Against the backdrop of the growing instability in Iraq and Syria, policymakers have been trying to draw the outlines of what can be described as the post-Sykes-Picot Middle East.
The conventional wisdom has been that state system established in Mesopotamia and the Levant by the British and French in the aftermath of World War I is not viable anymore. New political arrangements reflecting the ethnic and religious makeup of the region need to be considered. That could include the division of Iraq and Syria into independent Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish states.
In most of the scenarios being discussed in Washington it is assumed that the United States would and should play a leading role in planning the new political architecture of the Middle East. The Americans would have no choice but to use their diplomatic and military power to secure the foundations of the new system.
In that context, the negotiations leading to the signing of the Dayton Accords that put an end to the three and a half-year long Bosnian War come to mind as a possible model for making a deal between the between the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds in the civil wars raging in Iraq and in Syria.
An even more grandiose plan to stabilize the Middle East envisioned by veteran foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius, calls for a Congress-of-Vienna-like process that would “gather the essential players around a table and begin framing a new security architecture.” The participants would include Saudi Arabia and Iran, joined by the United States and the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council as well as by Turkey and Egypt.
The problem with these ideas is that they assume that like in the case of the civil war in Yugoslavia or for that matter, the Napoleonic wars, the conflicts in Mesopotamia and the Levant can be brought to conclusion — and sooner than later — through a military victory by one of the sides or perhaps a stalemate — creating the conditions for a permanent cease fire, and eventually for a final-status agreement.
But considering the realities on the ground in Iraq and Syria these are not very realistic expectations. There are no signs that the Shiites and the Sunnis fighting in Iraq and Syria or their respective regional patrons, Iran and Saudi Arabia, or other players, like the Kurds, are “exhausted” and ready to make a deal anytime soon.
Moreover, with so many regional players — governments as well as ethnic, sectarian and tribal groups — being drawn into these conflicts and as alliances continue to shift quite frequently, the ability of the United States to determine or even affect the outcome of the civil wars in Iraq and Syria is quite limited. As Middle East historian L. Carl Brown put it, each tilt of the Middle Eastern kaleidoscope leads to the formation of new realignments of the players, making it close to impossible for outside powers to control the game.
Hence, trying to stabilize a region like this, where the lines separating the forces fighting in Syria and Iraq change every day and where Sunnis and Shiites (not unlike the Israelis and the Palestinians) are not ready to make the necessary concessions when it comes to core-existential issues, becomes an impossible mission.
After all, Secretary of State John Kerry couldn’t even succeed in re-starting the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Why should anyone assume that he would be able to get a deal between the Shiites and the Sunnis in Iraq? And are such efforts even worth the costs involved?
It’s not even clear that Washington has any real stake in what is happening in Iraq and Syria. Should Americans be rooting for the theocrats in Saudi Arabia that have been supplying assistance to the anti-American Jihadists in Iraq and Syria, or for the theocrats in Iran who supposedly pose a threat to the Israelis and the Saudis but who have been aiding the pro-American (?) regime in Baghdad?
If the Americans have been trying for close to fifty years to figure out where to draw the boundaries between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it’s quite possible that they’ll have to engage in the next fifty years in a similar dead-end exercise in determining where to set-up the border lines between the Shiites and the Sunnis and the Kurds.
While there is of course nothing sacred in the Middle East map drawn up by the British and the French, it’s important to remember that that Sykes-Picot proved to be quite resilient for close to a century. We also need to recognize that trying to transform the current status-quo by establishing new independent states — as opposed to modifying them — could ignite new regional wars with major costs in lives and treasure for all those involved.
So instead of laying the grounds for a grand diplomatic strategy aimed at replacing Sykes-Picot with the outlines of a New Middle East, Washington needs to recognize that all it should and could help achieve in the near future are temporary cease-fires that could serve under some conditions as a basis for peaceful co-existence as opposed to final-status agreements and grand peace conferences. Forget Dayton Agreement and consider instead the three-decade division of Cyprus as a possible post-Sykes-Picot model.
Since 1974 when Turkey invaded the northern part of Cyprus and declared the territory nine years later the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, there has been an uneasy standoff on the island with UN troops keeping the two sides apart. The Greek Cypriots still claim the whole island while the Turks demand some form of recognition of their de facto independence.
The good news: For more than three decades, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots haven’t been killing each other, as they used to do for so many years before 1974. In fact, the Greek part of Cyprus has been doing quite well and even joined the EU in 2004. And divided Cyprus, including the virtual Turkish state, seems to be doing better than many unitary states around the world.
The status quo in Cyprus, including the virtual Turkish state has been maintained for so long, because the major players that are involved in Cyprus, in particular Turkey, cannot agree on a final-status solution to the political future of the island.
Kosovo – like the Palestinian Authority, or for that matter Taiwan — is another example of a virtual state that enjoys state-like political autonomy but only limited level of diplomatic recognition and no United Nations membership.
The Kurdish virtual state already exists for all practical purposes, and a U.S.-Turkish condominium in the province would help diffuse some of the explosive problems there (refugees, Kirkuk, oil, status of Turkmens). A détente between the United States and Iran would be necessary to help bring some stability to the virtual Shiite state in Iraq and an Alawite one in Syria while Saudi Arabia (and Turkey) provide military support to maintain order in the Arab Sunni provinces in Iraq and Syria.
These seem to be kind of approach that the United States and its allies should embrace in response to the crises in the Middle East. Instead of searching for a final-status solutions the least costly goal would be to accept the reality on the ground as it continues to evolve, and where imperfect arrangements would be the only alternative to unachievable imperfect designs.
Leon Hadar, author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) is a senior analyst at Wikistrat.