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Opinion
 
by Jonathan Eyal

Dump that old Middle East map

Some existing Arab states won't survive their current borders. There will be mayhem in parts of the Middle East but other parts have better prospects.

Published on Jun 25, 2014 11:53 AM
 
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Characteristically, United States President Barack Obama needed more than a week to weigh his options in dealing with the crisis in Iraq.

None was good: Doing nothing risked Iraq's rapid disintegration, but sending in American troops raised the spectre of "mission creep", precisely the sort of military adventure the US President has always been keen to avoid.

Yet just as typically, when Mr Obama did reach a decision, it amounted to splitting the difference between such choices by "going small" on all of them. The US, he announced, will assist Iraq with intelligence, send advisers and, if circumstances justify it, even use its military to hit extremists belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) who are now threatening regional stability. But the US will not otherwise get involved in handling the Iraq conflict; that task is left to the political actors on the ground.

As is the case with many of Mr Obama's other policies, this new strategy is eminently reasonable and logical. But it is also irrelevant, for the map of the Middle East is now changing in profound and irreversible ways, with the US increasingly relegated to the role of an arbiter between competing factions. The Middle East which Mr Obama will leave behind when he completes his presidency will be very different from the one he put at the top of his agenda when he first stepped into the White House.

It is tempting, but almost always wrong, to blame the US for all the ills in the Middle East. Yes, the Americans often supported venal and cruel regimes whose rule contributed to the current troubles. But so did the Europeans and Chinese who benefit far more from the region's oil and gas reserves. And yes, the US led the 2003 Iraq invasion, an act which many warned at that time would prove to be disastrous. But it is very likely that even if the invasion never took place and Saddam Hussein still ruled Iraq today with the aid of his psychopathic sons, the Middle East would not have been much better. In short, blaming the Americans is often just a form of escapism, an easy route to avoid dealing with the far more significant developments now tearing the region apart.

The first is the grossly misnamed Arab Spring, the wave of revolutions that began in 2011 with the promise of democracy, only to end up with chaos. The revolutions not only toppled a number of Arab leaders, but also shattered the old method of ruling the region's states.

As a result, everyone is scrambling to adopt new methods of government. The Arab monarchies have, at least to date, successfully insulated themselves from the revolutionary trend partly because they enjoy a historic national legitimacy, and also because in most cases they used their oil wealth to buy popular consent. Others, such as Tunisia, have struggled to create a new political order or, like Egypt, have returned to the old, military-dominated model. But for the majority of the other states affected by this turmoil, national disintegration seems the only outcome.

Libya is now effectively divided between three factions, each operating its own government. Syria is torn apart by about 10 major fighting factions. And even if the ISIL rebels are driven out of Iraq, making the country function again as a single entity seems an aspiration beyond anyone's reach.

Searching for stability

IT IS tempting to pretend that, sooner or later, a modicum of stability will return. But sadly that is not very likely. President Bashar al-Assad may nominally remain in charge of Syria, yet neither he nor any of his eventual successors will ever again exercise complete control over the country. It is the same case in Iraq, regardless of whether Iraqi Premier Nouri al-Maliki remains in power or is replaced, as the Americans are now demanding, with a more politically inclusive figure. For in both Syria and Iraq, the problem is not merely one of creating a more "inclusive" government, but also one of forging a new justification for the continued existence of states that were cobbled together by the old colonial powers of Britain and France, and which have persistently failed to provide good governance and can now be kept together only by repression and fear.

Creating such a new national consensus is fiendish in the best of times, and is rendered almost impossible given the other long- term trend now affecting the Middle East: the Muslim Sunni- Shi'ite confrontation. Again, many outside observers are tempted to dismiss this as a temporary phenomenon, a "sectarian clash". But it is not; it is far more akin to a national liberation movement, as tens of millions of Shi'ites throughout the region are no longer prepared to put up with the inferior status to which they were relegated for over a millennium.

The catalyst for this movement was undoubtedly the 1979 revolution in Iran which for the first time gave the Shi'ites the inspiration of emancipation. But the Sunni-Shi'ite confrontation that now convulses Iraq and Syria is also largely home-grown and, as in Lebanon, is largely irreversible. Almost exactly a century after the current Middle East was carved up from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, the region is about to reinvent itself.

What can outside powers, particularly the US, do when faced with such a tsunami of change?

Survival of borders

SURPRISINGLY, a great deal. The first approach is to accept - tacitly to start with, but ultimately also publicly - that some of the existing Arab states will not survive in their current borders. As the horrors of the Balkans in Europe during the 1990s suggest, trying to keep failed states together is often bloodier than accepting their disintegration.

Paradoxically, the old colonial powers of Britain and France tried to impose on the Middle East a progressive model of a state, one that includes different ethnicities and faith strands. That has failed, and the region is returning to an older model, one that rejects diversity. Nobody should relish such developments: The tracing of new borders is often accompanied by "ethnic cleansing", the expulsion or murder of people who do not "fit" new political realities. But that is what has already happened in Lebanon, and is happening every day in Syria and Iraq. The choice facing the US and other foreign governments is whether to pretend not to notice such realities, or to confront them head-on.

Whether they like it or not, foreign governments will also have to accept that the Middle East will continue to be fertile ground for terrorism; the ISIL is not merely a terrorist organisation, but also a terrorist army. However, while some parts of the Middle East may be relegated to semi-permanent mayhem, other parts face brighter prospects. Helping Egypt and Tunisia achieve better governance is still a perfectly feasible objective. Protecting Jordan, a vulnerable but strategically crucial state, is an imperative, if only in order not to fuel another cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Yet none of this can be achieved unless the US overhauls its entire approach to the region, from one of a mere upholder of the status quo to one of being an arbiter between the Middle East's key new players.

For it is one of the great curiosities of the current situation that the countries vying for influence in the region - Iran, Turkey and Israel - are all non-Arab. Yet at the same time, all the region's problems are interconnected. It is impossible, for instance, to conceive of a settlement to the dispute with Iran over its nuclear programme without also settling the question of the broader security role it will play in the Middle East.

No policy towards Iraq is feasible now without also taking Syria into account. And neither of these countries can be handled without Turkey's active collaboration. The trick for the US will be to navigate between these objectives, to arbitrate between competing demands, not because it is seen as a particularly impartial player, but largely because no other outsider in the region has a comparable military power and global reach. That will mean the US will no longer have perpetual regional enemies, and it will also not have perpetual allies. Still, Mr Obama can be assured that some things will remain unchanged: Everyone will blame him for the outcome.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com