Matt McDaniel

9 minute read

Would Re-Drawing Borders Fix the Problems in the Middle East?

It is an oversimplification of geopolitics to flatly assert that the world’s problems are due in large part to haphazardly drawn borders. Certainly the ethno-religious conflicts across the world have more to do with people than geography. However, the idea that the world should be wedded to borders created over the last century is a notion that is being challenged by reality. We should not consider the redrawing of boundaries as an admission of defeat, but rather as the inevitable consequence of a lack of foresight when such borders were drawn.

Divisions in the Middle East

The Sykes-Picot agreement, the 1916 secret negotiation between Britain, France and Russia for the division of Asia Minor and the Middle East after the expected fall of the Ottoman Empire, still affects the political boundaries of the nation states of the Middle East today. The Agreement, a holdover of the imperial notion of dividing primitive lands, had little to do with the ethnic or religious makeup of the formerly Ottoman lands. Ostensibly, the Agreement was about defining spheres of influence to assure the rest of the world who controlled certain areas.


Sykes-Picot Spheres of Control: Green- Russia, Blue- France, Red- Britain. Compare to the Modern National Boundaries in the Middle East.

A different universe without the dividing of the Middle East between, largely France and Britain, may very well have seen the development of stable nation-states in the Near East. However, speculation is fiction. The reality is, arbitrary political boundaries were enforced last century and the world now has to deal with the repercussions.

The Ottoman Empire was a shell of its former self by the breakout of World War I

While there were plenty of indications that the arbitrary boundaries drawn in the post-Ottoman Middle East were not sound, the 21st century problems currently being experienced across the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Islamic Maghreb are indicators that the current political boundaries in the region cannot hold. Moreover, the United States and other Western powers’ defense of the status quo is only leading to greater turmoil.

Nations, like individuals, must be allowed to be self-deterministic. While the United States and its allies cannot allow an “Islamic State” to arise out of a terrorist organization, allowing for this period of history to give rise to stable-but-smaller states may effectively counter any future planned “Caliphate.”

Kurdistan and the Palestinian State: Two New Nations to Promote Stability

File:Kurdish-inhabited area by CIA (1992).jpgCurrent areas inhabited by ethnic Kurds

 Kurdistan should be formed by consent or by international decree. The Kurdish lobby in Washington DC is extremely powerful and their savvy public relations firms have won them the support of many in the Western media. Coupled with this support was the capture/defense of Kirkuk from the Islamic State. Even if the Islamic State disappeared tomorrow, the political reality for Iraq is that the Kurds now have effective control of some of the richest areas in the country from an oil-producing perspective. While the current plan is to leverage this control into more prominence in the Iraqi government, the inevitable conflict between other tribes and ethnic groups will only continue to foster the “sectarian” violence in the country. In addition, the government in Baghdad has been shown to be distressingly weak. Though the city is now able to defend itself and has held off the encroachment of militants from its west, the reality on the ground is that much of the bulwark against the tide of the Islamic State moving on Baghdad has been a combination of Shiite militias and the Islamic State not having the resources to take and hold a major metropolitan area like Baghdad.

File:Haider al-Abadi.jpgHaider al-Abadi, Prime Minister of Iraq

Both the militias and the relative weakness of the Islamic State are temporary fixes to what promises to be a far larger problem. In the event that the government in Baghdad is unable to field a military that is capable of repelling the full-force of a reinforced or heavily armored Islamic State offensive, either the United States or Iran will be forced to intervene to prevent a massacre in the Iraqi capital. While this scenario is not imminent, if current trends hold, it becomes more of a certainty in the near term.

Combined with the situation in Iraq, the utter collapse of the governments in Yemen and Libya make for an increasingly destabilized Near East and North Africa at a time when destabilization leads to the disenfranchisement and radicalization that the West is at war against. Additionally, the Syrian Civil War, as well as the constant issues in the Palestinian Territories, create a huge transient and migratory population and place enormous strain on the governments of Lebanon and Jordan. Added to this mix is an increasingly bellicose Israel and an untested new king in Saudi Arabia, both nations with deep discontent over the current United States policy of dialogue with Iran.

To say that the Middle East is a powder keg is the cliché of the last fifty years. In order to defeat an ideology like the one expressed by the Islamic State, al Qaeda, Ansar al-Sharia, as well as a whole host of offshoots and affiliates, stable governments are immediately necessary. At the moment, stability should take precedence over democracy. While this would certainly be a cardinal sin to express in the realm of modern statecraft, realistically attempting to set up parliamentary republics in war-torn areas is a farce.

Lest we forget the corruption of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan

Now, to be abundantly clear, supporting monarchies and secular military strongmen is not something that should be palatable as a long-term solution. The human rights atrocities under Saddam Hussein, the Saudi Kings, and Hosni Mubarak should be a strong counterweight to this proposal. However, democratic government without infrastructure is bound for corruption and collapse. The weak governments of Afghanistan and Iraq are unable to withstand armies of uneducated and disenfranchised men.

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.PNG
Stability has been the rallying message for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt

Clearly the situation on the ground would have to determine the new political realities of a re-divided Middle East. Moreover, the appearance that this was a Western-imposed division may very well cause issues for civil order for decades to come. However, the advent of the Islamic State and the collapse of Syria shows that the borders of Middle Eastern nations are already fluid. We must embrace that reality and work to create insular, stable, communities that are self-deterministic with a sense of civic pride. If this means shattering the fantasy that everything will eventually work out alright if the United States just keeps up bombing campaigns every few years, that is a risk we should take.

Bombing nations into stability doesn’t really make a ton of sense.

It is also wrong to assume that any one solution is a salve to all of the problems in every Middle Eastern nation. Certainly, even within nations there are different solutions that must be considered. For example, Kurdistan must not only be created from land that is formerly Iraqi. Rather, there must be some Turkish concessions at the outset in order to prevent an immediate hot border between the two nations. Additionally, the Palestinian State cannot merely be carved out of Israel. Rather, a State should be created from territory of Israel and several surrounding Arab States in order to create a shared degree of responsibility for the fledgling nation.

Different Solutions for Different States: Libya and Yemen

Division in Libya, or in the case of Yemen, re-division, may not be the best solution for producing a stable nation in either country. Especially in Libya where there is a secular government with militia allies and an Islamist government with militia allies as well as growing terrorist organizations, a strong, unity-based government is necessary. Similarly in Yemen, allowing Shiite militias to determine the nation’s fate is neither in the best interest of the Saudi government nor in the best interest of promoting a stable government. However, in both Libya and Yemen, the United States and the West are seen as having caused many of the problems the nations face. While the overthrow of Colonel Qaddafi in Libya was hailed as a triumph for the rebel factions, there was obviously no endgame for the vacuum of power that was created. In Yemen, the United States’ hands were clearly at play in the ouster of Ali Abdullah Saleh and the imposition of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Now Hadi has been replaced via a coup by Mohammed Ali al-Houthi. It remains to be seen whether al-Houthi has any ability to govern or whether Yemen will fall into the same state as Somalia.

File:Yemen war detailed map.pngYemen: Green- Al Houthis, Red- Former Government Loyalists,Gray- al Qaeda/Ansar al-Sharia

Promoting regime change in Yemen, which has now undergone swift changes in rapid succession, would likely only further destabilize the country. Taking a position that Yemen should once more be divided into a north and south does little to solve the growing problems in the country. However, the division of militias in the country do correspond to a geographical division. That being said, the poverty and the likely chaos of a disintegration of the Yemeni state would likely lead to a surge in al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia recruitment and basing. Certainly with jihadis in Europe claiming nominal allegiance to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the eyes of the West must focus on stability and cooperation with whatever government rises in Yemen.

Libya, too, must be a focal point for Western attention as the civil war there has fostered the growth of Islamist groups. Current numbers suggest that many of the Islamic State fighters who are active in Libya have been trained and hardened fighting in the Syrian Civil War. Islamic State bluster about the “conquest of Rome” aside, the influx of migrants from North Africa into Italy and France should be and is of great concern to both nations. The presence of the Islamic State and other radical groups in Libya, even if militants are not disguising themselves as refugees and heading to Lampedusa and other ports of ingress to Europe, are driving more and more refugees out of the war torn areas. The strain already clear on the Italian state will likely only grow as more and more displaced persons begin to arrive.

Libya’s problems, like the Sykes-Picot nations in the Near East, are in part to blame on the historical sins or inactions by Italy. Obviously Italy is not to blame for radicals and terrorists, but Italian oil interest in Libya have allowed the Italian government to turn a blind eye to the problems affecting the Libyan people. While Italy is not responsible for the current failed state, Italy should be a leader on the international stage to work to end the Libyan Civil War through whatever means it sees fit.

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Colonel Qaddafi

As expressed, above, there are no easy solutions or one-size-fits-all ideas to apply equally to every nation in the Middle East and North Africa. However, the West and the international community needs to begin to think outside of the narrow constraints of preserving the status quo. Obviously groups like the Islamic State have their sights set on radically altering the borders of and the ethnic makeup of the Middle East. The West must think of new ideas and strategies to be able to combat these growing threats.