Peace in the Middle East – lessons from history
With the ISIS conflict causing devastation in Syria and Iraq, the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and militant Islamist groups at war with the west, and with each other, across the whole region; the troubles of the Middle East have never appeared more daunting or insoluble.
Some historians and diplomats are now saying the seeds of this catastrophe in the making were sown a hundred years ago when, in the aftermath of WWI and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the British and French governments turned to the task of redrawing the frontiers of the newly conquered Middle East under what became known as the Sykes-Picot agreement.
The Ottomans ran a multilingual, multi-religious empire ruled by a sultan but having ended up on the losing side of the Great War, they saw their empires dismantled by European statesmen who knew little and cared less about the region’s people, customs and geography.
Britain, which had done the lion’s share of the fighting against the Turks, claimed for itself the oil-rich province of Mosul, now part of Iraq, and home to Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
The fact Mosul became part of Iraq and not Syria is emblematic of how the new Middle Eastern states were political constructs based on the self-interest of the two great powers.
The result was an artificially created geography, often built on implausibly straight frontier boundaries.
Historians argue that the latent imbalances in these newly-minted states were the genesis of brutal dictatorships that succeeded for decades in suppressing unhappy majorities and perpetuating the rule of minority groups.
Some say all this is now coming to an end with Syria and Iraq ceasing to function as states, as large parts of the countries are now beyond the control of the central governments.
They argue that the rise of ISIS is a direct result of this meltdown; the Sunni-extremist group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Bagdadhi has even proclaimed himself Caliph and vowed to erase the shame of the “Sykes-Picot conspiracy” after capturing Mosul last year.
Former US ambassador to Turkey and Egypt Francis Ricciardone says ISIS is filling the vacuum caused by the demise of the post-Ottoman order.
“Much of the conflict in the Middle East is the result of insecurity in contrived states,” he said, adding that states with a strong history and sense of identity, such as Egypt, Turkey and Iran, have not suffered the same level of upheaval.
Newly created states in the region which have fared well so far – such as Jordan – have strong social contracts in place based on good governance and economic opportunity. In these states, it is argued, ethnic and religious diversity is a source of strength and stability.
A hundred years ago in Syria the French colonial masters were faced with a hostile Sunni majority so they courted favour with Shi’ite Alawite minority, which had been persecuted under the Ottomans.
In Iraq, which had and still has a Shi’ite majority, the British did a similar thing. Confronted with a potential revolt from the Shi’ites, they favoured the disproportionately smaller Sunni minority.
Middle East observer Yaroslav Trofimov says these decisions influenced the futures of Iraq and Syria once the colonial powers left.
“The Assad family has ruled Syria since 1970; Saddam Hussein became president of Iraq in 1979. Notwithstanding their lofty rhetoric about a single Arab nation, both regimes turned their countries into places where the minority ruling communities (Alawites in Syria and Sunni Arabs in Iraq) were decidedly more equal than others,” Trofimov wrote.
“Attempts by the Sunni majority in Syria or the Shi’ite majority in Iraq to challenge these harshly authoritarian orders were put down without mercy. In 1982, the Syrian regime bulldozed the largely Sunni city of Hama after an Islamist revolt, and Saddam unleashed his wrath to crush a Shi’ite uprising in southern Iraq after the Gulf War of 1991,” he said.
“In Syria today many Alawites are backing President Bashar al-Assad against the largely Sunni rebels out of fear that the regime’s collapse could wipe out their entire community – a threat reinforced by Islamic State, whose Sunni extremists offer Alawites and mainstream Shi’ites a stark choice between conversion and death.”
New theories on the disintegration of security in the Middle East say that it is not just an issue of territorial boundaries, it is also about the system of governance established by the colonial powers that created administrations that educated, recruited and empowered minorities.
These minorities were left with their hands on the levers of power when the colonial era ended.
So the question facing the international community is how to make these racial, religious and geographic imbalances and misalignments right.
“The Middle East is going through a period of big turmoil, after which it will end up with a very different political configuration and perhaps also a different territorial configuration,” wrote Vali Nasr, dean of the school of international studies at the US’ John Hopkins University.
All of which brings us to the question of what a new geographic, racial and religious map for the Middle East might look like and how much of an appetite there is to achieve one.
One scenario would see an independent Kurdistan. The Kurds live scattered across Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran but have a common culture and language. In northern Iraq they have lived in an effectively autonomous zone for decades.
But beyond the creation of a Kurdish state, it is difficult to see any simple fixes and there are examples of resilience among Middle Eastern states whose demise has been often predicted.
Lebanon, for example, has survived the squabbles of 18 separate religious communities and a bloody and multi-sided civil war that lasted 15 years. It remains relatively stable amid current seismic upheaval in the region.
Even in Syria and Iraq there is evidence of strong nationalist feelings through the resistance put up in many places to the incursion of ISIS.
And despite bitter sectarian violence and blood-letting, Sunnis and Shi’ites still live together in many parts of Iraq, notably Baghdad.
Iraq’s Vice President Ayed Allawi says that many traditional tribal groups include both Sunnis and Shi’ites and that many families are mixed too.
Perhaps the most necessary condition for a new age of security in the Middle East is that the populations tire of perpetual war, as was the case for the populations of the former European colonial powers over the last century.
Whatever the outcome or timeframe, it can only benefit humanity if the holders of power in the Middle East learn lessons from the mistakes of the past.
AMES Senior Journalist