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On May 17, 1916, France and the United Kingdom signed the Sykes-Picot agreement, named after the two diplomats who conducted the negotiations. The agreement was the first in a series of treaties that would eventually create the modern states of the Middle East following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. One hundred years later, analysts such as Robin Wright and Jeffrey Goldberg predict that the region’s borders will soon be redrawn once more. Indeed, in Iraq and Syria, where proto-states outside the government’s control have already emerged, the idea of new borders does not appear so far-fetched. In Iraq, for example, the Kurds have already announced that they will hold a referendum on independence before the end of 2016.
New borders will not restore stability, however, because the present ones are not the cause of the region’s turmoil. The states themselves must change if there is to be any sort of peaceful order that can accommodate the demands of the region’s diverse populations. Yet the prospects for such a transformation are dim.
Often denounced as artificial lines in the sand drawn by ignorant European diplomats, the borders in the region are no more artificial than those established by conflict. Even the most ardent critics of the status quo have given no indication of where the region’s natural borders lie, because there are no natural borders. The Kurds, for example, aggrieved by a partition of the region that did not give them their own country, even disagree on whether there should be one Kurdistan or several Kurdish states.
The real root of the region’s problems is the superimposition of heavily centralized, authoritarian states on the region’s mosaic of ethnic and religious groups. But a transition to democracy, even if it were likely, would be equally problematic. In theory, truly inclusive, democratic governments might be able to govern such heterogeneous countries in a decentralized way without the need for repression or partition. But in the real world, such ideal governments do not exist. And attempted political reforms in highly divided societies, far from encouraging reconciliation, often hasten partition and conflict. In Yugoslavia in 1990, for instance, the first multi-party elections triggered the state’s political disintegration.
The pressure to create new states in the Middle East comes from three sources: Iraqi Kurds; Syrian Kurds; and the Islamic State (or ISIS).
Iraqi Kurds already have their own autonomous region, recognized by the 2005 constitution, but they see it as simply a first step on the road to independence. Divided among themselves, the Kurds show little solidarity with their counterparts in Syria and even less with those in Turkey.
Syrian Kurds, for now, deny wanting their own state, but they are establishing control well beyond Kurdish majority areas in Rojava, in northern Syria. In March, they declared that their territory was a federal state within Syria, but they received no support from the international community. This is unlikely to deter them from strengthening their writ in these areas and seeking to extend them.
ISIS is the most interesting case. Originating in U.S.-occupied Iraq as a movement affiliated with al Qaeda, it suffered a serious setback after the U.S. troop surge in 2007, but reemerged as a major force in Syria in 2013. By late 2014, it controlled enough territory in Iraq and Syria to declare itself a state. The proclamation was not just rhetorical: documents captured by the anti-ISIS coalition leave no doubt that ISIS-controlled territory is not just a rebel hideout but a state in the making, with its own security and bureaucratic structures and the financial resources to back them up.
Often denounced as artificial lines in the sand drawn by ignorant European diplomats, the borders are no more artificial than those established by conflict.
ISIS appears to be heading for defeat in its efforts to create a lasting state, although it will continue to exist as an extremely dangerous international terrorist network. It has already lost much of the territory it once controlled, but it will be a long time before the coalition can regain control of ISIS’ core areas around Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. Yet even if this state experiment ultimately fails, it has already shaken the region’s old order.
Although only the Kurds and ISIS have openly challenged the existing borders so far, other Iraqis are beginning to do so. Some Sunnis, including Atheel al-Nujaifi, the speaker of the Iraqi parliament and the former governor of Nineveh, are arguing that the Sunni provinces will need special provisions from the Shia-led government once they are liberated. Nujaifi has even held up autonomous Kurdistan as an example that the Sunnis should consider emulating. And even some Shia provinces, such as Basra, which sits on Iraq’s richest oil fields, are challenging the authority of Baghdad and demanding autonomy.
The governments of Iraq and Syria naturally reject any change in their borders, although they can no longer claim to control everything within those borders. And among the two country’s neighbors, opposition to partition is equally strong. Russia and the United States also oppose the dismantling of either: Russia because Syria’s demise would weaken its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the United States because it is against the partition of any state. It did not even support the dismantling of the Soviet Union, hoping that political reform would make it unnecessary.
Instead, the United States, along with the European countries and the UN, believes that democratic, inclusive governments can bring about peace without the need for new borders. This belief underpins U.S. efforts to encourage reform in Iraq and international efforts to negotiate an end to the conflict in Syria. But the idea has little support in the two countries, except on the part of liberals whose voices are lost among the clashes of armed militias and the maneuvering of elites determined to maintain their power and privileges.
Reform has become a tool in a new intra-Shia political battle that has nothing to do with democracy or good governance.
The problem is that a truly inclusive, democratic system would require eliminating the region’s armed militias, sectarian leaders, and corrupt elites—in other words, all those who currently hold power. Short of a massive intervention from the outside, which is not going to happen, nobody can do that.
Consider Iraq. During the occupation, the United States helped develop—some would say imposed—a political system based on elections but also on ethnic and sectarian quotas. But the system broke down after the withdrawal of U.S. troops and became increasingly Shia-dominated and authoritarian under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. As a condition of assisting Iraq in the fight against ISIS in 2014, the United States insisted on a new prime minister willing to govern inclusively, and Haider al-Abadi replaced Maliki. Abadi is now trying to curb corruption and has proposed a new cabinet of technocrats unaffiliated with political parties.
But the parties, unsurprisingly, are opposed to being sidelined, and parliament has not approved the proposed cabinet. The only political figure other than Abadi who has accepted the idea of a technocratic government is Muqtada al-Sadr, a fiery, maverick cleric shunned by the major Shia political parties. Sadr is using the idea to increase his own power by threatening to unleash demonstrations and street action unless a non-political cabinet is installed. Reform, in other words, has become a tool in a new intra-Shia political battle that has nothing to do with democracy or good governance.
The deep political reform that could possibly allow Iraq and Syria to become stable countries has not begun in either country. Abadi tried to take some modest steps and failed. Assad did not even try, insisting that all his country needs is new elections. And progress in the fight against ISIS may only make the Iraqi and Syrian governments more repressive and provide additional incentives for those who see new borders as the only solution. The region is stumbling toward the end of Sykes-Picot, but it is no closer to the end of turmoil.