A member of the Saudi border guards force looks through binoculars on Saudi Arabia's northern borderline with Iraq, 2014.
A member of the Saudi border guards force looks through binoculars on Saudi Arabia's northern borderline with Iraq, July 14, 2014.
Faisal Al Nasser / Courtesy Reuters

The stunning recent military successes by the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have triggered a wave of gloomy prognoses about the demise of the Sykes-Picot regional order in the Levant and the withering away of the Iraqi and Syrian territorial states. However, the stakes are higher than the disintegration of what have always been permeable borders and the collapse of a long bygone Anglo-French agreement. Indeed, this year could mark the birth of a new regional order, one that dismisses the all-too-realist geopolitical contests of the past and clings, instead, to sectarianism. 

The trend toward sectarianism in otherwise realist geopolitical contests commenced shortly after the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and has culminated, for now, in ISIS’ blitzkrieg throughout the country. In other words, ISIS’ gains are consecrating rather than creating the politicization of narrow and exclusionary sectarian, ethnic, religious, and tribal identities, which appeared to have weakened during the Arab Spring. Now many countries in the Arab world are starting to look like Lebanon -- once considered an Arab anomaly -- in which historically-constructed sectarian identities have been institutionalized and hardened by a consociational power-sharing arrangement. Over time, sectarian identities across the region may, like in Lebanon, come to seem continuous and permanent. And if Lebanon’s cyclical patterns of political crises, internal wars, and external interventions are any guide, that future won’t be a pleasant one.

To be sure, the growing sectarian regional order has deep roots, for which authoritarianism is partly to blame. Liberal oligarchies briefly ruled the region after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the First World War. But they were short-lived. Due to the stress of the 1948 loss of Palestine, external interventions, and internal praetorian pressures, those regimes gave way to authoritarian ones that prioritized a centralized unitary state. That model ultimately concentrated political and coercive power in the hands of a family, sect, tribe, class, region, or a combination thereof, thus alienating and excluding other groups. The homogenizing regimes systematically discriminated against, among others, the Assyrians, Kurds, Shia, and Turkmen in Iraq; the southerners in Sudan and Yemen; the Berber communities in Algeria; the Kurds and rural Sunnis in Syria; the eastern Barqa province and the Amazigh, Tabu, and Tuareg minorities in Libya; the Bedoon (stateless) in Kuwait; the Shia in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia; the Copts in Egypt; and the Palestinians in Jordan. 

Hindsight is always 20/20, but imagine that post-independence Arab states had been built on the idea of inclusive civic citizenship. Perhaps then they would not have faced such frequent and violent demands for secession, decentralization, federalism, and confederalism. Sudan’s rupture into two states was an extreme case, and probably not the best regional precedent because it encouraged other groups to follow a similar path, as with the Kurds in Iraq who now deny the existence of an Iraqi identity and boldly insist on independence. Far better examples are Yemen’s new federal institutional structure, which, despite some internal contradictions, at least avoids perpetual war along tribal, sectarian, and regional lines. Even in tiny Lebanon, most Maronites, who at first wanted their own country and whose Church and political elites later lobbied the authorities of the French mandate to create a Greater Lebanon, now prefer autonomous self-governing districts and broad administrative and political decentralization. 

But the growing regional order isn’t all based on history. More recent geopolitical battles have also played a role. In the early days after Tunisia and Egypt’s authoritarian regimes broke down, a new kind of politics seemed to be emerging. Protestors opted for nonviolence, reimagining their public duties as citizens in the pursuit of a new political community built on democracy, social justice, and economic opportunity. Smooth democratic transitions proved elusive, however, not because of a presumed Arab cultural aversion to democracy, but rather because of oil, geopolitics, and the lingering effects of the Arab–Israeli conflict.

Tunisia is the exception that proves the rule. Its political parties heroically put the country’s democratic transition back on track after domestic Islamist and transnational Salafi-Jihadist alike derailed it by, respectively, replicating the authoritarian regime’s exclusionary practices, and using violence to terrorize their secular political opponents. Yet, Tunisia’s democratic transition is also the product of some unique structural features. Tunisia has no hydrocarbon reserves and no borders with Israel, and it happens to be outside the arena where post-2003 geopolitical battles have been fought. These overlapping factors have made it possible for Tunisian political actors to renegotiate the terms of their democratic transition free from the exigencies of international strategic calculations and regional geopolitical battles. 

By contrast, geopolitics transformed what commenced as a genuine nonviolent reform movement in Syria into a domestic, regional, and international struggle for Syria. For years, the grand Saudi-Iranian competition for regional dominance has played out in Iraq, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and, to a lesser extent, in Yemen and Bahrain. In Syria, it found a new site, one that would prove to be a game-changer. Riyadh sought to oust the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria to contain Iran’s regional influence. Not to be outmaneuvered, Tehran sent in its most trusted Iraqi and Lebanese proxies under the supervision of Revolutionary Guard commanders. Hezbollah’s subsequent involvement in Syria may have obviated regime collapse, protected the party’s operational and logistic routes to Iran, and saved it from being encircled by Israel and becoming beholden to Saudi Arabia. In doing so, it has also galvanized sectarian sentiments across the region, and exposed the party’s own constituency to waves of suicide attacks by Salafi-Jihadi groups. The war for Syria simply magnified the use of sectarianism in the region’s realist geopolitical battles, but with destructive and long-term reverberations.

The battle between Riyadh and Tehran all but destroyed Syria’s state institutions and much of its intricate social fabric. It exposed societal divisions that had been camouflaged by decades of populism. After all, weak states give rise to strong factions, and sectarian and other communal identities thrive as the state crumbles. Local and transnational militant groups, including ISIS, mushroomed and filled the consequent institutional and ideological void created by the collapse of state institutions. Once those groups were formed, it was only a matter of time before they crossed the border. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s stubbornly sectarian administration alienated Iraq’s Sunni population and unified otherwise strange bedfellows -- namely ISIS and the remnants of Saddam’s Baathist military and coercive intelligence apparatus -- in the battle against a presumed common Shia enemy. 

In other words, those who now claim that U.S. President Barack Obama “lost Iraq” by ignoring Maliki’s creeping sectarianism miss the larger and more complete picture: Ever since the 2003 U.S. invasion, the geopolitical battles between Riyadh and Tehran have been waged with the help of the stealth weapon of sectarian agitation. Well before Obama’s tenure, but also during his presidency, Washington even condoned the politicization of sectarianism when it served its own regional interests -- as in the post-2005 attempt to drown Hezbollah in a Lebanese sectarian quagmire. Other times, it opted to sit idle as its regional enemies were locked in a mutually destructive battle in Syria. As the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer might quip, sectarianism is not a policy that one can condone or condemn at will. Moreover, the United States’ regional allies played an instrumental role in flooding Syria with Salafi-Jihadi fighters from all over the world. The sectarianism unleashed in the region by these fighters is as unprecedented as it is destructive. Instead of forcing its allies to close the pipelines, Washington was busy creating typologies of the different groups fighting in Syria. These typologies have now proved useless; neither the United States nor any other European state will be immune from the blowback effects of the bizarre strategy of regime change in Syria.

In the growing new regional order, it is not so much the territorial borders of the Arab states that the rest of the world should worry about. Rather, it is their unstable internal political configurations. Unfortunately, the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring may prove to be a brief hiatus between two equally undesirable regional orders: the era of the homogenizing unitary authoritarian Arab state and that of sectarian identity, presumably primordial but actually historically-constructed and modern, in the context of fractured statelets or regions assembled into weak states. Only the negotiation of new socioeconomic and political power-sharing pacts based on the principles of fairness and mutual recognition can help forestall this grim scenario. However, it is not too late for Washington to lead a region-wide grand bargain that could find a balance between the geopolitical interests of the regional powers and the aspirations of the region’s peoples. This entails consistent and proactive U.S. efforts to stabilize Arab states and end sectarian geopolitical battles by helping local actors renegotiate the emerging regional order’s new spheres of interest. Geopolitical battles are nothing new to the Middle East’s regional order; their sectarianization is, however, and it has proven destructive for the states and societies of the region. Washington cannot base its policies on the selective binaries and contradictions that have defined and marred its approach for the last few years. The mayhem that awaits the region without new power-sharing pacts and a robust regional bargain will make any talk of the Sykes-Picot agreement and the political order it once gave birth to seem quaint.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • BASSEL F. SALLOUKH is Associate Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University (LAU).
  • More By Bassel F. Salloukh