Islamic State and the shattering of Western myths in the Middle East

For past decades, Western diplomacy was defined by an assumption that the root of all problems in the Middle East was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A man holds up a knife as he celebrates the conquest of a town in Syria by Islamist fighters (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man holds up a knife as he celebrates the conquest of a town in Syria by Islamist fighters
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The rise of Islamic State, its capture and control of significant parts of Iraq and its declaration of the establishment of a new Islamic Caliphate should encourage Western policy-makers to question several myths that have been at the foundation of the West’s relations with the Middle East.
For the past several decades, Western diplomacy was defined by an assumption that the root of all problems in the Middle East was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If we could only solve this problem, policy makers thought, we would bring peace in the whole Middle East. However, the events in the region in the past few years prove that this assumption was completely wrong.
We are now witnessing various power struggles in the region: the struggle between Shi’ites and Sunnis which is at the heart of the conflict between Islamic State (IS) and government forces in Iraq; the struggle between the seculars and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which first brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power and then led to its replacement with General Abdel Fattah Sisi; the internal struggles within various countries, such as the civil war in Libya, between radical Islamic groups such as al-Qaida and more moderate elements, or the conflict in Syria among all the various communities who fight both to define the level of autonomy they will be granted in Syria and for control over all of Syria: the Kurds, the Sunni Muslims, the Alawites, the Druse and the Christians.
Some of these conflicts, such as the conflict between the Shi’ite Muslims and the Sunni Muslims, date back to over 1,000 years. All of these conflicts bring constant bloodshed, with many more victims than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These conflicts have nothing to do with the State of Israel or with Jewish presence in the Middle East. No deal that could ever be achieved between Israel and the Palestinians could have any influence on these other conflicts.
The second assumption which has been proven wrong by recent events is the assumption that the correct policy is to try and preserve existing borders between states in the Middle East.
Those who believe in this assumption believe that the key to stability is preserving the territorial integrity of the existing states.
The current borders in the Middle East were established in a superficial manner by the League of Nations following an agreement between France and the United Kingdom, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. There is almost no link between the current borders and the fabric of the population in the respective states, the historical connection of these populations with their lands or even the geographical realities on the ground.
The fact is that today, unlike in the West, there are many homogeneous populations that are divided by these superficial borders. For example, there are large populations of Kurds on all sides of the borders between Turkey, Iraq and Syria. There are also large Sunni populations on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. There are also large Druse populations in both Lebanon and Syria.
IN MANY cases, cross-border populations have more in common than populations that live within the same border. There is no common ground among the Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds in Iraq, just as in Lebanon the common ground among Sunni, Shi’ite, Christian and Druse is non-existent.
IS is now asking to blur those superficial borders and establish one central caliphate, or empire. The violent means used by IS and its will to establish an extremist Islamic empire make it clear that the West needs to vigorously oppose this group. However, it does not mean that we should not change our approach. Rather than preserving artificial borders, we should encourage independence for groups such as the Kurds and we should encourage the division of Syria into cantons, so that each group will be able to rule its own affairs autonomously.
This will enable more people to reach freedom and autonomy by making sure that one group will not rule over several others.
In the current chaos, a new opportunity has arisen to build a more just Middle East, where Israel will continue to be a bedrock of stability and an anchor of Western democracy in the region.
This new and more just Middle East can be achieved through cooperation between Israel and the newly established political entities, especially the Kurds. This new reality will ensure better living conditions for millions of people in the whole region and will create a barrier to the expansion of radical Islam in the region.
The author, a member of Knesset, is coalition chairman and the chairman of the Subcommittee for Intelligence in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.