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Sykes-Picot and Israel
By JPOST EDITORIAL
09/06/2013
The breakdown of the old Sykes-Picot political order is testing Israel’s border with Syria along the Golan Heights.
 
The political order artificially constructed in the Middle East by the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement is disintegrating. As the Syrian civil war rages, the borders drawn nearly a century ago are becoming blurred.

Syria is gradually splintering into three different entities: one region along the coast is loyal to the Alawite regime of President Bashar Assad; another yet-to- be-determined swath of territory might fall under the control of Sunni opposition forces; and a Kurdish enclave with ties to northern Iran and Kurdish groups in Turkey is also emerging. Perhaps this is the inevitable demise of a state populated by a Sunni majority that is ruled by an Alawite minority.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s territorial integrity is also in danger of being compromised. Iraqi Kurdistan will soon have its own oil pipeline up and running. This is seen as an important step toward an independent Kurdistan.

Shi’ite areas in southern Iraq close to the border with Kuwait are increasingly pressing for autonomy, with support from Iran. And Sunni tribes in Iraq have joined forces against the Assad regime, creating a third distinct sectarian group in Iraq.

The changing balance of power might have ramifications for Jordan, where Beduin tribes rule over a Palestinian majority.

The breakdown of the old Sykes-Picot political order is also testing Israel’s border with Syria along the Golan Heights. Israel must remain vigilant to prevent the sort of anarchy that reigns along the 600-kilometer border which separates Iraq and Syria.

And that is precisely what Israel has been doing.

According to a UN document provided by US-based blogger Nabil Abi Saab, Israel nearly opened fire on pro-Assad forces during fighting Thursday in Quneitra. Syria had moved five tanks and five armored personnel carriers into the demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights separating Syria and Israel, to remove rebel forces that had taken over the Syrian-Israel border crossing.

In response, the IDF relayed a message to the Syrian army via the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), first put in place in 1974 after a post-Yom Kippur War cease-fire agreement between Israel and Syria, warning that it would take action if the Syrian tanks remained in the demilitarized zone. Assad’s forces responded that the tanks were in the zone solely for the purpose of removing the opposition fighters, and asked the IDF not to take action. It was the closest that Israel and Syria had come to a direct exchange of blows since the cease-fire nearly 40 years ago.

The battles spooked UN peacekeepers, and at least one country – Austria – has announced it will pull its soldiers out of the mission. There is real concern now that other countries in UNDOF will follow Austria’s lead and abandon their posts. Indeed, Austria was considered the core force, representing the single largest group of soldiers of any other country.

Still, Israel is not relying on an international contingent to protect its border, nor should it. In fact, the potential disintegration of UNDOF is proof that Israel cannot rely on international forces for its security, as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu noted Sunday at the outset of the weekly cabinet meeting.

And this realization has important implications, as US Secretary of State John Kerry continues to spearhead efforts for a negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel cannot, for instance, agree to replace IDF troops with an international force in the Jordan Valley.

Israel’s vigilant protection of its border in the North with Syria contrasts sharply with the situation along the Syrian-Iraqi border. In many parts of the region, the political order created by Sykes-Picot is falling apart before our eyes.

Israel, in contrast, has remained an island of relative stability and must continue to do so. Though it would be nice to believe that an international peacekeeping force can maintain order, the reality is that only self-reliance and protection of Israel’s vital interests will keep the border safe.
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