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Middle East: Cracking up 27 novembre 2013

Posted by Acturca in History / Histoire, Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.

Financial Times (UK) November 27, 2013, p. 11

By David Gardner

The ferocious battle between Sunni and Shia is shattering the imperial borders drawn up a century ago, creating boundaries within states that are based on ethnicity and religion.

When Arabs started pouring on to the streets to challenge dynastic despots almost three years ago, a wave of euphoria swept over their world as its citizens dared to dream they were finally on their way into the 21st century.

Now, it looks as if they have been pitched back almost a century, to the period after the first world war when the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire were dismembered. Then, it was the imperial machinations of Britain and France that carved up their lands and future. Now, a raging civil war in Syria that is spilling over into neighbouring countries threatens to bulldoze post-Ottoman borders.

Are the states of the Near East coming apart – especially along faultlines between Sunni and Shia Muslims that run from Beirut to Baghdad? Are the frontiers in the Levant about to shatter, spawning the Arab equivalent of a post-Soviet jigsaw?

The first contours of those frontiers were sketched by the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 , a deal meant to limit Anglo-French rivalry in the Levant that might undermine the alliance against Germany. This fabled line in the sand, from Mediterranean Palestine to the Zagros Mountains on Iraq’s border with Iran, bisected Greater Syria and Mesopotamia into French and British mandates. It was later ratified by the League of Nations. These were spheres of influence tailored to Europe’s eastern empires rather than organic and cohesive future nation-states, much less the pan-Arab independence Britain had dangled to incite Arab revolt against Germany’s Ottoman allies.

The vicious mayhem in Syria slicing up territory within and beyond its borders has already engendered a sort of geopolitical shorthand among pundits – the end of Sykes-Picot. But what seems to be happening looks messier – as last week’s twin suicide bombing of Iran’s embassy in Mediterranean Beirut well attests.

The driving force is the overarching conflict between Sunni and Shia, which knows no boundaries and is bursting through the arbitrary borders drawn by the British and French. Some see this as primarily an interstate struggle for regional power between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That is part of the story but hardly explains the ferocity of ethno-sectarian bloodletting, which rivals anything seen in the wars that succeeded the break-up of Yugoslavia.

First Lebanon, in its 1975-90 civil war, then Iraq and now Syria have been convulsed by ethno-sectarian conflict. But what had been a Sunni-Shia subplot in the drama – going back to the schism in seventh century Islam – burst on to centre stage after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. That catapulted the Shia minority within Islam (a majority in Iraq) to power in an Arab heartland country for the first time since the fall of the heterodox Shia Fatimid dynasty in 1171. The regional balance of power tilted towards the Islamic Republic of Iran – Shia, Persian, with ambitions as a regional hegemon to rival Israel – and fanned the embers of the Sunni-Shia stand-off into millenarian flame. Iraq dissolved into a sectarian bloodbath, grinding minorities such as its ancient Christian communities between the wounded identities of the Sunni and Shia. Syria, similar in its ethno-sectarian make-up, is heading the same way, grafting the Sunni-Shia schism and Saudi-Iranian contest on to what started as another Arab struggle against tyranny. Both Iraq and Syria seem to have lost any sense of a national narrative.

Iraq, notionally a loose confederation, has virtually fragmented into three blocs: the Kurds, who have quasi-independence, in the north, Sunnis in the centre and Shia in the south. After the sectarian carnage of 2006-08, Baghdad is pretty much a Shia city.

Syria is fragmenting much more messily. Bashar-al-Assad’s regime clings on but has lost parts of the north and northeast to the Kurds, and big chunks of eastern Syria to Sunni rebels. The Assads’ Alawite sect, an esoteric offshoot of Shiism, is dug in along the northwest coast and mountains – a briefly autonomous enclave in the 1930s under French rule.

In the summer, Hizbollah, Iran’s paramilitary Lebanese ally, joined the fight to save the Assads and reopen the road from Damascus to the coast. Now, the Alawite enclave in effect stretches back into the Party of God’s strongholds in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, near where an essentially Sunni-Shia battle is raging in the Qalamoun mountains. And that is not all.

The cross-border region between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, known as the Jazeera, is turning into a Sunni emirate as disaffected Sunnis in western Iraq link up with Sunni rebels in eastern Syria, under the malign influence of al-Qaeda-linked jihadi groups – a potential strategic nightmare for the region. Syria’s Kurds, in de facto control of what they call western Kurdistan, are linking up with Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. The spectre of a Greater Kurdistan – for 25m Kurds with no state and spread over Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran – has alarmed Turkey. Ankara, as part of its effort to end a 30-year Kurdish insurgency in Turkey’s southeast, is trying to draw (mainly Sunni) Syrian and Iraqi Kurds into a sort of economic and cultural Turkosphere . Iran, with longstanding links to local factions, is also courting the Kurds.

It is tempting to see this as a return to the Millets – the fluid system of Ottoman administrative regions that allowed subject peoples a degree of autonomy and ethno-religious cohesion in exchange for loyalty to the empire, stability and regular tax remittances – except that there is precious little stability and loyalty to go round.

Once virtually all state institutions collapse, the hard-wiring and subconscious grammar of sectarian affiliation kicks in hard, and the sects construct defensive laagers. That is what happened in Lebanon, shattered into relatively homogeneous fragments across the country and inside Beirut, a city ghettoised in much the same way as Damascus and Baghdad.

The larger Levantine canvas designed by European imperialists will probably not see any clean breaks, rather a rearticulation of national and, in some cases, crossborder space, along with population transfers. In Lebanon – despite 22 years of Israeli occupation ending in 2000 and 29 years of Syrian occupation ending in 2005 – the external borders have not moved a millimetre and no one has sought to redraw them.

As the fire in Syria continues to melt borders that may not always be the case. When many threads in these interwoven societies are being pulled at the same time, it is hard to know whether the result will be an unravelling or just another tangle.

Sykes-Picot agreement, 1916

The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 was an imperial carve-up of the Ottoman Empire’s Arab possessions between Britain and France devised by Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot. Russia was also to benefit, until the 1917 revolution took it out of the Anglo-French alliance against Germany. Cynical even by the standards of the day, it was kept secret until the Bolsheviks revealed it.

Sykes, baronet, MP for Hull, and amateur Orientalist, told the British cabinet: « I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk. » He was encouraged to do so, even though Britain had all but promised the Arabs an independent state to get them to rise against the Ottoman Turks. Picot, a stalwart of the Comité de l’Asie Francaise, the influential colonial lobby, averred that « to promise the Arabs a large state is to throw dust in their eyes », according to James Barr, author of A Line in the Sand .

That line was subsequently modified as Britain and France continued to bicker and intrigue against each other across the region, and the mandates bestowed by the interwar League of Nations incorporated the goal of self-determination heralded in the Fourteen Points published by President Woodrow Wilson of the US in 1918. The lingering influence of Sykes-Picot was to interrupt the normal constitutional evolution of the Arab peoples, and to throw disparate religious and ethnic groups into nation-states that nearly a century later are coming apart.

Current geographical dispersion of ethnicities

First Lebanon, then Iraq and now Syria – countries created by European imperialists – have fragmented. The new geopolitical topography is shifting and approximate. But there can be little doubt that what Patrick Seale, the pre-eminent writer on Syria, has called the « deep grammar » of the Middle East, has begun to reassert itself.

Announcing a ceasefire with Turkey in March, Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish insurgent leader, was dismissive of « artificial borders », referring instead to Anatolia and Mesopotamia. His allies in Syria control what they call Western Kurdistan. In June, when Hizbollah took Qusair in the Homs Gap corridor to Syria’s coast, it created almost contiguous territorial control between Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and Syria’s Alawite heartland. The « land between the rivers », the largely Sunni « island » between the Euphrates and the Tigris, is being overrun by jihadis, through cross-border funnels that went eastward during the Iraq war and have turned back westward for the Syrian war.

The international borders may stay formally intact, but the furniture inside them keeps moving – and without regard to frontiers.


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