The Middle East was sliced up [after World War I] along lines set down in the secret Sykes-Picot agreement. But with the Islamic awakening and Arab Spring toppling regimes, the natural map of the Middle East seems now to be asserting itself.
Sunni and Shia align with Sunni and Shia, as Protestants and Catholics did in 17th-century Europe. Ethiopia and Sudan split. Mali and Nigeria may be next. While world attention is focused on Aleppo and when Bashar Assad might fall, Syria itself may be about to disintegrate.
In Syria’s northeast, a Kurdish minority of 2 to 3 million with ethnic ties to Iraqi Kurdistan and 15 million Kurds in Turkey seems to be dissolving its ties to Damascus. A Kurdish nation carved out of Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran would appear to be a casus bellifor all four nations. Yet in any natural map of the world, there would be a Kurdistan.
The Sunni four-fifths of the Syrian population seems fated to rise and the Muslim Brotherhood to rule, as happened in Egypt. The fall of Assad and his Shia Alawite minority would be celebrated by the Sunni across the border in Iraq’s Anbar province, who would then have a powerful new ally in any campaign to recapture Sunni lands lost to Iraqi Shia. With its recent murderous attacks inside Iraq, al-Qaida seems to be instigating a new Sunni-Shia war to tear Iraq apart.
Across the Middle East, and into south-central Asia, the intrinsically artificial qualities of several states have been brought into focus by the omnivorous American response to the attacks of 9/11; it is not just Iraq and Afghanistan that appear to be incoherent amalgamations of disparate tribes and territories. The precariousness of such states as Lebanon and Pakistan, of course, predates the invasion of Iraq. But the wars against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and especially Saddam Hussein have made the durability of the modern Middle East state system an open question in ways that it wasn’t a mere seven years ago.
It used to be that the most far-reaching and inventive question one could ask about the Middle East was this: How many states, one or two—Israel or a Palestinian state, or both—will one day exist on the slip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River?
Today, that question seems trivial when compared with this one: How many states will there one day be between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates River? Three? Four? Five? Six? And why stop at the western bank of the Euphrates? Why not go all the way to the Indus River? Between the Mediterranean and the Indus today lie Israel and the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Long-term instability could lead to the breakup of many of these states.
Goldberg even helpfully supplied a map of the “natural” Middle East.
Here’s the thing, though: there’s nothing particularly natural about the notion that a political entity is supposed to line up with a particular ethnic, linguistic or religious group. And attempts to enforce such lines are a recipe for endless conflict, because – with rare exceptions – people don’t stay in their proper boxes, and what seems to be the proper box changes with time. Is Belgium a natural or an unnatural state? Well, that depends: if religion is the important dividing line, then it makes sense to divide the Low Countries such that Catholic Flanders and Wallonia are divided from the Protestant Netherlands. On the other hand, if language is the important dividing line, then it makes sense to divide the Low Countries such that Dutch-speaking Flanders joins the Netherlands and Wallonia joins France. On yet a third hand, though, if it makes sense for economic reasons to submerge both the Netherlands and Belgium into the European Union, then why not let the constituent parts re-sort themselves into as small units as are administratively practical and appealing to the population.
Iraq and Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Lebanon and Turkey are, obviously, not Belgium. Whether Belgium survives as a unitary state another year or decade or generation is of little interest other than to the Belgians. The repercussions of the breakup of any of the major states of the Middle East would not be so easy to contain.
But that doesn’t mean that their breakup can be prevented. My point is not that the existing states should – or can – be preserved at all costs, but rather that while the various states of the Middle East are currently suffering through a severe crisis of legitimacy, legitimacy doesn’t derive from some organic theory of the state. Legitimacy derives, ultimately, from the pragmatic costs and consequences of respecting or challenging authority. The various kingdoms of medieval Europe were established by marauding bandits. Hundreds of years later, they claimed to rule by divine right.
The “natural” order for the Middle East is not Islamist rule, nor pan-Arab nationalism, nor monarchism, nor liberal democracy, nor a patchwork of mini ethno-states. There is no natural order – the closest thing to one is whatever turns out to be a workable arrangement for the population over a long period of time – and that arrangement is unlikely to line up neatly with a particular theory of the state.
Will there be a Kurdistan? Quite possibly – if the Kurds are determined to have one, and the various states in which regional Kurdish populations currently live are too weak to prevent them from leaving and/or see the cost of preventing them from leaving as being too high to be worth paying. But there is no necessary rule that says that in a “natural” map of the Middle East, there must be a Kurdistan.
The first law of political stability is not to “draw your political boundaries along the lines of the natural map of mankind.” To begin with, the political boundaries are always already drawn; re-drawing them is always a destabilizing act – justified in some circumstances, but once we’re in those circumstances we’re past the reach of any kind of first law, of stability or anything else. The first law of political stability is for the state to do its job well, which means, in addition to performing their basic functions well (providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, that sort of thing), treading that narrow line of being strong enough to make those who would challenge its sovereignty think twice before risking to do so, while not being so intrusive into the operation of local communities as to provoke such a challenge.