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Imagining a Remapped Middle East? The western Nations have been racking their brain on remapping for centuries

THE map of the modern Middle East, a political and economic pivot in the international order, is in tatters.

Syria’s ruinous war ($18 billion loss) is the turning point.

The centrifugal forces of rival beliefs, tribes and ethnicities — empowered by unintended consequences of the Arab Spring — are also pulling apart a region defined by European colonial powers two centuries ago (even during the weakening Ottoman Empire) and defended by Arab autocrats ever since.

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Imagining a Remapped Middle East

ROBIN WRIGHT Published this September 28, 2013 in The Sunday Review of the NYT: Imagining a Remapped Middle East
A different map would be a strategic game changer for just about everybody, potentially reconfigure alliances, security challenges, trade and energy flows for much of the world, too.

Syria’s prime location and muscle make it the strategic center of the Middle East. But it is a complex country, rich in religious and ethnic variety, and therefore fragile.

After independence, Syria reeled from more than a half-dozen coups between 1949 and 1970, when the Assad dynasty seized full control.

After 30 months of bloodletting, diversity has turned deadly, killing both people and country. Syria has crumbled into 3 identifiable regions, each with its own flag and security forces. A different future is taking shape: a narrow smaller canton along a corridor from the south through Damascus, Homs and Hama to the northern Mediterranean coast controlled by the Assads’ minority Alawite sect. In the north, a small Kurdistan, largely autonomous since mid-2012. The biggest chunk is the Sunni-dominated heartland.

Syria’s unraveling would set precedents for the region, beginning next door.

Until now, Iraq resisted falling apart because of foreign pressure, regional fear of going it alone and oil wealth that bought loyalty, at least on paper. But Syria is now sucking Iraq into its maelstrom.

The battlefields are merging,”

The United Nations envoy Martin Kobler told the Security Council in July. “Iraq is the fault line between the Shia and the Sunni world and everything which happens in Syria, of course, has repercussions on the political landscape in Iraq.”

Over time, Iraq’s Sunni minority — notably in western Anbar Province, site of anti-government protests — may feel more commonality with eastern Syria’s Sunni majority. Tribal ties and smuggling span the border. Together, they could form a de facto or formal Sunnistan. Iraq’s south would effectively become Shiitestan, although separation is not likely to be that neat.

The dominant political parties in the two Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq have longstanding differences, but when the border opened in August, more than 50,000 Syrian Kurds fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, creating new cross-border communities.

Massoud Barazani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, has also announced plans for the first summit meeting of 600 Kurds from some 40 parties in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran this fall.

“We feel that conditions are now appropriate,” said Kamal Kirkuki, the former speaker of Iraq’s Kurdish Parliament, about trying to mobilize disparate Kurds to discuss their future. (An independent Kurdistan was discussed after WWI)

Outsiders have long gamed the Middle East: What if the Ottoman Empire hadn’t been divvied up by outsiders after World War I? ( It has been divided in the Peace Treaty of Versailles, but Mustapha Kemal Ataturk’s army in Anatolia recaptured all the regions given away to Greece, and mandated France…)

Or the map reflected geographic realities or identities? Reconfigured maps infuriated Arabs who suspected foreign plots to divide and weaken them all over again. (Most of the borders in the Middle-East and Africa, under the mandated colonial powers were artificially drawn by France, England and Italy)

I had never been a map gamer. I lived in Lebanon during the 15-year civil war and thought it could survive splits among 18 sects. I also didn’t think Iraq would splinter during its nastiest fighting in 2006-7. But twin triggers changed my thinking.

The Arab Spring was the kindling. Arabs not only wanted to oust dictators, they wanted power decentralized to reflect local identity or rights to resources. Syria set the match to itself and conventional wisdom about geography.

New borders may be drawn in disparate, and potentially chaotic, ways. Countries could unravel through phases of federation, soft partition or autonomy, ending in geographic divorce.

Libya’s uprising was partly against the rule of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. But it also reflected Benghazi’s quest to separate from domineering Tripoli. Tribes differ. Tripolitanians look to the Maghreb, or western Islamic world, while Cyrenaicans look to the Mashriq, or eastern Islamic world. Plus, the capital hogs oil revenues, even though the east supplies 80 percent of it.

So Libya could devolve into two or even three pieces. The Cyrenaica National Council in eastern Libya declared autonomy in June. Southern Fezzan also has separate tribal and geographic identities: this region has more people from the Sahel than North African in culture, tribes and identity, it could split off too.

Other states lacking a sense of common good or identity, the political glue, are vulnerable, particularly budding democracies straining to accommodate disparate constituencies with new expectations.

After ousting its longtime dictator, Yemen launched a fitful National Dialogue in March to hash out a new order. But in a country long rived by a northern rebellion and southern separatists, enduring success may depend on embracing the idea of federation — and promises to let the south vote on secession.

(The two Yemen, Marxist South and Saudi dominated North merged in 1989)

A new map might get even more intriguing. Arabs are abuzz about part of South Yemen’s eventually merging with Saudi Arabia (How could that be if North Yemen is separating the two regions?). Most southerners are Sunni, as is most of Saudi Arabia; many have family in the kingdom. The poorest Arabs, Yemenis could benefit from Saudi riches. In turn, Saudis would gain access to the Arabian Sea for trade, diminishing dependence on the Persian Gulf and fear of Iran’s virtual control over the Strait of Hormuz.

The most fantastical ideas involve the Balkanization of Saudi Arabia, already in the third iteration of a country that merged rival tribes by force under rigid Wahhabi Islam. The kingdom seems physically secured in glass high-rises and eight-lane highways, but it still has disparate cultures, distinct tribal identities and tensions between a Sunni majority and a Shiite minority, notably in the oil-rich east.

Social strains are deepening from rampant corruption and about 30% youth unemployment in a self-indulgent country that may have to import oil in two decades. As the monarchy moves to a new generation, the House of Saud will almost have to create a new ruling family from thousands of princes, a contentious process.

Other changes may be de facto. City-states — oases of multiple identities like Baghdad, well-armed enclaves like Misurata, Libya’s third largest city, or homogeneous zones like Jabal al-Druze in southern Syria — might make a comeback, even if technically inside countries. (Back to antiquity City-State systems?)

A century after the British adventurer-cum-diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and the French envoy François Georges-Picot carved up the region, nationalism is rooted in varying degrees in countries initially defined by imperial tastes and trade rather than logic. The question now is whether nationalism is stronger than older sources of identity during conflict or tough transitions.

Syrians like to claim that nationalism will prevail whenever the war ends. The problem is that Syria now has multiple nationalisms. “Cleansing” is a growing problem. And guns exacerbate differences. Sectarian strife generally is now territorializing the split between Sunnis and Shiites in ways not seen in the modern Middle East.

But other factors could keep the Middle East from fraying — good governance, decent services and security, fair justice, jobs and equitably shared resources, or even a common enemy (If the superpowers and regional powers give peace a chance).

Countries are effectively mini-alliances. But those factors seem far off in the Arab world. And the longer Syria’s war rages on, the greater the instability and dangers for the whole region.

Robin Wright is the author of “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World” and a distinguished scholar at the United States Institute of Peace and the Wilson Center.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on September 29, 2013, on page SR7 of the New York edition with the headline: Imagining a Remapped Middle East.

A few countries to split into smaller ever more dependent States on Western dictates?

And why all these vast States to be divided up have to be in North Africa and the Middle-East?

This ROBIN WRIGHT “would love to be” military general, disguised as an Analyst (of what?), has forgot to try her pencil drawing more boundaries on the other vaster States such as Algeria, Mali, Chad, Sudan, Congo, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Egypt,.. All of them with arbitrary borders drawn by the colonial powers of France, England, Italy…

Kids receiving suggestions from the Strategic Club to disseminate long-term wishes and desires to keep the Middle-East unstable…?

How 5 Countries Could Become 14

ROBIN WRIGHT posted this analysis in the NYT Sunday Review this Sept. 28, 2013

Slowly, the map of the Middle East could be redrawn. Read related article »

SPILLOVER TO IRAQ

In the simplest of several possibilities, northern Kurds join the Syrian Kurds. Many central areas, dominated by Sunnis, join Syria’s Sunnis.

And the south becomes Shiitestan. It’s not likely to be so clean.

In a more powerful twist, all or part of South Yemen could become part of Saudi Arabia.

Nearly all Saudi commerce is via sea, and direct access to the Arabian Sea would diminish dependence on the Persian Gulf — and fears of Iran’s ability to cut off the Strait of Hormuz.

YEMEN SPLITS

The poorest Arab country could break (again) into two pieces following a potential referendum in South Yemen on independence.

LIBYA UNGLUED

As a result of powerful tribal and regional rivalries, Libya could break into its two historic parts — Tripolitania and Cyrenaica — and

possibly a third Fezzan state

in the southwest.

PRE-MONARCHY SAUDI ARABIA

Long term, Saudi Arabia faces its own (suppressed) internal divisions that could surface as power shifts to the next generation of princes.

The kingdom’s unity is further threatened by tribal differences, the Sunni-Shiite divide and economic challenges.

It could break into the 5 regions that preceded the modern state.

SYRIA: THE TRIGGER?

Sectarian and ethnic rivalries could break it into at least three pieces:

1. Alawites, a minority that has controlled Syria for decades, dominate a coastal corridor.

2. A Syrian Kurdistan could break off and eventually merge with the Kurds of Iraq.

3. The Sunni heartland secedes and then may combine with provinces in Iraq to form Sunnistan.

And guess what, this lunatic “military would be general” ROBIN WRIGHT would love to re-establish City-States as in antiquity: the dots represent the possible city-states…

And so Lebanon is absorbed into Alawistan? And the Sunnis in Lebanon should be transferred to Syria Sunnistan?

I thought the Syrian Sunnis have already be transplanted in Lebanon…

This Map is to be redrawn by a professional “analyst” who knows the Middle-East.

Robin could have named the new partitions by their ancient names such as Chaldea, Akkad, Babylon, Ashur, Canaan, Phoenicia... just to fool the readers that she knows something about the history of this corner of the world.

Mind you that Libya is already divided up into de-facto 3 “self autonomous” States, pending the UN approval…

Note 1:  Andrew Bossone offered other perspectives:

“ROBIN WRIGHT claims to be “rethinking” the map of the middle east to reflect facts on the ground, but her fantasy map is completely unrelated to said facts and actually betrays a deep lack of knowledge about the region….

This offensively non creative naming of all these regions with a “-stan” suffix, which isn’t Arabic but an indo-persian language feature.

Hey, we’re all brown and violent, so what’s the difference, right?”

“The title given to this article had me hoping this was an interactive game where we could play as Western imperialists and redraw the boundaries of the Middle East.”

“Oh look they even picked out national capitals in case you were worried about the noble nation of North Arabia having to do that for themselves.”

“Any worse than sticking to the arbitrary post-Ottoman colonial cookie cutter?”

“Literally sticking -stan on every single word for the love of god.”

“Wow. just wow. those names couldn’t get any more cliche than this.  Wahabistan? Freaking sunnistan?

And how on earth we should believe that Saudi Arabia would let its eastern region (where most of its oil is) become its own Eastern Arabia state?

And how in hell would the southern part of Yemen become part of Saudi Arabia when the Saudi gov. has a long history of supporting Northern Yemen and even supported it over the South in 90s?

I still cant’t get over sunnistan wallahi, like did she just shove most of the Sunni-Syrian population and Duruz in ‘Alwaistan?’”


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