Terra Incognita: Why aren’t there ethnic nation-states in the Middle East?

There will never be a rise of many new ethnic states in the Middle East.

MAYBE IF there are enough of us, we will get a state of our own? Iraqi Shi’a Turkmen fighters take part in an intensive security deployment in the town of Taza, south of the northern oil city of Kirkuk. (photo credit: REUTERS)
MAYBE IF there are enough of us, we will get a state of our own? Iraqi Shi’a Turkmen fighters take part in an intensive security deployment in the town of Taza, south of the northern oil city of Kirkuk.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On November 20 a map proclaiming “a Turkmen state should be established” circulated on Facebook after reports that minority Turkmen communities had clashed with other groups in Iraq and Syria emerged. The source of the map goes back to July when there were calls for Turkey to establish a safe zone in Syria. “Create a Turkmen state in Syria,” wrote one author on the website ilkok.com. “The government in Turkey should support a Turkmen state. The number of Turkmen is not to be underestimated.” The map claimed there are 4.8 million members of this Turkish minority in Syria and 6.3 million in Iraq, about 20 percent of the population of both countries.
The “Turkmen state” is a fantasy that will never come about. It is like other fantasies for pure ethnic-religious states in the region. Last week former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton wrote in The New York Times “to defeat ISIS [Islamic State, aka IS, ISIL or Da’esh], create a Sunni state.” He argued that “Iraq and Syria as we have known them are gone” but that their disintegration at the hands of IS and other factors necessitated the creation of a post-IS “Sunnistan,” a state that could be an oil-producing Sunni blocking force to increasing Iranian hegemony in the region.
Bolton’s diagnosis was correct: the Sunnis have been weakened by the staying power of Assad, the Russian intervention and the growth of Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Lebanon. But a new Sunni Arab state will not emerge (there are already two dozen of them). The “good old days” when Saddam’s legions kept the ayatollahs up at night are no more.
These days there are numerous voices advancing concepts of ethnic statelets to replace the apparently failed state structure of the region. A Druse state for southern Syria. A new Alawite mini-state in Syria.
Several Kurdish states, or perhaps one large Kurdish state incorporating parts of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. A Turkmen state. A Yazidi autonomous province. An Assyrian Christian province in Iraq.
Why haven’t these states emerged and why, with the exception of Kurdistan, will they probably never emerge? The current map of the Middle East is often seen as illegitimate because of its “colonial” origins.
“What the Sunni guerrilla army’s victories aim to do is erase the lines drawn across the Middle East by the Sykes-Picot agreement,” asserted an Al-Jazeera program in July of 2014. “What gives legitimacy to ISIL rhetoric,” asked Soumaya Ghannoushi at Al-Jazeera in October of last year. She claimed that the region was paying the price for the failure of “top-town modernization” and the “disintegration of artificial post-colonial national borders... we are witnessing the explosion of the complex demographics of Arab society... its myriad social configurations, religious, sectarian, tribal and ethnic.” The Sunnis, Shi’ites, Arabs, Muslims and Christians, all “turned against each other,” she claimed. In this narrative IS was liberating the Middle East from “the map ISIS hates,” in the words of Malise Ruthven at The New York Review of Books in June of last year.
The bogeymen of the story then are the bad colonial masters with their pencils, drawing arbitrary lines on the map.
Sykes-Picot imagined zones of influence for Britain and France in 1916. Another map, prepared by T. E. Lawrence in 1918, has been described by his biographer Jeremy Wilson as “a far better starting point than the crude imperial carve-up agreed by Sykes and Georges-Picot.” In the Lawrence map most of Jordan and Syria as well as Anbar province in Iraq are given to Faisal, the son of Sharif Hussein, leader of the Arab revolt. To Hussein’s second son Abdullah would go eastern Iraq, an area populated by Shi’ites. To Hussein’s fourth son Zeid would go a small state north of the Euphrates in what is now Syria. In both the 1916 and 1918 maps a province of “Armenians” was to be created, one on Turkey’s coast and one in the interior. As we know now, most of those Armenians had already been deported and massacred by this time; the Armenian rump state would be built in the Caucuses, not in what is now Turkey.
Lawrence’s “better map” was basically a map that gave the whole of the Middle East to a single Sunni Arab family from Mecca because that family was an ally of the British.
Western diplomatic elites, so-called ‘Arabists’, tended to prefer Sunni Arab elites as rulers. Was a “better” map of the Middle East created by the Ottoman Empire’s imperial policy in the region, or were its various provinces also largely artificial? The fact is that there was no “natural” organization that perfectly suited the Middle East, no more than the borders between the United States and Canada or China and Vietnam are perfect.
The problem with the narrative that juxtaposes “natural” borders, ethnic states and the “chaos-creating” colonial borders is that it runs into a central problem: There is a contradiction between hegemonic Sunni Arab Islam in the region and little non-Sunni states. You can’t have both a “natural” large Arab Sunni empire and lots of little ethnic-nationalist-sectarian states.
French rule in Syria confronted this balancing act from the moment the French Mandate began. They purposely did not include Lebanon as part of Syria because of the historic role the French had played in Lebanon protecting the Maronite Christians.
The French supported the creation of the Mutasarrifate of Mount Lebanon, a de-facto Christian-run province after the massacres of 1860 had pitted Druse against Christians in the area (20,000 Christians were killed and 380 villages destroyed).
Later the French had to contend with a Druse uprising in Syria from 1925-1927.
The Mandate authorities created an Alawite mini-state in Syria that lasted from 1920 to 1936 to protect the interests of Alawites.
In a 1936 letter signed by Alawite notables, including Bashar Assad’s grandfather, the minority said they refused to be attached to a “Muslim Syria, because Islam is considered the country’s official religion... the Alawite people are considered infidels.”
A Muslim-dominated state would have a “spirit of hatred and intolerance” fueled by Sunni Arabs, the letter stated.
As the Alawite state was gobbled up by Syria, so also was the province of Hatay, known as the Sanjak of Alexandretta. On the coast between modern-day Syria and Turkey, the French administered the area until a referendum in 1939 led to its annexation by the Turkish republic. Even though this diverse province included some 200,000 Arab, Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian and Circassian residents, many of the Arabs boycotted the referendum. In its aftermath many of the Armenians and Arabs fled the new Turkish province in fear of Turkification, an issue discussed in the 2011 book Fezzes in the River by Sarah Shields.
IF WE turn our attention to the British rule we find that their pet rulers in Iraq also had to contend with sectarian politics.
An uprising in 1920 and again in 1935 pitted many Shi’ite tribal leaders against the Baghdad government. After Iraq became nominally independent in 1932, the leader of the Assyrian Christians petitioned the British for great autonomy and protection.
The response of the new kingdom under Faisal I was to massacre the Assyrians, who were portrayed as colonial stooges.
Dozens of villages were attacked, around 1,000 murdered, and some 15,000 fled to Syria. The city of Mosul, that greeted IS in 2014 with cheers, also greeted the massacre of Christians in the Nineveh plains with cheers in 1933.
Fast-forward now to the post-war period of the 1940s and 1950s. When Lebanon declared independence in 1943 it was still coveted by Syria whose rulers saw it as a “beachhead (mustaqarr)” for anti-Syrian or anti-Arab interests, according to Bassel Salloukh. In 1944 Lebanon signed the Alexandria Protocol with other Arab states, in which it promised to support Arab issues in exchange for recognition. Only in 2008 did Bashar Assad re-establish formal diplomatic recognition of Lebanon. Lebanon sacrificed its independent policy-making to support various “pan-Arab” causes, such as harsh opposition to the creation of Israel.
Lebanon’s continued status as a “Christian majority” state helped lead it to civil war in the 1970s. Lebanese president and warlord Bashir Gemayel, who said that the Maronite Christians “would not become like the Copts of Egypt,” a reference to being second-class citizens, was assassinated.
The Taif agreement of 1989 that ended the civil war and was brokered by Saudi Arabia specifically transferred power to the Sunni prime minister. Syria’s Assad family, far from supporting minority rights in the region, despite what grandpa had wanted, always supported a policy of being the leader of the “Arab resistance” against “Zionism and imperialism.” Ba’athist pan-Arabism was their flag, not Alawite, Christian or Kurdish rights. In fact Assad harshly suppressed Kurdish rights.
The independence of Lebanon had to be undermined, for the same reason that Al-Quds newspaper claimed an independent Kurdistan would be “like a dagger in the hearts of the Arab nations” last year. There cannot be a state in the region expressing an interest in an independent ethnic-sectarian-religious line. It is the same reason Israel was always seen as not only a colonial edifice against the interests of the Arab League, but also as an uppity minority-ruled state that cannot remain.
It is the same reason some Israeli policymakers have always thought an “alliance of minorities” in the region would be good for Israel. Oddly, Israel today finds itself far closer to the Arab Sunni regimes such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Jordan than it does the “minority” Shi’ite crescent that stretches from West Beirut to Tehran.
In this sense IS is not a “revolution” against Sykes-Picot, but a maintenance of the status quo. The only real game-changer is the rise of Iran’s proxy Shi’ite forces in the region. For the first time in history the Shi’ites, who were traditionally poor and disenfranchised, have gained real military power. Those who argue “we need a new Sunni state” are correct in diagnosing what partly fuels IS, but are patently ridiculous in pretending Sunni Arabs are the “victims” when in fact everything has been done for them since the 1920s to keep them in power throughout the region.
There will never be a rise of many new ethnic states in the Middle East. First of all because demographically the minorities have declined, not grown. Alawites, Maronites, Assyrians, Turkmen, Yezidis, Armenians, Druse; none play but a balancing role in the various states. Many of these ethnic groups overlap on eachother, like a badly made puzzle, making any “ethnic-religious” state a recipe for ethnic cleansing as well. The only real group that has emerged, in light of the evils of IS and the rise of the Shi’ites, is the Kurds. The Sunni gulf regimes and even Turkey may see greater independence of Kurdistan as a shield against Iranian power, and only in that framework could one new polity emerge.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman