The Mideast Crack-Up
Robert Worth, David Goldman, Edward Luttwak, Amos Harel, Nathan Thrall, and Lee Smith on the new Arab map
Nathan Thrall: Long-lasting as many minority regimes proved to be, it hardly seems the case, as David Goldman suggests, that they were the “only possible stable government.” Egypt since the 1952 revolution lasted longer than minority regimes elsewhere in the region, yet it was not ruled by Copts. The Saudi regime has outlasted rivals, yet it is not made up of Saudi Shiites. Iran is not governed by Azeris. Turkey is not under Kurdish control, and Palestinian citizens of Israel have not taken over the Jewish state.
Without doubt we are witnessing the strongest challenge yet posed to the post-Ottoman order in the Levant. With every passing day, Syria comes to more closely resemble an earlier period in its history, when the French briefly divided the territory into statelets containing Druze, Alawite, Sunni, and Maronite majorities—the last of which survived to became modern-day Lebanon. The current Syrian civil war threatens to spill over into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq, which teeters on the brink of a renewed civil war of its own.
Yet, as distant as a unified Syria may seem today, most of its people still want such a state, while Iraq has survived enormous bloodshed, reversals of regional alliances, calls for partition, increasing Kurdish autonomy, and the end of Sunni minority rule. What is finally remarkable about the Middle East’s poorly drawn borders is how durable they are. Altering them could occur under present conditions but would be far more likely in the aftermath of a wider regional war.
Lee Smith: The Lebanese newspaper columnist Hazem Saghieh has remarked that the problem with Sykes-Picot is that it didn’t divide the Arabs enough. By that he means that the borders drawn by the Western powers at the end of World War I region did not sufficiently account for the region’s sectarian, tribal, and ethnic fault lines. It’s possible that the various conflicts we’re seeing now throughout the region will divide the existing states into smaller autonomous or semi-autonomous cantons, but there’s also reason to believe that the existing borders will hold.
Egypt is not going to fade from history, and I think the same holds for much of the rest of the region. Syria and Iraq may not be real states in the Western sense, but they are real things with historical meaning to Middle Easterners. Damascus, as the capital of the Umayyad empire, and Baghdad, the Abbasid capital, are central to the story of Islam.
Other regional powers have an interest in maintaining borders for reasons of their own national interest. Israel will ensure the Lebanese borders stay intact by making all of Lebanon, and not just the Hezbollah regions, accountable for Hezbollah’s actions. Turkey is now engaged in real negotiations with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), with whom it has been at war for almost 40 years. Ankara wants to come to an accommodation precisely because it does not want to lose a large chunk of its Kurdish-majority territories to an emerging independent Kurdistan in Iraq and perhaps in Syria as well.
Q: Is the rise of mini-states and ethnic enclaves throughout the Middle East the result of specific American policy choices—like the withdrawal of American troops and diplomatic energies from the region, or the decadelong emphasis on Arab self-determination at the voting booth (aka the “Freedom Agenda” and “Arab Spring”)? Or is it the result of much larger socioeconomic trends on which America could have only a limited impact, even if it wanted to?
David Goldman: It has been influenced by American policy choices, but not entirely determined by them. In the case of Syria, the deterioration of the country’s agricultural sector undermined the Assad regime’s capacity to meet the basic needs of the population, a sine qua non of successful dictatorships. The non-oil-producing Arab states were left behind by the world economy, and the collapse of Arab nationalist dictatorships is first of all a function of adverse economics.
Nonetheless, American policy considerably worsened the problem though a series of blunders. America devoted its main attention during the 2000s to nation building in Iraq while ignoring Iran’s expansionism in the region. By wasting resources and credibility on Iraqi nation-building and neglecting Iran’s influence, the United States allowed the Shia government in Baghdad to drift toward the Iranian sphere of influence, compelling Iraq’s Sunnis to respond. Funding and arming the “Sunni Awakening” during the 2008 surge gave the Sunnis the means to respond. And encouraging the Muslim Brotherhood to replace Mubarak was a destabilizing factor. Threatened by Iranian expansion on one side, and encouraged by the Brotherhood’s success in Egypt on the other, Syria’s Sunnis decided that the moment had come to overthrow the Assad regime. With all due respect to Nathan Thrall, I referred to the multiethnic states created after World War I; Egypt and Iran were longstanding entities. The example clearly does not apply to Israel or Saudi Arabia.
Robert Worth: Americans—policymakers and analysts included—are far too likely to see their own hand at play in this kind of thing. The United States and the West generally have contributed very little to this breakdown, which is mostly the result of decades of mismanagement, a more recent economic collapse, and rising demographic pressure. I would argue that Israel has played a much larger role here than the United States, partly because its very existence (and the Palestinians that it displaced) have destabilized the region and nurtured radicalism. It is worth emphasizing that Middle Easterners are not destined to live in ethnic or sectarian or tribal enclaves, any more than England is destined to be a homeland only for Anglo-Saxon peoples. Tribalism is a symptom of state failure.
The former mayor, who had a deep relationship with Catholicism, will be memorialized in a Mass at St. Patrick’s