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The Mideast Crack-Up: A Roundtable Discussion of the New Arab Map

Robert Worth, David Goldman, Edward Luttwak, Amos Harel, Nathan Thrall, and Lee Smith on the new Arab map

David Samuels
May 21, 2013
Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images
A Syrian boy walks on the rubble of destroyed buildings in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on April 10, 2013.Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images
Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images
A Syrian boy walks on the rubble of destroyed buildings in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on April 10, 2013.Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

The fracturing of established Middle Eastern states into tribal, religious, and political enclaves isn’t visible on the maps that appear in newspapers and atlases. But while diplomats and commentators continue to refer to “Iraq” and “Syria” and “Lebanon” by the names that they were given in the aftermath of World War I, the reality on the ground is much more confusing.

Some of the new Arab statelets, like the Hamas enclave in Gaza and Hezbollah’s territory in Southern Lebanon, fly the flag of movements belonging to the Sunni and Shia streams of Islam. The Alawite rump state of Syria still flies the flag and uses the stationary of a U.N. member state, while Sunni rebels flying black jihadist banners control large swaths of Syrian territory and enjoy at least a temporary measure of diplomatic recognition in the West. Meanwhile, Kurdistan has tens of thousands of well-trained men under arms, a thriving economy, and independent diplomatic ties with its neighbors as it inches forward to independence. The Palestinian Authority, which enjoys newly upgraded formal representation at the United Nations, can alternately be seen as a dependent mini-state—whose borders are controlled by Israel, Jordan, and Egypt—or as a rump-state that has lost control of over 40 percent of its citizens to Hamas.

The point of this survey is to get a range of opinions about what the rise of mini-states means and which future approaches to the region are likely to bear fruit—and which are likely to be a waste of time. Our distinguished participants include, in order of appearance:

Robert Worth, foreign correspondent, the New York Times

David Goldman (aka Spengler), author of How Civilizations Die

Edward Luttwak (CSIS), author of The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook, and other intervening works

Amos Harel, military correspondent, Ha’aretz

Nathan Thrall, senior analyst, the International Crisis Group and contributor, the New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, and the New York Times

Lee Smith, senior editor, The Weekly Standard

Q: Our current maps of the Middle East were drawn by British and French cartographers after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I. Are the lines on those maps about to change? Or is this simply a moment of local bloodshed that will get cleaned up once governments—in Baghdad, Damascus, Washington, Ankara, Jerusalem, Moscow, Beirut, Beijing, Ramallah, etc.—draft a few well-worded accords?

Robert Worth: I agree with the premise that the Arab uprisings unleashed extraordinary centrifugal forces across the region, and it is natural to wonder whether this will result in a significant redrawing of boundaries. But I doubt it. The insurgent entities are themselves often highly mercurial and fragmentary, and the obstacles to forging new states or statelets are enormous. My own sense is that we are witnessing the breakdown of a specific model of governance that had become untenable: the military dictatorships that spread across the Arab world in the mid-20th century, usually in republican guise, starting with Egypt in 1952. (Despite the total failure of Arab unity as a political project, the uniformity of these centralized, corrupt, authoritarian regimes is remarkable.) This breakdown has brought a tremendous distrust of the centralized and oppressive governments in all these countries and a corresponding move toward local power. But these centrifugal forces lack any sort of cohesion or focused ideology aside from a tendency toward Islamism, and despite their distrust of central authority the insurgents themselves often view the prospect of new borders with great suspicion. In other words, the old order is broken, but (in most places) no one yet has the will or authority to put the pieces back together in a new way. I think we are in for a long period of chaos, where the illusion of a functioning state will persist.

David Goldman: In their wisdom, the colonial powers characteristically created multiethnic and multisectarian entities based on the principle of minority rule. There is a reason that Syria has labored under brutal minority regimes for half a century, since the Ba’ath Party coup of 1963 led by the Christian Michel Aflaq, followed by the Alawite Assad dynasty’s assumption of power in 1971. If you create artificial states with substantial minorities, as British and French cartographers did after the First World War, the only possible stable government is a minority government. That is why the Alawites ran Syria and the minority Sunnis ran Iraq. The minority regime may be brutal, even horribly brutal, but this arrangement sets up a crude system of checks and balances. A government drawn from a minority of the population cannot attempt to exterminate the majority, so it must try to find a modus vivendi. The majority can in fact exterminate a minority. That is why a majority government represents an existential threat to the minority, and that is why minorities fight to the death. This meta-equilibrium is broken and cannot be restored.

Edward Luttwak: Boundaries hurriedly drawn with blunt pencil stubs on small-scale defective maps that defined states too artificial to survive but by force are now being replaced by the boundaries of actually existing political communities, whether they are tribes as in Libya, sectarian agglomerations as in Syria, or entire ethno-religious zones as in Iraq. Syria never made sense except as a French mandate, which defined a sphere of influence in opposition to British spheres of influence. Libya was the fusion of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania.

Amos Harel: Even the map you described might have been painted from too narrow a perspective. I think we should also add Libya (where the PM, I’ve recently learned, has to cross checkpoints manned by five different militias, on his way home from office), Iraq (not only Kurdistan, but the growing Shiite-Sunni divide in that country) and Yemen to the list. Looking further ahead, Jordan might soon experience similar troubles. The failed state—or mini-state—phenomenon currently looks like a long-term process, which won’t be “solved” anytime soon. Look at the Syrian civil war, which Israel’s former Defense Minister Ehud Barak had predicted, ages ago, would end within weeks, with Bashar el-Assad’s fall.

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.

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.

Q: Who does the rise of mini-states favor most, and whom does it hurt?

Nathan Thrall: The international order and its primary supporters—the United States, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the body of international law—have a deep anti-secessionist bias, despite all the lip service paid to the rights of nations to self-determination. In many cases, neighboring states fear not only that mini-states could collapse and be replaced by something worse—witness Israel’s reluctance to attempt toppling Hamas or what remains of the Assad regime—but, conversely, that they could succeed in establishing themselves as internationally recognized, independent states. The creation of a state of Palestine would present a severe crisis to Jordan, which would then have to grapple with volatile questions of national identity that for the time being are mostly ignored. The creation of an independent state of Gaza would cause new headaches for Egypt, which fears bearing increased responsibility for the densely populated, refugee-filled Strip. In Syria, the formation of statelets could have destabilizing repercussions in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq. These fears have meant that the rise of quasi-statelets has played mostly to the advantage of revisionist powers that are willing to risk playing by a different set of rules.

Though in principle the United States could profit from the rise of these entities as much as Iran has in Lebanon, Gaza, and Syria, in practice the United States is risk-averse and highly unlikely to do so.

Edward Luttwak: The world that we will see as state power devolves to real communities is not as unstable as it looks. There are tacit understandings, accepted rules, and red lines; conflict is not precluded but channeled. Inter-state relations are mostly stable, while with non-state powers there are long cease-fires and short fights.

Robert Worth: I think the new era of fragmentation will reduce American influence and accelerate the current U.S. withdrawal from the region, for obvious reasons. The Americans like reliable partners, and the prospect of a Middle East peace deal seems dimmer than ever amid all this chaos. For Iran, it offers opportunities and risks. Hezbollah—its most valued client in the Arab world—may suffer, depending on the outcome in Syria. The war in Syria is itself a substantial risk and could be a tremendous drain on Iran’s resources. But Iran is (unlike the United States) very skilled at extending its influence in chaotic and war-torn regions. Iraq may become an even closer ally. Iran has begun to take advantage of Yemen’s chaos to build allies there as well.

I suspect that Israel is most threatened by the prospect of widespread state failure, even if its enemies are distracted for the moment by war. The threats to Israel may become more numerous and less predictable, and Iran will remain a threat. The fall of Assad would be a blow to Iran, but not one that would necessarily benefit Israel. A persistent state of chaos would probably be worse than Assad ever was, and there is no guarantee that a unified and Sunni-led government in Syria would be any less dangerous to Israel.

David Goldman: Washington is the least affected by the devolution of the Middle East. Although American policy blunders accelerated the breakup of Middle Eastern states, America bears the fewest consequences. Moscow has a great deal to lose because the destabilization of the region can spread to the Caucasus. In the past Moscow has relied on Turkey to control Islamists in the Black Sea area. This strategy is increasingly less effective as Turkey backs Islamists in Syria and as the effects of the Syrian civil war expose internal divisions in Turkey (through the Kurds as well as the Alevis). Moscow has to worry about a radicalized and weakened Turkey immersed in conflicts close to its borders and will probably respond by increasing its role in the region in unpredictable, destabilizing ways.

Jerusalem, on the other hand, faces a more complex set of threats than previously. The conventional threat on its borders has all but disappeared, but the threat from non-state actors with sophisticated weapons has increased. Given Iran’s role in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza, the irregular conflicts on Israel’s borders add up to a set of proxy wars between Israel and Iran that continuously threatens to escalate into a direct conflict.

Amos Harel: Israeli policymakers (this almost seems like an oxymoron) are still grappling with what these developments mean for Israel. At least around Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Palestinian divide is probably looked upon as a Good Thing, since Netanyahu has evidently no intention of strengthening his 2009 Bar Ilan Speech commitment to the two-state solution. Other than that, Israel should be careful to limit its involvement in the mini-states around it, while providing low-profile assistance to the Hashemite king, hoping to prevent his fall. At the same time, it will continue to create confidential channels to relatively friendly groups in the neighboring countries (such as, perhaps, some of the secular opposition organizations in Syria). Any public Israeli assistance would soon become counter-productive for both sides. This year, the IDF’s intelligence people have begun talking about a “changing architecture” in the Middle East. The changes might continue for quite some time.

Lee Smith: American policymakers should stop trying to be so clever figuring out new ways to deal with what seem like new problems in the region—non-state actors, the break-up of the region into smaller cantons, etc.—that are actually not new at all. The reality is that there is very little new under the sun. The United States, like its allies, has an interest in preserving the existing order. They say that if you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail. But for the United States the vital strategic issues in the region really are nails. Accordingly, the United States should embrace its inner hammer.


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David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.