Syria: The End of an Order
I grew up hearing my parents and their generation, blame the woes and wars of the Middle East on the arbitrary borders imposed by the colonial powers on the region after World War One.
The secretive 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, between the French and the Brits, partitioned the defeated Ottoman Empire into nations disregarding ethnic and religion elements. Countries constantly struggled to keep those boundaries unchallenged.
But as the protracted conflict in Syria lingers on, dragging the whole region with it, those boundaries might be lastly redefined. The old paradigm on which the current boundaries of the Levant were drawn might no longer hold.
Sykes-Picot came at a moment where nationalism and secular ideas were dominant creeds. Smaller states, some built on ethno-religious identities merged into wider nation-states.
To give an example, Mount Lebanon, originally of Christian Maronite and Druze majority, emerged as Greater Lebanon in 1920 annexing to its original territory the coastal towns of Tripoli, Beirut, Sidon and Tyre as well as the fertile valley of the Bekaa (originally part of the state of Damascus) and with it, the Muslim Sunni and Shia populations living in these areas. The State of Damascus, the state of Aleppo and their Sunni populations were merged with Alawites and Druzes entities in a larger Syrian Republic.
Today, events in Syria and their spillover across the region are defying the notion of nation-state and reversing national boundaries into sectarian ones. Arab social nationalism, which many Arab states had adopted during the cold war, including Syria, has disintegrated back to the basic ethno-religious entities.
The towns of Tripoli and Sidon in Lebanon are fighting the wars of Homs and Aleppo in Syria, supporting the Sunni rebels against Assad's forces. Shiite Hezbollah has moved from its national fight against Israel to a sectarian war fighting for the protection of the Shias inside Syria and alongside its Syrian ally, itself an ally of Shiite Iran.
The Sunni-Shia violence in Iraq has seen unprecedented levels in the past months, exacerbated by the Syrian conflict. Sunni fighters have joined forces to support their "Sunni brothers" in Syria while their Shia-led government, an ally of Iran, continues its covert support of Assad. Inside Iraq, calls for autonomy are growing. A couple of weeks ago, the religious clerics of Anbar, a largely Sunni province in west of Iraq, warned the Iraqi Prime minister of a full-fledged war should they not get their own state. Shiites in southern Iraq are also increasingly calling for autonomy.
Syria is breaking down into different entities. Assad's latest government military offensive has focused on controlling a strip of land linking Damascus in the south to Homs in the center up to Aleppo and the western coastland of Tartus and Lattakia where a majority of Alawites live, President Assad's sect. Winning the battle of Qusayr was only the beginning in the government's attempt to control that swath of land. Meanwhile, the Syrian army has given up on trying to take back the north, which rebels vastly control. This area, largely a Sunni entity, is becoming more and more detached from the rest of the country. The northeast, largely Kurdish, and already autonomous, could become part of a Kurdish state joined to Iraq's Kurdistan. The summit between Iraq's Kurdish Leader Massoud Barzani and Iraq's Shiaa Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki last week looked more like a summit between two heads of states than anything else.
Jordan and Turkey are also feeling a pressure on their borders with recurrent incidents spilling over from Syria and a refugees' crisis that might have long run repercussions on demographics and borders.
Syria's war is now clearly a proxy war; not pitting nations against each others, but Sunnis against Shias, largely defining new boundaries of the Levant. These new boundaries, profoundly sectarian, clearly undermine the notion of nation-states.
Some would argue the region is witnessing a return to its natural boundaries, boundaries that were once forcefully reconfigured. But are these new boundaries really a reflection of people's will? And will they necessarily ensure more stability than the ones once drawn by European diplomats?
Sykes-Picot is dead. But the last thing this region needs is a protracted religious war that will drown us in more bloodshed for many years to come