Mourning the Syria that might have been

Christian Caryl writes: Earlier this week, when the latest ceasefire in Syria’s long-running civil war took effect, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seized the opportunity to embark on a triumphant tour of a place that has long defied him. He paid a visit to the city of Daraya, a Damascus suburb where rebels managed to resist his forces for four long years until they finally agreed to give up control in the last week of August.

For those four years the government threw everything it had at Daraya. The troops surrounding it tried to starve it out, refusing to let aid convoys bring food to residents. Syrian helicopters pounded the city with barrel bombs, weapons of indiscriminate terror that have little or no military utility. In August, the Syrian air force used rockets and napalm to obliterate the city’s last surviving hospital. Some observers believe this was part of a calculated effort to make the place completely uninhabitable.

We’ve seen the same brutality in far too many places in this war. But there was something different about Daraya — something that helps to explain why Assad was so keen to celebrate its fall.

If you only follow the headlines, you can be forgiven for seeing this war primarily as a fight between two equally nasty alternatives: the totalitarian Baath Party regime of Assad or the totalitarian theocracy of the Islamic State and other jihadist groups. But this is a drastic simplification — one that both Assad and the terrorists want their own supporters, and the world, to believe. But it is certainly truer today than it was back at the beginning of the conflict. By their very nature, civil wars have a tendency to foster extremes. The ruthless are rewarded, while the moderates and the evolutionary reformers tend to get culled out.

That’s exactly what has happened in Syria. Today, five years later, it’s easy to forget that Syria’s revolution started off amid the optimism of the Arab Spring. The first protests against Assad’s dictatorship were peaceful: Demonstrators were demanding democracy, not rule by Al Qaeda.

And Daraya was one of the birthplaces of this movement. In the revolution’s early stages it was the home of the activist Ghiyath Matar, known as “Little Gandhi” for his quixotic embrace of non-violence. When Assad’s soldiers arrived to crush local protests, he greeted them with flowers and water. They responded by torturing him to death. His corpse was later returned to his family with its throat torn out. The country’s downward spiral began.

In The Morning They Came for Us, her bloodcurdling account of the early stages of the war, journalist Janine di Giovanni explains what happened next. When she visited Daraya in 2012, locals gave her detailed accounts of a massacre conducted by government troops who had briefly managed to wrest the town away from the rebels. “It was punished,” she told me, “because it was a symbol of peaceful resistance.”

Yet even amid the descending darkness, the people of the city tried to hold on to their ideals. When Assad’s generals realized they couldn’t take the place back, they placed it under siege. Hunger became the government’s most potent weapon. “‘What did you eat today?’ I’d ask them,” di Giovanni recalls. “‘Grape leaves, some salt.’ They took leaves from the trees and made soup out of them.” Much of the population left, but several thousand locals, many of them activists, remained. In October 2012 they set up a council to govern themselves, and in the years that followed, even as life became nearly impossible, they persisted in holding regular elections — “every six months, inside every single office and department of the local government,” says Hussam Ayash, a spokesperson for the local council.

Most importantly of all, he told me, the local government persisted in maintaining its independence from the city’s militia, a non-jihadist unit of the rebel Free Syrian Army. In many other rebel-controlled parts of Syria, Ayash explained, local governments have frequently fallen under the sway of fighters, many of them Islamist extremists. By contrast, Al Qaeda and its ilk never managed to get a foothold in Daraya. “We had no services,” says Ayash. “We had no communications. We had no water. But also nobody could get in or get out. The only fighters in Daraya were the local people. So we had no jihadists.”

Ayash spoke to me on Skype from northern Syria, where he is now living after being “evacuated” from Daraya by government forces in the days following the city’s surrender on August 25. When the Syrian army managed to capture a key position on the outskirts of the city, Daraya’s leaders saw the writing on the wall, and accepted a government offer of safe passage to the north in return for their surrender of control over the community. This uncharacteristically lenient gesture by Assad was a shrewd move, one that enabled him to finally seize control of a key rebel stronghold at relatively low cost to his own troops. It was also calculated to undermine the resolve of rebel holdouts in other hard-pressed areas, who may now see a deal with the government as a more palatable option than continued resistance.

It’s hard to overestimate the psychological impact of the city’s fall. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt freezes assets of several human rights advocates

The New York Times reports: An Egyptian court dealt a heavy blow to the country’s human rights activists on Saturday by freezing the assets of five prominent human rights defenders and three nongovernmental organizations.

The freeze is part of a criminal investigation into the funding and work of prominent activists, including Hossam Bahgat and Gamal Eid, and advocacy groups, like the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, which document state abuses.

The human rights defenders are accused of using money acquired illegally from foreign governments to spread lies and harm national security. The charges can result in a sentence of life in prison.

“We don’t regret what we did, and we won’t be silenced,” Mr. Bahgat, who was briefly detained by the military last year and now works as a journalist, told reporters outside the courtroom. “This order was expected, although we fought it.” [Continue reading…]

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U.S. decision to lift an arms embargo has empowered Bahrain to intensify its political repressions

Nabeel Rajab writes: I write this from a Bahraini jail cell where I have been detained, largely in isolation, since the beginning of summer. This is not new to me: I have been here before, from 2012 to 2014, in 2015, and now again, all because of my work as a human rights defender.

Nor am I alone: There are some 4,000 political prisoners in Bahrain, which has the highest prison population per capita in the Middle East. This is a country that has subjected its people to imprisonment, torture and even death for daring to desire democracy. My close colleague Abdulhadi al-Khawaja was tortured and sentenced to life in prison in 2011 for his human rights work.

No one has been properly held to account for systematic abuses that have affected thousands. In 2015, I was arrested on new charges of “insulting a statutory body” and “spreading rumors during a time of war” for posts on Twitter. The police held me from April to July last year. I was released only after the king of Bahrain issued a pardon in an earlier case, also related to views I had expressed.

Despite the pardon, the 2015 charges and a travel ban remained in place, and I was threatened with further action. The head of the cybercrimes unit at the Criminal Investigation Directorate in Bahrain summoned me and my family to a meeting, where — in front of my children — he warned me that if I didn’t stop my advocacy work, I would face up to 15 years in prison. [Continue reading…]

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How Arab authoritarian regimes learned to defeat popular protests

Marc Lynch writes: The Arab world never seemed more unified than during the incandescent days of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Tunisia’s revolution clearly and powerfully inspired Arabs everywhere to take to the streets. Egypt’s Jan. 25 uprising, which resulted in the removal of Hosni Mubarak, taught Arab citizens and leaders alike that victory by protesters could succeed.

The subsequent wave of protests involved remarkable synergies that could not plausibly be explained without reference to transnational diffusion. Bahrainis, Yemenis and Jordanians alike attempted to replicate the seizure and long-term encampments in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, and protesters across the Arab world chanted the same slogans and waved the same signs.

But what happened in the months and years after those heady days? Did similar processes of diffusion and cross-national learning shape the post-uprisings era? Did autocratic regimes learn from one another in the same way that protesters did? In June, more than a dozen scholars came together in Hamburg, Germany, for a workshop jointly organized by the Project on Middle East Political Science and the German Institute of Global and Area Studies. The workshop closely examined learning, diffusion and demonstration across autocratic regimes during the Arab counter-revolution. The papers for that workshop, available here as an open access PDF download, closely examine the ways in which Arab autocrats did — and did not — learn from one another. [Continue reading…]

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Fractured lands: How the Arab world came apart

The following New York Times Magazine feature story is more than a long-read — at 42,000 words it’s more like a short book. Scott Anderson writes: Before driving into northern Iraq, Dr. Azar Mirkhan changed from his Western clothes into the traditional dress of a Kurdish pesh merga warrior: a tightfitting short woolen jacket over his shirt, baggy pantaloons and a wide cummerbund. He also thought to bring along certain accessories. These included a combat knife, tucked neatly into the waist of his cummerbund, as well as sniper binoculars and a loaded .45 semiautomatic. Should matters turn particularly ticklish, an M-4 assault rifle lay within easy reach on the back seat, with extra clips in the foot well. The doctor shrugged. “It’s a bad neighborhood.”

Our destination that day in May 2015 was the place of Azar’s greatest sorrow, one that haunted him still. The previous year, ISIS gunmen had cut a murderous swath through northern Iraq, brushing away an Iraqi Army vastly greater in size, and then turning their attention to the Kurds. Azar had divined precisely where the ISIS killers were about to strike, knew that tens of thousands of civilians stood helpless in their path, but had been unable to get anyone to heed his warnings. In desperation, he had loaded up his car with guns and raced to the scene, only to come to a spot in the road where he saw he was just hours too late. “It was obvious,” Azar said, “so obvious. But no one wanted to listen.” On that day, we were returning to the place where the fabled Kurdish warriors of northern Iraq had been outmaneuvered and put to flight, where Dr. Azar Mirkhan had failed to avert a colossal tragedy — and where, for many more months to come, he would continue to battle ISIS.

Azar is a practicing urologist, but even without the firepower and warrior get-up, the 41-year-old would exude the aura of a hunter. He walks with a curious loping gait that produces little sound, and in conversation has a tendency to tuck his chin and stare from beneath heavy-lidded eyes, rather as if he were sighting down a gun. With his prominent nose and jet black pompadour, he bears a passing resemblance to a young Johnny Cash.

The weaponry also complemented the doctor’s personal philosophy, as expressed in a scene from one of his favorite movies, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” when a bathing Eli Wallach is caught off guard by a man seeking to kill him. Rather than immediately shoot Wallach, the would-be assassin goes into a triumphant soliloquy, allowing Wallach to kill him first.

“When you have to shoot, shoot; don’t talk,” Azar quoted from the movie. “That is us Kurds now. This is not the time to talk, but to shoot.”

Azar is one of six people whose lives are chronicled in these pages. The six are from different regions, different cities, different tribes, different families, but they share, along with millions of other people in and from the Middle East, an experience of profound unraveling. Their lives have been forever altered by upheavals that began in 2003 with the American invasion of Iraq, and then accelerated with the series of revolutions and insurrections that have collectively become known in the West as the Arab Spring. They continue today with the depredations of ISIS, with terrorist attacks and with failing states.

For each of these six people, the upheavals were crystallized by a specific, singular event. For Azar Mirkhan, it came on the road to Sinjar, when he saw that his worst fears had come true. For Laila Soueif in Egypt, it came when a young man separated from a sprinting mass of protesters to embrace her, and she thought she knew the revolution would succeed. For Majdi el-Mangoush in Libya, it came as he walked across a deadly no-man’s-land and, overwhelmed by a sudden euphoria, felt free for the first time in his life. For Khulood al-Zaidi in Iraq, it came when, with just a few menacing words from a former friend, she finally understood that everything she had worked for was gone. For Majd Ibrahim in Syria, it came when, watching an interrogator search his cellphone for the identity of his “controller,” he knew his own execution was drawing nearer by the moment. For Wakaz Hassan in Iraq, a young man with no apparent interest in politics or religion, it came on the day ISIS gunmen showed up in his village and offered him a choice.

As disparate as those moments were, for each of these six people they represented a crossing over, passage to a place from which there will never be a return. Such changes, of course — multiplied by millions of lives — are also transforming their homelands, the greater Middle East and, by inevitable extension, the entire world.

History never flows in a predictable way. It is always a result of seemingly random currents and incidents, the significance of which can be determined — or, more often, disputed — only in hindsight. But even accounting for history’s capricious nature, the event credited with setting off the Arab Spring could hardly have been more improbable: the suicide by immolation of a poor Tunisian fruit-and-vegetable seller in protest over government harassment. By the time Mohamed Bouazizi succumbed to his injuries on Jan. 4, 2011, the protesters who initially took to Tunisia’s streets calling for economic reform were demanding the resignation of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the nation’s strongman president for 23 years. In subsequent days, those demonstrations grew in size and intensity — and then they jumped Tunisia’s border. By the end of January, anti-government protests had erupted in Algeria, Egypt, Oman and Jordan. That was only the beginning. By November, just 10 months after Bouazizi’s death, four longstanding Middle Eastern dictatorships had been toppled, a half-dozen other suddenly embattled governments had undergone shake-ups or had promised reforms, and anti-government demonstrations — some peaceful, others violent — had spread in an arc across the Arab world from Mauritania to Bahrain.

As a writer with long experience in the Middle East, I initially welcomed the convulsions of the Arab Spring — indeed, I believed they were long overdue. In the early 1970s, I traveled through the region as a young boy with my father, a journey that sparked both my fascination with Islam and my love of the desert. The Middle East was also the site of my first foray into journalism when, in the summer of 1983, I hopped on a plane to the embattled city Beirut in hopes of finding work as a stringer. Over the subsequent years, I embedded with a platoon of Israeli commandos conducting raids in the West Bank; dined with Janjaweed raiders in Darfur; interviewed the families of suicide bombers. Ultimately, I took a five-year hiatus from magazine journalism to write a book on the historical origins of the modern Middle East. [Continue reading…]

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The woman pushing women into Tunisia’s politics

Sharmilla Ganesan writes: When the Tunisian revolution of 2011 opened a path toward democracy, the activist Ikram Ben Said saw an opportunity to include women’s voices in the country’s emerging political landscape. At 30, Ben Said was already a vocal advocate for social causes. She was a senior program manager with a peacekeeping organization called Search for Common Ground, and volunteered with several nonprofits that worked with single mothers and abandoned children.

Shaped by these experiences, she founded the organization Aswat Nissa (“Voices of Women”), an effort to cut across Tunisia’s political party lines to unite women in seeking equal political and government participation. In Tunisia, men are still considered the legal head of a family, and until last November, a woman could not legally travel abroad with her minor-aged children without permission from her husband. It is in this context that Aswat Nissa is trying to get women both the opportunity and the confidence to take part in the political process. At the moment, roughly a third of Tunisia’s parliament is made up of women.

Aswat Nissa trains female candidates to stand for election and organizes widespread programs around the country to encourage women to vote, reaching beyond activists to ordinary citizens. In 2014, Aswat Nissa was awarded the Madeleine K. Albright Award for its efforts.

Ben Said is no longer president of Aswat Nissa, but she continues to be involved as a member and voluntary adviser. For the past year, she has been a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, focusing on public-policy analysis as well as women, peace, and security.

I recently spoke to her about her life, her work, and how women in her country are making their way into positions of leadership. [Continue reading…]

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Is Egypt becoming a republic of fear?

 

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Fading hope: Why the youth of the Arab Spring are still unemployed

By Heath J. Prince, University of Texas at Austin

The 2011 Arab Spring was a clear signal to governments and ruling parties that the time had come for reform, if not revolution. People in the Middle East and North Africa were demanding nothing less than sweeping political, social and economic change.

The upheaval was prompted by economic stagnation and a slow unraveling of social safety nets, borne disproportionately by the working class. Protesters made it clear that change would come not from autocrats or international financial institutions, but from the people themselves.

As is the case in Sub-Saharan Africa, economic growth has not translated into employment for large segments of the Middle East and North Africa populations. Recent analyses of post-Arab Spring policies demonstrate that state-level efforts to address one of the root causes of the Arab Spring, youth unemployment, are at best, a mixed bag and, at worst, represent a return to a pre-Arab Spring status quo.

Failure to address this most fundamental grievance could lay the groundwork for a renewed revolt and ensuing disorder.

When asked what sort of change he expected to see in five years, one young man who had been active in the 2011 revolt, answered, “Nothing – the same as today. Nothing has changed. Nothing will.”

[Read more…]

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How the Syrian Revolution transformed this Palestinian activist

Budour Hassan is a law school graduate and freelance writer based in Jerusalem who contributes to Al Jazeera, Electronic Intifada, Middle East Eye, and elesewhere. She writes:

The world revolves around Palestine, or so I thought until 2011.

The Palestinian cause, I argued, was the litmus test for anyone’s commitment to freedom and justice. Palestine was the one and only compass that must guide any Arab revolution. Whether a regime is good or bad should be judged, first and foremost, based on its stance from the Palestinian cause. Every event should somehow be viewed through a Palestinian lens. The Arab people have failed us, and we inspired the entire world with our resistance.

Yes, I called myself internationalist. I claimed to stand for universal and humanist ideals. I blathered on and on about breaking borders and waging a socialist revolution.

But then came Syria, and my hypocrisy and the fragility of those ideals became exposed.

When I first heard the Syrian people in Daraa demand a regime reform on 18 March 2011, all I could think about, subconsciously, was: “If the Egyptian scenario happens in Syria, it would be a disaster for Palestine.”

I did not think about those who were killed by the regime on that day. I did not think of those arrested or tortured.

I did not think about the inevitable crackdown by the regime.

I did not greet the incredibly courageous protests in Daraa with the same elation and zeal I felt during the Tunisian, Egyptian, Bahraini, Yemeni, and Libyan uprisings.

All I could muster was a sigh of suspicion and fear.

“Assad is a tyrant and his regime is rotten,” I thought to myself, “but the subsequent results of its fall might be catastrophic for Palestine and the resistance.” That sacred axis of resistance meant to me back then much more than the Syrian lives being cut short by its defenders.

I was one of those whose hearts would pound when Hassan Nasrallah appeared on TV. I bookmarked loads of YouTube videos of his speeches and teared up while listening to songs glorifying the resistance and its victories.

And while I supported the demands of the Syrian protesters in principle, I did so with reluctance and it was a conditional support. It was not even solidarity because it was so selfish and always centered around Palestine.

I retweeted a blog post by an Egyptian activist calling on Syrians to carry Palestinian flags, in order to “debunk” regime propaganda. The Syrian people took to the streets defending the same universal ideals that I claimed to stand for, yet I was incapable of viewing their struggle outside my narrow Palestinian prism. I claimed to be internationalist while prioritizing Palestinian concerns over Syrian victims. I shamelessly took part in the Suffering Olympics and was annoyed that Syrian pain occupied more newspaper pages than Palestinian pain. I was too gullible to notice that the ordeals of both Syrians and Palestinians are just footnotes and that the breaking news would become too routine, too dull and unworthy of consumption in the space of few months.

I claimed to reject all forms of oppression while simultaneously waiting for the head of a sectarian militia to say something about Syria and to talk passionately about Palestine.

The Syrian revolution put me on trial for betraying my principles. But instead of condemning me, it taught me the lesson of my life: it was a lesson given with grace and dignity.

It was delivered with love, by the women and men dancing and singing in the streets, challenging the iron fist with creativity, refusing to give up while being chased by security forces, turning funeral processions into exuberant marches for freedom, rethinking ways to subvert regime censorship; introducing mass politics amidst unspeakable terror; and chanting for unity despite sectarian incitement; and chanting the name of Palestine in numerous protests and carrying the Palestinian flag without needing a superstar Egyptian blogger to ask them to do so.

It was a gradual learning process in which I had to grapple with my own prejudices of how a revolution should “look like,” and how we should react to a movement against a purportedly pro-Palestinian regime. I desperately tried to overlook the ugly face beneath the mask of resistance worn by Hezbollah, but the revolution tore that mask apart. And that was not the only mask torn apart, many more followed. And now the real faces of self-styled freedom fighters and salon leftists were exposed; the long-crushed Syrian voices emerged. [Continue reading…]

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The Arab revolution of 2011 is being destroyed by a counter-revolution led by dictators and jihadists

The Irish Times reports: In late 1400 and early 1401, the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane left “pyramids of skulls, like those constructed by Islamic State today” across Syria, recalls the French Middle East expert Jean-Pierre Filiu.

Tamerlane had already destroyed Aleppo. The great Arab historian and statesman Ibn Khaldun talked to him for 35 days, in the hope of saving Damascus. “The whole time, Tamerlane knows he’s going to massacre everyone in the city,” Filiu continues. “He uses the negotiation to divide and rule, to massacre more people, faster.”

Filiu wants Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, to read Ibn Khaldun, for it’s impossible not to see a parallel with the behaviour of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Filiu is an Arabist, historian and former diplomat who served as an adviser to a French prime minister, defence minister and interior minister. His “added value”, he says, is history. He will address members of the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin on The Jihadi Challenge to Europe next Monday, May 23rd, and debate The Spectre of Global Jihad with the author Shiraz Maher that evening at the International Literature Festival Dublin.

In his most recent book, From Deep State to Islamic State; The Arab Counter-Revolution and Its Jihadi Legacy, (published by Hurst in London) Filiu concludes that the Arab revolution of 2011 – a term he prefers to “Arab spring” – is being destroyed by a counter-revolution led by the remnants of dictatorships in collusion with jihadists.

Over the past century, Filiu writes, the Arabs’ right to self-determination was “denied by colonial intervention, ‘hi- jacked’ at independence by military regimes, trampled on by the double standards of the war for Kuwait and the ‘global war on terror,’ and perverted in the UN, where peoples are represented by the regimes who oppress them”.

No other people have faced “so many obstacles, enemies and horrors in the quest for basic rights”, Filiu says. [Continue reading…]

In January, Filiu spoke about the price being paid because of President Obama’s failure to uphold ethical principles.

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Tunisia’s Ennahda party leader: ‘We are Muslim democrats, not Islamists’

Middle East Eye reports: Tunisia’s Ennahda party will separate its religious activities from political ones, its chief said in statements published on Thursday ahead of a weekend congress to formalise the change.

Rached Ghannouchi told French daily Le Monde there was no room left in post-Arab Spring Tunisia for “political Islam”.

“Tunisia is now a democracy. The 2014 constitution has imposed limits on extreme secularism and extreme religion,” he was quoted as saying.

“We want religious activity to be completely independent from political activity.

“This is good for politicians because they would no longer be accused of manipulating religion for political means and good for religion because it would not be held hostage to politics,” said Ghannouchi. [Continue reading…]

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Don’t blame Sykes-Picot for the Middle East’s mess

sykes-picot

Steven A. Cook and Amr T. Leheta write: Sometime in the 100 years since the Sykes-Picot agreement was signed, invoking its “end” became a thing among commentators, journalists, and analysts of the Middle East. Responsibility for the cliché might belong to the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn, who in June 2013 wrote an essay in the London Review of Books arguing that the agreement, which was one of the first attempts to reorder the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire’s demise, was itself in the process of dying. Since then, the meme has spread far and wide: A quick Google search reveals more than 8,600 mentions of the phrase “the end of Sykes-Picot” over the last three years.

The failure of the Sykes-Picot agreement is now part of the received wisdom about the contemporary Middle East. And it is not hard to understand why. Four states in the Middle East are failing — Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. If there is a historic shift in the region, the logic goes, then clearly the diplomatic settlements that produced the boundaries of the Levant must be crumbling. History seems to have taken its revenge on Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot, who hammered out the agreement that bears their name.

The “end of Sykes-Picot” argument is almost always followed with an exposition of the artificial nature of the countries in the region. Their borders do not make sense, according to this argument, because there are people of different religions, sects, and ethnicities within them. The current fragmentation of the Middle East is thus the result of hatreds and conflicts — struggles that “date back millennia,” as U.S. President Barack Obama said — that Sykes and Picot unwittingly released by creating these unnatural states. The answer is new borders, which will resolve all the unnecessary damage the two diplomats wrought over the previous century.

Yet this focus on Sykes-Picot is a combination of bad history and shoddy social science. And it is setting up the United States, once again, for failure in the Middle East.

For starters, it is not possible to pronounce that the maelstrom of the present Middle East killed the Sykes-Picot agreement, because the deal itself was stillborn. Sykes and Picot never negotiated state borders per se, but rather zones of influence. And while the idea of these zones lived on in the postwar agreements, the framework the two diplomats hammered out never came into existence.

Unlike the French, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s government actively began to undermine the accord as soon as Sykes signed it — in pencil. The details are complicated, but as Margaret Macmillan makes clear in her illuminating book Paris 1919, the alliance between Britain and France in the fight against the Central Powers did little to temper their colonial competition. Once the Russians dropped out of the war after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the British prime minister came to believe that the French zone that Sykes and Picot had outlined — comprising southeastern Turkey, the western part of Syria, Lebanon, and Mosul — was no longer a necessary bulwark between British positions in the region and the Russians.

Nor are the Middle East’s modern borders completely without precedent. Yes, they are the work of European diplomats and colonial officers — but these boundaries were not whimsical lines drawn on a blank map. They were based, for the most part, on pre-existing political, social, and economic realities of the region, including Ottoman administrative divisions and practices. The actual source of the boundaries of the present Middle East can be traced to the San Remo conference, which produced the Treaty of Sèvres in August 1920. Although Turkish nationalists defeated this agreement, the conference set in motion a process in which the League of Nations established British mandates over Palestine and Iraq, in 1920, and a French mandate for Syria, in 1923. The borders of the region were finalized in 1926, when the vilayet of Mosul — which Arabs and Ottomans had long associated with al-Iraq al-Arabi (Arab Iraq), made up of the provinces of Baghdad and Basra — was attached to what was then called the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq.

On a deeper level, critics of the Middle East’s present borders mistakenly assume that national borders have to be delineated naturally, along rivers and mountains, or around various identities in order to endure. It is a supposition that willfully ignores that most, if not all, of the world’s settled borders are contrived political arrangements, more often than not a result of negotiations between various powers and interests. Moreover, the populations inside these borders are not usually homogenous.

The same holds true for the Middle East, where borders were determined by balancing colonial interests against local resistance. These borders have become institutionalized in the last hundred years. In some cases — such as Egypt, Iran, or even Iraq — they have come to define lands that have long been home to largely coherent cultural identities in a way that makes sense for the modern age. Other, newer entities — Saudi Arabia and Jordan, for instance — have come into their own in the last century. While no one would have talked of a Jordanian identity centuries ago, a nation now exists, and its territorial integrity means a great deal to the Jordanian people.

The conflicts unfolding in the Middle East today, then, are not really about the legitimacy of borders or the validity of places called Syria, Iraq, or Libya. Instead, the origin of the struggles within these countries is over who has the right to rule them. The Syrian conflict, regardless of what it has evolved into today, began as an uprising by all manner of Syrians — men and women, young and old, Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish, and even Alawite — against an unfair and corrupt autocrat, just as Libyans, Egyptians, Tunisians, Yemenis, and Bahrainis did in 2010 and 2011.

The weaknesses and contradictions of authoritarian regimes are at the heart of the Middle East’s ongoing tribulations. Even the rampant ethnic and religious sectarianism is a result of this authoritarianism, which has come to define the Middle East’s state system far more than the Sykes-Picot agreement ever did. [Continue reading…]

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