Borderline Views: Toward a new Middle East

We assume that any return of political stability will mean the eventual defeat of Islamic State (IS) and the return of political control to the previous local powers.

Residents of Nawa city in Syria inspect the damage after a reported strike against ISIS positions by the Russian Air Force, November 21 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Residents of Nawa city in Syria inspect the damage after a reported strike against ISIS positions by the Russian Air Force, November 21
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If and when some form of political stability is restored to the Middle East, it is by no means certain that the territorial configurations of Iraq and Syria will return to what they were before the outbreak of the present conflicts. There will have to be some serious thinking and negotiating about the demarcation of the borders of these states, as the geopolitical realities will have undergone changes which could not have been dreamed of just a few years ago.
It is simplistic to argue that the borders which existed are the ones which should be reconstituted. The changes which have taken place are too many and too substantial for that to happen automatically.
The borders of the region, drawn up initially just under 100 years ago according to the principles of the British-French Sykes-Picot agreements, have finally come crashing down and there is no logical reason that the political entities which emerge out of the present conflict should not be involved in some serious reassessment of the current territorial lines.
We assume that any return of political stability will mean the eventual defeat of Islamic State (IS) and the return of political control to the previous local powers.
But this assumption is far from being realized at the moment. IS may end up retaining control of parts of the area, albeit much smaller than those it presently controls, and while the international community is united in its resolve to bring an end to any form of IS control, no one is able to forecast what will happen if they are successful in maintaining control of a core political area over a period of a few years and warfare, without the introduction of international troops, continues endlessly with even more destruction and loss of human life.
While it looks unlikely at this stage, we should not dismiss the idea out of hand that there may be Islamic State remnants in parts of the territory which it now controls.
But assuming that IS is totally vanquished there are other major changes which have taken place that will have to be taken into consideration if and when the borders are redrawn.
The mass movement of hundreds and thousands of refugees from both Syria and Iraq, and the complete destruction of entire villages and towns in these countries, has changed the ethnic and demographic balances of the region as a whole. While the international community, especially the EU, is failing to come to terms with the enormity of the problem and is unable to cope with the refugees (the largest population movements since the end of WWII), it is simplistic to assume that when the conflict is at an end it will be possible to send even a small percentage of these refugees back to their original homes. A brief glance at the forced movements of populations during the past 100 years, following both world wars, in Asia and Africa, in the Balkans as well as in Palestine clearly shows that the vast majority of refugee populations never return to their original homes en masse. Those who flee war and devastation and have been forced from their homes through a process of ethnic or religious cleansing have little desire to return to the scenes of brutality and mass killings they have experienced.
New refugee communities, which have been springing up throughout the region, especially in Turkey, will take on semi-permanent status, will be the subject of new United Nations and humanitarian aid policies, but are unlikely ever to return to their destroyed villages and towns. Any attempt at redrawing the borders will need to take account of the new ethnic landscapes throughout the region.
This is what happened in Lebanon following the civil war and throughout the Balkans just 20 years ago. Despite all the calls for a return of the populations to their original homes and settlements, it hardly ever took place, as the local rulers insisted on reconstituting their state territories based on the new ethnic realities.
Concepts such as justice or human rights may be good for slogans, especially on the part of the United Nations, but they did not figure very highly when it came to the practicalities of reshaping the geopolitical realities.
A second major change which has taken place has been the emergence of a clearly defined Kurdish independent territory, focusing on the north of Iraq.
The Kurds were the biggest losers from the carving up of the region into state territories a century ago. Their natural ethnic homeland was divided among Iraq, Iran and Turkey, with smaller areas inside Syria and parts of the old Soviet Union. If there has been one cause which the neighboring countries have always been united about, it has been their opposition to the emergence of an independent Kurdish state. Both Turkey and Iran remain resolved to prevent any form of Kurdish autonomy or secession and they view the emergence of an independent Kurdish mini-state in northern Iraq, with some possible fingers extending into Syria, with great suspicion and hostility.
The Kurds have also suffered from brutal treatment at the hands of IS, and as small areas are now freed from the control of the latter these will opt to become part of the Kurdish state rather than to allow themselves to return to Iraqi or Syrian control. This time round, there is a much stronger likelihood of the international community supporting and recognizing the existence of a Kurdish state, although this will require the signing of agreements with both Turkey and Iran that such a state will not cross the border into those countries and will not challenge their state authority, regardless of the desire of the Kurdish populations in these countries to be part of the new political entity.
A major question concerns who will be responsible for demarcating and drawing up the new borders. Unlike the situation a century ago, it will be the local governments and power interests who will have the greatest say, rather than outside powers as happened the last time round. But that does not mean that other regional powers (Turkey and Iran) and key members of the international community (particularly the US and Russia) will not be involved, Given the recent emergence of Russia as a new regional power, with a growing influence at the expense of both the US and Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin will insist on a role in any new territorial arrangement and it is unlikely that any reconstitution of an orderly and stable political system will take place without Russian approval.
There will be other interests which have to be taken into account, such as the possibility of separate Shi’ite and Sunni states as parts of the former Iraq, if no acceptable system of power sharing can be put in place. The question of resource control, not least of the oil fields of northern Iraq, some of which are now under Kurdish control (especially in the Kirkuk region), and the cross border management of scarce water resources will all have to be taken into account. If the diverse ethnic groups all desire to have their own ethnically homogeneous countries, major trade-offs will have to take place and it cannot be entirely ruled out that further population exchanges and dislocations will take place, this time as a result of a peace agreement and in an orderly and planned fashion, rather than as a direct result of the warfare itself. This happened throughout Europe after World War I, in Cyprus in the 1970s, between India and Pakistan following the partition of India and in parts of the Balkans following the break up of Yugoslavia as recently as two decades ago.
It is all very nice, from our Western perspective, to argue that we have moved beyond the era of ethnically separate and nation states. That we have moved into a post-nation state era where we have learned to share power and live amicably together in multi-ethnic political entities, respecting religious and cultural differences.
But the bitter realities of today’s Middle East (including our own troubled Israeli-Palestinian arena) indicate that we are a long way from such a utopia. If the Middle East is to regain some form of political stability in the next decade, then serious consideration will have to be given to the way in which the region undergoes redivision along ethnic and national lines, based on the principles of territorial separation.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and professor of geopolitics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The views expressed are his alone.