Partition is gaining momentum in Syria and Iraq
It has taken about 100 years but the boundaries created by the secret 1916 British- French Sykes-Picot agreement, which largely shaped the Middle East after World War I, look to be unravelling. Along with that unravelling comes a perplexing question: Do Iraq and Syria still exist?
There is little doubt that Iraq and Syria no longer look anything like they did in the past. Large areas of both countries are controlled by terrorist groups the Islamic State (ISIS) or Jabhat al-Nusra, by ethnic minorities such as the Kurds or by sectarian militias. Areas controlled by governments in Baghdad or in Damascus are mere rumps of what they once were. Boundary lines no longer matter. The question going forward is what will they look like in the future.
If the Syrian peace process produces longer lasting tangible results, and after the defeat of ISIS, we could see something like what we have in Lebanon — a Syria that lacks strong central government, with sectarian entities and militias controlling various sections of the country.
Iraq is a different matter.
Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani may not have officially declared independence, because of pressure placed on him by the United States at the request of neighbouring countries that do not want an independent Kurdistan (the question of a possible invasion by Turkey is a very real one) but it exists even without such a declaration.
One factor, cited by several experts, that could play a key role in determining whether the Sunni parts of Iraq will want to remain under Baghdad’s control is how much have Sunni residents of the region come to hate ISIS? Would they prefer the lesser of two evils — a predominately Shia-controlled Iraq — to the horrors of daily life under a group like ISIS? Could a Shia-led government in Baghdad avoid the mistakes of previous administrations towards the Sunnis and make a new arrangement?
If, however, the Sunni part of Iraq did want to go it alone, it could unite with a Sunni region in Syria and look for a regional backer, no doubt the Saudis, who would want to reinforce this new entity as a bulwark against Shia Iran.
A key part of the equation in the future will be the desire of Western governments, particularly the United States, to maintain the current boundaries in the region. US President Barack Obama’s administration seems to have lost interest in anything other than defeating ISIS. Their new favourites in the region appear to be the Kurds, the one group able to regularly defeat the terrorist group.
If the next US president is more willing to invest time and energy (and blood and money) in the region, that might stabilise it for a while. But in the long run, the United States can no longer be depended on to pour resources into the region as it has in the past, leaving it up to the interested parties on the ground to sort things out.
Is what happened in the Balkans a preview of what could happen with Iraq and Syria? In that case an artificially hammered together state, Yugoslavia, fell apart and after a prolonged period of war became several new states that reflected old realities. Many of the factors that kept Yugoslavia together and then broke it apart are different from what is happening in the Middle East but some are the same — ethnic and religious differences being the main ones.
It is difficult to look into the future and know exactly what will happen. Modern states are rather sticky things and do not come apart very easily. However, the conditions that can lead to dissolving old boundaries are certainly present in the Middle East and seem to be gaining momentum, not retreating.