international analysis and commentary

A changing order in the Mideast: states, borders and peoples


On November 5, 1904, Leo Amery, later an undersecretary in David Lloyd George’s national government, pointed out to Arthur Balfour that it would have been impossible to put an end to the Anglo-Russian rivalry in Asia until “all those regions have been fully developed and till our boundaries march side by side in the same fashion that boundaries do in Europe”. More than one century later it is becoming increasingly common to read academic and journalistic analyses aiming at reconsidering the historical role played by Western powers in the Eastern Mediterranean area by imposing borders and a state system designed by the West.

In a recent piece, published on The Atlantic (“Stop Blaming Colonial Borders for the Middle East’s Problems”), Nick Danforth pointed out for example that “the idea that better borders, drawn with careful attention to the region’s ethnic and religious diversity, would have spared the Middle East a century’s worth of violence is especially provocative […] this critique […] overlooks how arbitrary every other border in the world is, implies that better borders were possible”. According to Danforth, “no commission could have been expected to find the magic line that got all the Sunnis on one side, the Shiites on the other”.

Indeed, for centuries, Sunnis and Shias, but also Christians, Jews and other religious groups, have lived in the region reaching a level of coexistence higher than that registered in most of the rest of the world; the existence of a “1,400 year war” between Sunni and Shia Muslims is a problematic simplification. As happened in other realities, the cleavages and the sectarian strife that are increasingly brewing in the region have less to do with religious differences and more to do with modern identity politics, mainly related to the times of the First World War as well as more recent historical events like the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

It is also noteworthy to mention that there are thirteen Arab constitutions that define the nation as an “Arab nation”, while only Lebanon and Tunisia refer to a Lebanese and a Tunisian nationality; this confirms that in the “Arab world” borders – as well as the very concept of State – are deprived of the legitimacy and the sacrality that they hold elsewhere. The imposition of borders, together with the divide-and-rule policies carried out in the region by Western powers, created the the conditions for perpetuating a sort of semi-colonian order  well after the formal end of foreign domination. The Palestinian poet and political scientist Tamim al-Barghouti noted that when the colonial powers were strained during the two world wars, “their Middle Eastern colonies got their formal independence and, because of the way they were structured and the elites that governed them, continued to behave as colonies”. The artificial mono-ethnic and mono-religious order that remained inculcated in these “neo-colonies” disguised as fulfilled states is now crumbling – or, in a few cases, it is kept alive, for the moment, through a mixed use of power, force and violence.

The disintegration of states like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, or areas like the Sinai and the Gaza Strip are challenging those regional key powers which still hold the monopoly of power on their territories, notably Turkey, Iran, and Israel. In a new Arab world which seems increasingly to challenge existing state borders, Western countries as well as these three non-Arab majors powers in the region will be forced to react to the crumbling of the regional state system, and in this effort they should try as much as possible to avoid the mistakes made in the past.

In this respect the Lebanese-Israeli front is perhaps the most interesting and problematic one. While Israel is constantly challenged by limited statehood at all its borders (Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and Gaza, and the Sinai), Lebanon represents a particularly delicate context. When Ariel Sharon invaded Lebanon in 1982, his troops had to cross the mainly Shiite South. The Israeli soldiers were welcomed as liberators – from the Palestine Liberation Organization, which had transformed this area into a state (with no legitimacy) within a state. As Uri Avnery, a protagonist of those days noted, neither Sharon “nor anyone else paid much attention to the Shiites […] Shiites were the most downtrodden and powerless. However, the Israelis outstayed their welcome. It took the Shiites just a few weeks to realize that they had no intention of leaving. So, for the first time in their history, they rebelled”.

Avnery’s words refer to a far past. Today, Lebanon and in particular Hezbollah are perceived by Israel as a more complicated and subtle threat. There is no doubt that the unstable conditions of the Syrian regime are fueling this perception. Israel and Hezbollah (and thus also Iran and the Syrian regime) share at the moment a common goal: to limit as much as possible the growing number of Al-Qaeda-affiliated movements that are thriving in Syria and that are hostile toward Jews and Shiites in almost equal measure. At the same time, however, Syrian forces succeeded in smuggling advanced guided missiles into Lebanon, including a set of Russian Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles that Moscow delivered to Syria in December 2011. These missiles – a marked upgrade in the range and accuracy of Hezbollah’s arsenal – are not yet operational, but various sources in Israel show a growing apprehension on the issue.

Meanwhile, Israel and Western powers also have to consider political realities in Lebanon which increasingly seeks to engage in power-sharing, including Hezbollah: “We’re trying”, former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri clarified a few days ago to Reuters, “to run the country with everyone, because we do not want to keep anyone outside”. While the six Gulf states (GCC), the United States and other Western powers consider Hezbollah, and in some cases Hamas, as terrorist organizations, millions of people in the region perceive them as necessary partners that manage a massive variety of social service, political, and economic institutions: “Western global powers”, Rami Khoury stressed in The Daily Star, “are not used to having smaller Middle Eastern countries or movements ignore the orders or threats that emanate from Washington, London or other Western capitals”.

Whatever our opinions are on these issues, we are facing a growing certainty: the new Middle East that is taking shape requires unprecedented strategies toward non-state actors. This is not only in consideration of the growing influence of these regional players and our (Western) responsibilities in the entire process, but also because, in Moshe Dayan’s words, “if you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies”.