Since the start of the Arab uprisings in 2011, commentators have reached for their history books to announce that we are witnessing the end of the Middle East as shaped by the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. Their point is that the Arab world is breaking apart, and that what may emerge are new states defined by sect or ethnicity to replace those drawn up by the imperial powers almost a century ago.
Arab states, almost by definition, have embodied the failure of integration in the Arab world. Since independence they have been dysfunctional, authoritarian, over-militarized and economically underdeveloped. Unity has been imposed from above, usually brutally, with no tolerance for dissent, whether political or cultural. Leaders who led such countries were viewed with a mixture of distaste and respect for ruthlessly managing the complex dynamics of their societies.
One of these was the late Hafez Assad. During the 1980s, I recall one American academic, though no friend of Assad, referring to his rule as a success. But success is ultimately decided by one’s legacy, and the legacy of the late Syrian leader was, first, to ensure that his son would succeed him, and, second, to put in place a system of sectarian repression that is largely responsible for the carnage in Syria today.
At the heart of the Syrian and Iraqi situations most saliently, and perhaps slightly differently the Lebanese situation, is the problem of minorities. When the League of Nations was created after World War I, one of its principal preoccupations was to ensure that minorities would be protected in the new states that had been created after the collapse of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.
The British and French mandatory authorities did, to an extent, favor minorities in the countries they controlled, principally as instruments of control. Britain ruled Iraq through a pro-Hashemite Sunni elite, while the French promoted minorities in Syria, among them the Alawites, who enrolled in the Troupes Speciales as a means of social advancement. This would lead to minority domination of what would become the Syrian army, and later Alawite control over Syria.
In Lebanon, though the Christians were a slight majority in 1920, France established a “Greater Lebanon” that responded to the demands of a community that was a minority in the region. Within decades the country they had created would have a Muslim majority. Lebanon would endure a 15-year civil war after 1975 that undermined Christian power and that subsequently gave the Sunni and Shiite communities a predominant role in the running of the state.
In Syria and Iraq the situation was different as minorities took or retained power and established dictatorial regimes that perpetuated minority rule. Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed in 2003 after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and in Syria the Assads’ hegemony broke down in 2011. But in neither Syria nor Iraq has a new social contract been found to accommodate minorities, so that in both countries there is a sense that these tenuous communities aspire to ethnic entities of their own.
This portrayal may be partly true, but it is also problematic. In Syria, Bashar Assad still believes he can retake all of Syria (even if others are dubious, as David Ignatius’ piece on the page shows). Far from falling back on an Alawite statelet, Assad has focused on ensuring safe communications between the coast and Damascus. He realizes that his co-religionists have not spent four decades and more expanding their presence, power, and interests throughout Syria, only to readily return today to their largely marginal areas of origin.
Iraq’s Sunnis, too, despite their sense of alienation from Baghdad, appeared to be in a different mood about their country in 2010, when parliamentary elections were held. The pacification of the Sunni uprising had largely succeeded, Sunnis participated in the elections that year, and the coalition that many of them supported, Al-Iraqiyya, won a majority, even if after months of maneuvering and discord, it was Nouri al-Maliki who again became prime minister.
There was no secessionist movement then, and even now the notion of a breakaway Sunni state raises many questions. What would be its resources? What would happen to Sunnis living in Shiite-majority areas and Baghdad? Formal separation is easy to talk about, but when implemented it is traumatic, especially when involving sectarian or ethnic communities, because it usually leads to transfers of population.
To this day the populations transfers between Greece and Turkey in 1923, or between India and Pakistan in 1947, are remembered as dark moments in the history of the countries involved. The impetus to replicate this in the Arab world is not widespread. Even during the Lebanese war, when de facto partition was in place, no effort was made to give the sectarian enclaves a definite legal status.
There is a sense among many in the West, weaned on a diet of anti-imperial historiography, that as Sykes-Picot was an imperial arrangement, its consequences must have no real legitimacy in the Arab world today. But that’s not true. The Arabs guard their imperially created boundaries jealously. Breaking up a state remains a path many hesitate to take. In Arab nationalist ideology, the political destiny of the Arabs is to join together in larger political entities, until a single Arab state is formed. Arab nationalism is a dream of unification, not fragmentation, and it retains an intellectual hold on societies that do not wish to define themselves primarily through a sectarian prism.
Does this mean Arab states will remain unified, at least officially? Political and geographical unity often clash with the reality of sectarian or ethnic division. Arab states are destined to wrestle with this contradiction for some time to come, as a substitute for formal separation. The inheritance of Sykes-Picot may be poisoned and discredited, but it is also far from dead.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.