Stephen M. Walt

What if there’s real change in the Middle East?

Where is the Middle East headed? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. That goes for Obama and Romney, too. The president has been in reactive mode since he got stiffed by Netanyahu on the settlements question and blindsided by the Arab Spring, and his Iran policy is on autopilot until after the election. ...


Where is the Middle East headed? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else.

That goes for Obama and Romney, too. The president has been in reactive mode since he got stiffed by Netanyahu on the settlements question and blindsided by the Arab Spring, and his Iran policy is on autopilot until after the election. As for Romney, his foreign policy speech earlier this week showed that he knows a lot of words that imply "resolve," but he had nothing new or different to add to our current stock of not very well-conceived policies. What this tells you is that bad Middle East policy has become a bipartisan tradition.

But lately I’m wondering if we are on the cusp of something even bigger than the gradual emergence of more participatory governments in much of the Arab world. To be specific: Is it possible that the trends now underway could end up transforming the territorial arrangements that have been in place since World War I? Instead of just new regimes, in short, might we even see the emergence of new states and different borders? And if so, at what cost and with what long-term consequences?

The Paris Peace Conference in 1919 created many of the current Middle Eastern states, carving them from the territory of the former Ottoman Empire. Britain and France made a bunch of contradictory promises during World War I — to certain Arab leaders, to each other, and to the Zionist movement — and these agreements helped make a fair mess of things after the war. Like good imperialists, Britain and France mostly sought to preserve their own influence by governing these new states through "mandates" authorized by the League of Nations. In theory, the imperial powers were supposed to prepare new states like Iraq, Syria, and Transjordan for independent self-government; in practice, these arrangements were largely a device for retaining imperial control. But the mandates proved unpopular with some of the local populations and Britain and France were eventually forced to grant these states full independence after World War II. Nonetheless, the new states were all artificial creations containing diverse ethnic or sectarian groups, and each has been beset by various internal problems ever since. 

Despite a long history of wars, coups, revolts and other regional challenges, the territorial arrangements established back in 1919 have persisted with only a few alterations. Britain renounced its mandate over Palestine in 1946, a step that ultimately led to the creation of Israel. Israel subsequently took the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967. The ideology of pan-Arabism also led several abortive attempts to unify different Arab countries, and there have also been a few minor territorial adjustments in the Persian Gulf. In general, however, the countries and borders that emerged in the aftermath of World War are still intact today.

Might this long period of territorial stability now be coming to an end? On the one hand, borders around the world have tended to be pretty durable since 1950, partly because the United States and Soviet Union helped reinforce existing arrangements and partly because sensible people realize that you open up Pandora’s box when you start rearranging borders. There’s also the emergence of a fairly strong norm against the acquisition of territory by force. The status quo may be forcing different ethnic or sectarian groups to live together when they might not want to (as in Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon) and it may deny the national aspirations of others (as with Palestinians and Kurds), but it often persists because people either don’t think it is possible to change the status quo or fear that change might lead to something even worse.

That’s why I think a far-reaching territorial revision is unlikely. But I don’t think it can be completely ruled out either. After all, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the emergence of independent countries throughout the former Soviet empire, ushered in the reunification of Germany, and helped trigger the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. New states have emerged in several other places as well, such as East Timor and South Sudan, which reminds us that protracted internal violence sometimes has far-reaching effects. 

The civil war in Syria may drag on for quite awhile. Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and others are already involved to some degree, and it is by no means clear which side is going to win. If Assad eventually falls, however, the aftermath could be an an intense struggle for power between Alawis, Sunnis, Kurds, and the other components of Syria’s ethnic/religious blend, with various outside powers trying to influence the outcome as well. The longer the fighting lasts and the more parties are involved, the harder it will be to put together a workable political order once the civil war is over. The struggle in Syria could further heighten Kurdish demands for their own state, and any attempt to advance that long-deferred goal will directly affect Turkey, Iran, and Iraq (where major Kurdish areas already exist). The fighting in Syria is also magnifying the Sunni/Shia divide throughout the Arab world, with Iran and Iraq backing Assad and the Alawis and Sunni states such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia favoring the opposition.

And then there’s Jordan. The turmoil in Syria has hurt Jordan’s economy, and the spread of democratic ideals in places like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia is eventually going to lead to intensified demands for political reform in Amman. Given that a majority of Jordanian citizens are of Palestinian origin, any weakening of Hashemite rule cannot help but raise questions for the Palestinian Arabs currently living under Israeli control, either as second-class citizens in Israel proper or as colonized subjects in the occupied territories. Some Israelis have long insisted that Jordan was (or should become) the real "Palestinian state," and hardliners there might be tempted to take advantage of any upheaval there to solve the  "demographic threat" by trying to push more Palestinians across the river. 

To repeat: I’m not saying any of these things are likely. Indeed, if pressed, I’d bet that the existing states/borders will remain intact, though many of them will eventually be "under new management." But social mobilization is an unpredictable thing, especially when it turns violent, and its ultimate course might surprise us. If these various states are headed towards forms of government that are more dependent on popular backing, will it be possible to establish legitimate governments without redrawing some of the existing borders or moving people around? Probably, but maybe not.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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