One of the factors greatly hindering the reaching of solutions to Middle East problems is the artificial nature of the region’s borders. Some analysts, such as Robert Kaplan, affirm the general lack of awareness that exists in this field. Kaplan, a geopolitical expert who writes extensively on geography issues for Stratfor, a private global intelligence agency, believes the conflict hasn’t changed since ancient times.

For example, since antiquity Iraq has always been a battlefield. In the ancient world Sumerians, Akkadians and Assyrians were fighting among themselves just as today Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds do. “The names of the groups have changed but not the cartography of war,” says Kaplan.

Before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, François Georges-Picot and Mark Sykes met to draw the spheres of control and influence of their respective empires, which later would shape the borders of the Middle East as they are known today.

The agreement they reached in January 1916, negotiated secretly before the end of World War I, resulted in the division of the Middle East. In the minds of the local people, the borders of the Middle East had been drawn artificially by foreign, imperialistic powers to facilitate their domination of the region.

Today, it seems the process of shaping the borders is still alive, and that the Sykes-Picot order might be coming to an end. We are witnessing the emergence of a New Middle East, and the relevance of the current borders is under question.

Almost a century ago, when the existence of the secret agreement became known to the US government, there was an understanding of the tragic consequences.

President Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy adviser Edward House told the British that they were making the Middle East a breeding place for future war.

Since then, the Middle East has not stopped bleeding.

Rising voices, from Arab, Israeli and American leaders, are strengthening the argument that the Middle East is burying the Sykes-Picot order and entering a new era: In the UAE, Dubai Police Chief Lt.-Gen. Dahi Khalfan warned of another “Sykes-Picot” in reference to the 1916 agreements, mentioning the United States, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood as threats to the security of the Gulf region.

Israel’s former air force commander Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan stated the old Sykes-Picot order is falling apart and a new order is yet to be determined.

According to Nehushtan, all the borders are shaking, not only the geographical boundaries but also the borders of religions and societies.

Former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice stated that the crisis in Syria might be the last episode in the disintegration of the known Middle East. She’s reminding us of the fact the European powers drew the border lines often without regard for ethnic or sectarian differences. For example:
• Bahrain is 70 percent Shi’ite, governed by a Sunni monarch.
• Saudi Arabia was created with a 10% Shi’ite population in its richest provinces to the east.
• Iraq is 65% Shi’ite, 20% Sunni, and a mix of Kurds and others, all ruled until 2003 by a Sunni dictator.
• Jordan’s population is almost 70% Palestinian.
• Lebanon is roughly divided among Sunnis, Shi’ites and Christians.
• Syria is a conglomerate of Sunnis, Shi’ites, Kurds and others, ruled until now by the Alawite minority.

MANY SIMPLY observe and say that obviously the borders are there, clearly marked on the maps. Historically, boundaries used to separate the territory of various communities and ensure their security (for example chains of mountain, rivers or deserts). Generally speaking, the practice of using spaces rather than lines survived until the 19th century. Today, a boundary is by definition a line dividing territory over which states exercise full territorial sovereignty.

All countries in the Middle East strive to exercise full sovereignty over their own borders. It is doubtful these “lines” can be called borders as understood in the modern world. Local tribes are constantly moving between countries, sects and ethnic groups are delimited by artificial borders, there is constant smuggling and transfer of weapons that is destabilizing states, and jihadists move across the region. Most current is the plight of refugees who are moved against their free will across these so-called borders as illustrated recently between Iraq, Syria and their neighbors. As an example, some analysts believe that the territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq is in great danger due to the Kurdish issue. The national borders are becoming irrelevant as the Kurds are becoming an independent player in the region.

If we refer to the borders in the Arab peninsula or the border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia, what significance do the well-defined borders have when the regions are sparsely populated and traversed by nomadic tribes? The myth says that the zigzag eastern Jordanian border with Saudi Arabia was drawn by Winston Churchill while he had the hiccups, while another version says it was due to his excessive love for whiskey, and others still claim it was after having a generous lunch with European leaders. (This “zigzag” is still known today as “Churchill’s hiccup.”)

IN ANY future settlement, unlike in the Sykes-Picot agreements, the physical, economical and demographic facts on the ground have to be taken into account. To the skeptic, this has already been done in the post-colonial era, and some borders were in fact modified.

We can cite some encouraging examples in the region where boundaries were redrawn by agreed arrangements, such as the Saudi-Jordanian swap of territory in 1965 (Jordan exchanged some 10,400 sq.km. of desert land for about 7,800 sq.km and gained some 17 extra kilometers of shoreline south of Aqaba), or the land swaps between Iraq and Iran in 1975 (Algiers Agreements).

In other cases where agreements were not reached, there is still the possibility of cross-border cooperation mechanisms, such as the Turkish-Syrian example.

Tension on their common border was high in 1998, but since then Turkey and Syria worked together and reached an agreement in 2009 to implement a policy of cross-border cooperation where people and goods were able to pass freely without visas.

Even in the intractable Israeli-Arab conflict, agreements were reached and lines were moved. Following the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in 1979, the recognized international border between the two countries was based upon the 1906 (Ottoman-British) line. A dispute came to light over the marking of the border line at the southernmost point, Taba. In 1988, following an international commission inquiry, Israel withdrew from Taba and the border was finalized accordingly.

THE MIDDLE East is currently deep in crisis, with internal and external forces attempting to reshape the entire region. Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Arab world has experienced nationalism, Pan-Arabism mixed with a local brand of socialism, Pan-Islamism and Political Islam.

Nationalism, as in the 19th-century European paradigm, seems not to have provided answers to the peoples’ problems in the region. The Assad regime tried to project a Syrian national identity, but to no avail. The communalism (“ta’ifiya”) survived and the identification between the different ethnic and religious groups prevailed.

In the minds of Arab nationalists, these artificial frontiers created in 1916 cut across the Arab nation and denied a common Arab culture. But even when the Arab states sought to “eliminate the traces of Western imperialism,” unify the Arab nation and erase the Sykes-Picot borders, Pan-Arabism did not materialize. As we can see, the modern Middle East based on territorial states has since then been challenged.

Arab intellectuals and politicians see the current order as an artificial creation of the West, calling for its destruction and hoping for regional unity.

Today, different political Islamic movements are sweeping the Middle East, both from the Shi’ite and Sunni spheres. It is possible that these two internal forces and different views of Islam will reshape the Middle East order. There was no meaningful Middle- East “regional order” before the current uprisings, and even if such an order had existed, in the beginning of the 21st century it came apart. Paul Salem makes it clear: the region is among the most disordered in the world and has no cooperative political, security or economic framework.

The borders in the Middle East are to many people in the region a mere decoration on maps. Further to this statement, like in the past, various forces are aspiring to change the known borders: the rising Islamic forces are one example. Jabhat al-Nusra, the most effective fighting force combating the Assad regime, is calling for establishment of a “Caliphate” in the Levant (Bilad al-Sham) – a Muslim empire under one political entity – a territory that would include Syria, Lebanon and beyond.

The future scenarios in the Middle East may oscillate between a status quo with more instability and violence to the reshaping of the current borders in the region by internal or external forces. It is possible that the Middle East will not break down and stay the way we know it today, but will indeed emerge with a new political order having different political forces and the same old border lines. As the fragile state structure of the Middle East has been held together for decades by monarchs, dictators and external powers, the Middle East might keep its political borders.

On the other hand, there is also the possibility of regional chaos that will end with the redrawing of new national borders. In that case, will the regional and internal forces be taking a leading role, in contrast to 1916? What will be the level of participation of the world powers, Europe, the US, Russia and China and the regional actors – Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia? I believe that the internal actors will have less incentive to let external forces draw their new borders than they did at the end of WWI.

In conclusion, Robert Kaplan is of the opinion that there is still no solution to the problem of how to divide the former Ottoman Empire. No one knows yet who will have the power to control which territories, or whether there will be new tribal and sectarian lines. The Middle East borders are (along with the African ones) the most distorted in the world and, to quote Ralph Peters, “the greatest taboo in striving to understand the region’s comprehensive failure isn’t Islam but the awful-but-sacrosanct international boundaries worshiped by our own diplomats.” Correcting borders to reflect the will of all the different peoples may be impossible, but the opposite would probably lead to more violence and bloodshed.

Maj. (Res.) Stephane Cohen is a former liaison officer to UN forces. He is a lay historian with an interest in general history of the Middle East.

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