Turkish army tanks manoeuver as Turkish Kurds watch over the Syrian town of Kobani.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As a result of regional conflict and weakened and broken Arab states, it may only be a matter of time before world powers and the Middle East’s Arab leaders conform to reality and propose to divide the region anew.
Perhaps a kind of Sykes-Picot II will be in the offing, but on a smaller scale, or maybe the de facto boundaries will continue to be accepted for the time being – unofficially.
It was the Sykes-Picot Agreement reached during World War I that first charted out how to partition the Ottoman Empire. The British and French carved up the region according to their interests, not paying adequate attention to ethnic groups.
But it was local parties that shaped how the modern map of the Middle East turned out.
Divided sectarian societies with a traditional tribal culture and non-state actors such as Islamists groups, Kurdish forces and various other kinds of militias are testing the durability of the Middle East order.
In Syria, for example, the government controls only one-sixth the size of its original territory, and it is set to lose even more as Islamic State expands operations in western Syria, according to a report by the IHS research organization that was published on Saturday.
“The latest imagery and analysis from the IHS Conflict Monitor shows that the Syrian government lost 18 percent of its territory between January and August 2015,” the organization said.
How long will it take before the West and the Arab world relent and officially chop up the region into mini-states? It may take quite a while, as Arab rulers are loath to change a system that serves themselves. While they are adamant in demanding a Palestinian state in Israel, which has been a safe haven amid the regional storm, Arab leaders are not keen on creating more states that would divide their own.
And with the exception of the Palestinians, the West probably doesn’t want to confuse the region further by creating more states, perhaps fearing greater instability.
“It’s unlikely that either the Arab states or the outside powers would recognize any de facto partitions as permanent,” Martin Kramer, an expert on the Middle East and the president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, told The Jerusalem Post
“Much more likely is the temporary acceptance of zones of control as part of cease-fires, followed by so-called ‘peace processes’ ultimately promising reunification,” said Kramer.
“The model would be the Taif process that ended the Lebanese civil war [1975- 1990]. The one faction left outside this regime would be the Islamic State, which doesn’t accept borders and doesn’t value recognition by anyone else,” he said.
Islamic State would have to be contained or crushed since it cannot be integrated into any process, he added.
Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya are in the midst of civil wars that have reshaped the map of who has authority within their territories.
The Kurds in Iraq and Syria, rebel groups in Syria, and the Houthis in Yemen already control portions of the states where they are present.
In Egypt, Islamic State’s Sinai affiliate is part of a constellation of jihadist groups active there that the government has so far failed to eliminate. Arms and fighters flow across the border with Libya and into the Gaza Strip despite the Egyptian army’s efforts to close off the area by building a buffer zone and destroying tunnels.
Regarding Syria, there have been reports of diplomatic activity headed by Iran and Russia to work out some sort of political settlement in cooperation with Gulf states and the Sunni rebels. One could imagine such an agreement leading to some sort of division of the country along existing lines.
But such a solution would likely only denote a temporary cease-fire, with war breaking out again once the balance of power changed.
“Everyone needs a political solution. Everyone is exhausted,” a Western diplomat tracking the conflict said. “There has been a flurry of military activity to prepare for a political solution.”
Reuters contributed to this report.