The Mideast Crack-Up
Robert Worth, David Goldman, Edward Luttwak, Amos Harel, Nathan Thrall, and Lee Smith on the new Arab map
Nathan Thrall: The United States has undoubtedly contributed, often inadvertently and sometimes through inaction, to the strengthening of Middle Eastern quasi-states. It is the primary supporter, economic and political, of the collection of West Bank municipalities known as the Palestinian Authority, and it justifies its support for this non-state entity by purveying the notion that the Palestinian Authority is merely a transitional body that will soon sign a peace accord and become an independent state. The U.S.’s shifting and contradictory positions on Palestinian elections—at first favoring Hamas participation in democratic elections and then laying siege to its government while arming its domestic enemies—paved the way for Hamas to make short work of American-supported, Fatah-dominated security forces and take over Gaza. The two Gulf Wars against Iraq led directly to the increased autonomy now enjoyed by the Kurdistan Regional Government. And U.S. wariness of involvement in the Syrian crisis has deprived the weak and fragmented opposition of desperately sought resources as it suffers defeats and reversals at the hands of an unrestrained regime enjoying the firm support of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah.
Amos Harel: The Middle East’s fragmentation had been accelerating since the so-called “Arab Spring,” which probably has something to do with United States’ gradual withdrawal from the region. But the first signs of a smaller trend could have been identified decades earlier—in Lebanon, for instance, where every ethnic group has kept an armed militia since the 1970s. This is too big to blame on the United States alone. However, when American neo-conservative thinkers talked of “constructive chaos” in the Middle East at the time of the second Iraq war, perhaps they might have gotten much more than they wished for. Nations in the region will probably be struggling for years trying to figure out some constructive element in all this mess.
Lee Smith: Alongside the forces determined to preserve the regional status quo, there are powerful players whose actions and policies are working against it—Iran and the United States. The former actively seeks to undo the order of the state system, while the latter has done so unintentionally.
The founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, devised a very simple formula: Islam may come in many shapes, colors, and forms, but finally being a Muslim means resistance against the West. Here Khomeini targeted not only the United States, Israel, and the European powers but also Middle Eastern states like Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia that accommodated the West or had allied with it. Conveniently, that also put Iran at the head of the Muslim world.
Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech played into the Islamic Republic’s worldview. American policymakers are ill-suited to cope with billions of people in terms of their religious beliefs. Instead, they treat with the diplomats, political and military officials of discrete entities known as states. By addressing the “Muslim world,” Obama effectively erased state borders.
American policymakers have put themselves at a disadvantage in the region by promoting ideas whose consequences are dangerous to U.S. interests. And it’s not just Obama. After all, it was the Bush Administration that was most concerned that Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah endangered what it perceived, not incorrectly, as a friendly government, then administered by the pro-democracy March 14 movement. It’s true that Lebanon and Hezbollah are two separate things, but that doesn’t mean Hezbollah is some sort of complicated hybrid that needs to be understood in light of a totally new paradigm. It’s not a non-state actor; it’s an armed wing of the Islamic Republic that has occupied Lebanon, with local proxies, for 30 years. There is plenty of historical precedence for this problem, and the solution to it is found by addressing the problem at its source—the power that stands behind the proxy. It was also under the Bush Administration that the U.S. military devised a counterinsurgency doctrine that downplayed the role of states in facilitating and supporting terrorism. Because COIN focuses on earning the trust of local populations, or the terminus of an insurgency, the United States rarely attacked the problem at its source—states.
Q: Which of the mini-states mentioned above—Hamastan, the PA, Hezbollahland, Alawite Syria, and Kurdistan—do you expect to see in something like their current form five years from now, and which do you expect to disappear?
Amos Harel: Most mini-states you’ve mentioned could end up becoming long-term entities. Although talk of Palestinian reconciliation has resumed this week, it is hard to envision a union between Hamastan in Gaza and Fatahland in the West Bank, considering both the ideological and physical separation. The Kurds seem to be doing rather well on their own. The fates of Hezbollah and the Alawites are harder to predict, since these depend on the outcome of the war in Syria and perhaps on the level of active international involvement there.
Robert Worth: In some places, I would not be at all surprised to see new entities emerge. The Kurds, fueled by their passionate desire for a homeland and the convenient turmoil all around them, may succeed in forging one. The Palestinian territories are an open question, one that could ultimately involve the borders of Jordan or Egypt, though in relatively minor ways. Elsewhere, there are strong movements toward more localized or “federal” governing structures (the United Arab Emirates is sometimes cited as a model), and these may well bear fruit. But I doubt they will alter boundaries in fundamental ways.
In a sense, I have been more struck by the emergence of hyper-local identities—cities and towns—than of regions with the potential to secede. In Libya, for instance, the city of Misurata (in the west) has shown as much or more autonomy than eastern Libya. In Yemen, the city of Taiz (which was never part of the south, where secessionism is now in full flower) has reclaimed a large measure of local identity and some autonomy. This emergence is in many places a return to form: Under the Ottoman Empire, imperial control in the Arab territories was mostly nominal (a garrison, a few exemplary punishments every year), and many cities viewed themselves as culturally if not politically autonomous. Aleppo, for instance, had its own consulates and diplomatic relations with the West starting in the 15th century, and most of its citizens had a very limited sense of connection to the Sublime Porte or to the borderless region known on maps as Syria.
David Goldman: Kurdistan is by far the most viable of the new entities; the Kurds in northern Iraq have shown themselves adept at self-rule. If any stateless people in the world deserves to have a state, it surely is the Kurds. Alawite Syria will cling to its position in the northeast of the country with Russian and possibly Iranian support because the Alawites have nowhere to go and will fight to the death to retain an enclave. Hezbollahland is an extension of Iran, and its future depends entirely on that of its master. If the United States and its allies cripple Iran’s capacity to project influence, Hezbollah will collapse; if not, it will struggle on. The Hamas government in Gaza also depends on Iran for arms and on Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt for economic support. It seems unlikely that Hamas’ international sponsors will abandon it entirely.
Edward Luttwak: Fragmentation of hollowed-out states into real communities is the future.
The former mayor, who had a deep relationship with Catholicism, will be memorialized in a Mass at St. Patrick’s