Redrawing borders will not solve the region’s problems
The borders of many countries in the Middle East are based on boundaries concocted by colonial powers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most famous of these are the lines determined by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, an Anglo-French accord that created modern-day Iraq and Syria — two nations struggling to stay unified in the face of sectarian conflict.
Many African countries have experienced ethnic and sectarian turmoil as the result of colonial craftsmanship. So, one would think that the Western powers have learned their lesson.
Apparently, the temptation to fix other countries’ problems by redrawing their national borders remains strong. London’s Guardian reported that Sebastian Gorka, a senior White House counterterrorism adviser, proposed partitioning Libya into three parts based on the old Ottoman provinces. Gorka reportedly drew the “new Libya” on a napkin while lunching with an EU official in January.
The Guardian reported that Gorka is seeking to be named the Trump administration’s special envoy to Libya, a position that has been vacant since the president took office in January.
Geoff Porter, president of North Africa Risk Consulting and a long-time observer of the region, wrote in Politico that the answer to Libya’s crisis is not partition but rather the creation of a unified nation in which everyone benefits equally from the country’s resources. “Admittedly,” Porter wrote, “a plan for doing this doesn’t fit on a napkin but neither would any plans for dealing with the mess created by divvying up Libya into borders from a bygone era.”
And then there is Thomas Friedman, the widely respected foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, who wrote that the “least bad solution” to Syria’s civil war is “a partition of Syria and the creation of a primarily Sunni protected area” that would be defended by international forces, including US troops.
Harvard University’s Stephen Walt said about Friedman’s proposal: “Let’s not mince words. What Friedman is really proposing is a foreign invasion of Syria.”
Significantly, neither Friedman nor Gorka reference the desires of the Syrian or Libyan people. It is as if they were unaware that redrawing lines on a map has real implications for real people on the ground. There is no doubt that ethnic and sectarian conflicts are driving much of the region’s violence and turmoil but after many decades living as unified nations, the people of countries such as Syria and Libya cannot easily be regrouped into new political entities without massive population transfers and fierce struggles over natural resources.
In 2006, in the midst of the Iraqi civil war triggered by the 2003 US invasion, then-US Senator Joe Biden proposed dividing the country into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish enclaves with a greatly weakened central government in Baghdad. In his subsequent eight years as US vice-president, Biden never pushed strongly for partition and backed a unified Iraqi state.
The idea, however, has not gone away: As recently as 2014, Michael O’Hanlon of Washington’s Brookings Institution advocated for a “federal” Iraq with a devolution of power to Sunni, Shia and Kurdish regions.
The yearning for simple solutions is understandable — if we can end the bloodshed by redrawing a few lines on a map, why not do it? However, for complex and multilayered problems, simple solutions simply do not exist. Especially simple solutions imposed by outsiders.
It is widely agreed that foreign powers erred in drawing regional borders in the early 20th century and in violating Iraq’s sovereignty in 2003. What makes anyone believe foreigners have the answers today?