Even devotees of centralised rule concede they may have to give ground to federalism
This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Anglo-French pact made in secret during the first world war to carve up the Ottoman territories of Greater Syria and Mesopotamia into French and British spheres of influence, configured for the convenience of Europe’s empires to the east rather than the cohesion of organically formed future nation states.
It has become a commonplace to suggest that the sundering of Syria by the five-year civil war, and the fracturing of Iraq after the US-led invasion of 2003, has shattered these imperially designed states into their original ethno-sectarian fragments. One of the first claims of Isis, after declaring its cross-border caliphate in eastern Syria and western Iraq in 2014, was that it had “broken Sykes-Picot”.
It is tempting to agree when looking at the way the Levant has cracked into entrenched fragments, divided between Sunni and Shia, Kurd or Alawite, and at how state institutions have collapsed and uncovered the hardwiring and subconscious grammar of affiliation by sect, tribe and militia.
We are seeing the violent reassertion of the millet — the system of Ottoman administrative units that gave subject peoples a measure of autonomy and ethno-religious cohesion and prevented the emergence of a larger notion of Ottoman identity or citizenship, which was restricted to a tiny elite. A fuller picture of what is happening in the Middle East today might look at what came before Sykes-Picot as well as what came after.
The European carve-up of Arab territories into artificial and heterogeneous nation states no doubt exacerbated the Ottoman legacy; the hollow promises of pan-Arab nationalism, masking the will to power of army-based local elites, signally failed to ameliorate it. However, imperial interference in the natural evolution of constitutional politics, as with the British in Egypt and Iraq and the French in Syria, probably did more to twist the future of the Arab peoples than Sykes-Picot. This was later compounded by the fatal attraction of the US-dominated west to regional strongmen as bulwarks against communism and then Islamism, and a string of misfired interventions, from the coup against a nationalist government in Iran in 1953 to the Iraq invasion of 2003.
One should recall facts. The west backed Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator toppled in that invasion, during the 1980-88 war against Iran. Iraq’s Shia majority fought against their coreligionists in the Shia Islamic Republic during that war. After the first Gulf war against Iraq in 1990-91, Shia and Kurds rose — with western encouragement — against Saddam. They were left to their fate and, unsurprisingly, after 2003 Iraqi Shia came to place more faith in Iran than the west.
Since 2003, the overarching conflict has pitted Sunni against Shia, refracting and ricocheting across the region through the inter-state rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran has forged a Shia axis from Baghdad to Beirut, and down into the Gulf. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies, angered by US ineptitude in Iraq and its reluctance to support the mainly Sunni insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, have helped contribute to the Sunni jihadism that has stepped into the vacuum.
The diplomacy to end Syria’s ethno-sectarian carnage is going nowhere, while Iraq is in danger of breaking up. Russia’s forceful intervention to rescue Mr Assad last autumn has made his regime more intransigent. The Shia-dominated government in Baghdad has so far failed to win back the confidence of minority Sunni and Kurds, while its Shia base is split. If the US and its motley allies on the ground do succeed in retaking Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria from Isis, who will govern these cities?
The good news is that even people with a deeply ingrained preference for centralised rule are starting to talk about this. “We will have to recognise the rights of the Kurds, but most of them feel themselves to be Syrian Kurds,” says a former Syrian official. The tragedy is that — absent any framework of transactional negotiation, not to mention cross-communal networks of trust and reciprocity — nothing workable looks remotely within reach. The region is burst asunder and warlords rule.