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Federalism and Regionalism in the Middle East, Not Territorial Disintegration

By Shireen T. Hunter (source: LobeLog)

Photo: the Sykes-Picot map

Since the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, which exacerbated Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian divisions and the manipulation of these divisions by regional and international actors, centrifugal tendencies in Iraq have become quite strong. For example, the country’s Kurdish population and, in particular, the leader of the autonomous Kurdish region, Masood Barzani, have openly said that the time for an independent Kurdish state has arrived. Others have talked about creation of an independent Sunni state in parts of Iraq.

The increasingly common talk of disintegration has not been limited to Iraq. In other Middle East states, similar trends are under way. In countries such as Libya, the reemergence of historical regional identities and rivalries, and hence the growth of centrifugal forces, has resulted from the fall of the central government as a result of external intervention. In Libya’s case, the intervention in 2011 took the form of French and British and then NATO bombings. Col. Muamar Qaddafi was deposed and killed, and the country fragmented. Turmoil there continues.

Meanwhile, outside interference by regional and international actors turned Syria’s popular protests in 2011 into an all-out civil war, which is still ongoing and threatens to end Syria’s existence as a single country. Sudan is already divided and is still fraught with strife and internal infighting in both its southern and northern parts. In other words, Sudan’s division has not brought peace and stability as some of the proponents of its division had claimed.

Even hitherto more prosperous and stable countries, such as Turkey, have also been affected by the fallout of these conflicts, especially those in Syria. For instance, Turkey’s Kurdish problem has once more become acute. In fact, Turkey’s recent military intervention in Kurdish-inhabited parts of Syria is directly related to its fears that an autonomous, or possibly even independent, Kurdish entity in Syria would strengthen separatist movements within Turkey as well. So far, Turkey has managed to reach amodus vivendi with the Kurdish entity in Iraq, but even there the independence ambitions of Masoud Barzani are a long term challenge for Ankara. Even Iran is not totally immune from the centrifugal trends unleashed by various Middle East wars. In fact, Iran’s regional rivals, notably Saudi Arabia, have been manipulating some of its disgruntled minorities in order to pressure the government in Tehran.

More seriously, there has been increasing talk, sometimes even by officials of major Western countries, to the effect that the Middle East’s present borders are not sacrosanct. On the contrary, according to this perspective most of these borders are artificial and were created as a result of bargaining and horse-trading among colonial powers, especially France and Britain. The number of articles and opinion pieces published about the need for another Sykes-Picot Agreement in the last year or so attests to the influence of this perspective. Many maps are published about how the borders in the Middle East and South West Asia could be rearranged (see, for example, “Blood Borders” in Armed Forces Journal. Some adherents of this perspective believe that rearranging borders according either to ethnic/linguistic or sectarian affinities might produce a more peaceful Middle East. However, they generally prescribe this method for those countries that they view as troublesome, such as Syria, Iraq, and even, should circumstances allow, Iran. In fact, there is a school of thought which maintains that Iran is too big for the major powers’ comfort, and thus even under a friendly regime could be challenging. Eventually, even Saudi Arabia might not escape these centrifugal trends, and thus those who recommend the rearranging the Middle East’s borders do not exclude it from their analysis. Ironically, the Yemen war, fought ostensibly to defend the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, might even become a catalyst for its unraveling.

Yet despite the growth of these centrifugal tendencies and questions about the sanctity of current borders, the principle of territorial integrity also remains very important for all countries in the region. Even countries that might want to see their rivals broken up into smaller entities and even encourage separatist movements in their rivals’ countries still, because of their own vulnerabilities, pay lip-service to the principle of territorial integrity. Thus Turkey, after having done much to undermine Syria’s current government, now supports its territorial integrity, of course preferably without the Assad regime. Most Arab states voice support for Iraq’s territorial integrity, but preferably under a Sunni-dominated government, as in the past.

Redrawing Middle Eastern borders, however, would be neither easy nor desirable. Existing states would resist such efforts, which would lead to protracted civil wars. Intervention by outside actors is also costly and does not ensure success. Moreover, there is no guarantee that new borders, supposedly drawn on the basis of ethnic, linguistic, or sectarian affinities, would be any more stable than the existing ones. Take the case of a potential Kurdish state. Kurds for centuries have lived within different cultural settings - Turkish, Iraqi, Syrian, and Iranian (Kurds are ethnically, culturally, and linguistically close to Iranians). Even if a united Kurdish state could come together now, there would be sharp rivalries among those culturally diverse Kurds and their leaders, and they would face the challenges of developing a common language out of their many dialects and of creating the other paraphernalia of statehood. Relationships with their neighbors, from whom they would have separated, would also be fraught. They might even become embroiled in wars with their new neighbors. None of these concerns augurs well for potential new states which might emerge out of the wreckage of existing ones.

Yet clearly many peoples in the Middle East have serious cultural, economic, and political grievances that need to be addressed and cannot be ignored simply by summoning the principle of national and territorial integrity. But given the risks involved in the wholesale breakup of current states and a massive redrawing of existing borders, what is therefore to be done to address the grievances of minorities? The answer lies in less-centralized governments, greater economic and administrative autonomy for regions where minorities reside, a more equitable sharing of national resources, and greater cultural freedoms. For example, practices such as Turkey’s calling the Kurds “mountain Turks,” which fortunately it has now stopped doing, should be completely out of the question.

Another solution is regionalism and the encouragement of cross-border economic and cultural exchanges among those peoples who live within the borders of different states. For example, why should not there be economic exchanges among Turkish, Iraqi, Syrian and Iranian Kurdistan, or joint projects sponsored by their governments?

These suggestions may sound unrealistic or even downright naive. Regional countries still fear themselves to be too vulnerable to internal and external pressures to envisage granting such sweeping rights to their minorities. The minorities meanwhile, are unlikely to accept such half-measures as opposed to the lure of having their own states, flags, and national airlines! Moreover, in order to succeed, such schemes as presented above would require key international actors’ acquiesce or, even better, active support. At the very least, in playing their power games, they should resist their impulses to manipulate the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of regional states.

Ultimately, it would be in the long term interest of key international players to support such programs as recommended here. Experience of the last three decades has shown that the consequences of war, internal strife, and fragmentation of vulnerable societies cannot be confined to their own borders and eventually are bound to affect others. The growth of international terrorism and the migration crisis, including the latest wave of both phenomena that has hit Europe so hard, are just two powerful reminders of such risks.

About the Author:

Shireen T. Hunter is a Research Professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Her latest book is Iran Divided: Historic Roots of Iranian Debates on Identity, Culture, and Governance in the 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).


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