seeing a forced union of people that, if given the chance, might have chosen to go their separate ways. Dictators, such as Saddam Hussein and Bashar al Assad, did a good job strong-arming factions together under the threat of communal violence. However, it’s become clear that as soon as these leaders lose their grasp, past divisions and sectarian violence take very little time to emerge.
These imposed borders became a rallying cry for The Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS or ISIL). They cite the Sykes-Picot agreement, and ask why the region would respect foreign imposed borders that neither benefited nor represent their needs. Many Arabs, regardless of their personal feelings towards The Islamic State, couldn’t help but agree. Why were these arbitrary borders still in place?
Now it looks like Syria and Iraq are beginning to break apart. One group that has already carved out their own land, Iraqi Kurdistan, already existed for years. They’ve established their own trade regulations, security forces and have managed to remain relatively stable in comparison to the rest of the country–but would Iraq be willing to make room for a factional Sunni leadership?
So far, the Shia majority al Maliki government in Iraq does not seem inclined to do so. They view a breakup of Syria and Iraq as a disaster for their current government. Yet it’s also important to remember how beholden the Iraqi government currently is to the United States, who often views shifting borders as unnerving, unpredictable and unnecessary.
It started with Sykes-Picot, but as Roula Khalaf at the Financial Times points out, blaming that agreement entirely would be a mistake. Destabilizing forces, such as the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq also helped spark the backlash we’re seeing today. According to Khalaf, solely blaming Sykes-Picot takes responsibility away from the current crisis, sweeping America’s culpability under the rug. She also contends that most residents in the region aren’t necessarily vying for secession but for state control and inclusive representation.
However, others argue that inclusive representation isn’t possible because of the various religious and ethnic factions within those borders. For instance, brutal repression of minority groups has been commonplace in numerous Arab States. From Bahrain to Syria, state-sponsored marginalization can have devastating consequences, with much of the infighting during the Arab Spring linked to ethnic and religious divisions.
Security experts, though, remain hesitant on the idea of a new Middle East, carved out of ethnic allegiances and rivalries. There is little doubt that infighting will occur and no doubt that hundreds will die. But, if we look at the past few decades, our presence and commitment to colonialist relics has cost millions of lives, with very little gained in terms of regional stability.
Plenty of borders have shifted in our life time, from the creation of South Sudan to the breakup of Yugoslavia. This is a natural part of changing regional politics and it would be prudent for the West to relinquish control of the process, thus allowing affected populations, for the first time in nearly a century, to dictate the boundaries and sovereignty of their own homelands.
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