Sykes-Picot Map 521.
(photo credit: Courtesy: Royal Geographical Society)
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.