As Europe marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gerald Butt looks at how boundaries may, or may not, be about to change in the Middle East.
In a few moments in November 1989, with the sudden and swift demolition of the wall separating East from West, the map of Europe changed. In the annals of speedy and dramatic cartographic adjustment, it would take some beating, but the recent ISIS explosion within Syria and Iraq must run close second in terms of impact. The hot knife of the jihadist fighters sliced effortlessly through the buttery bastions of the Iraqi army and in a matter of weeks ISIS had captured major cities and declared the establishment of a caliphate. New, albeit fluid, boundaries appeared in the Middle East.
The shock of the ISIS advance and consolidation of territory has led many commentators to predict the wholesale redrawing of the map of the Middle East, with the borders dating back to the post-World War One era being wiped away. Neither Syria nor Iraq can ever be stitched together again as nations, the argument goes, and the Kurds will use the opportunity of the current chaos to carve out the state they’ve always been denied.
But this assessment is probably something of an over-reaction induced by shock. For the radical redrawing of the region’s boundaries has the backing of only a small minority in a region of more than 300 million people. ISIS and its supporters certainly want to see their territory, expanding as the months pass, appear on the new map. But it is highly unlikely that the majority of Syrians and Iraqis want this outcome. Certainly their governments don’t.
In the 1950s a leading exponent of Arab nationalism, Sati al-Husri, lamented how newly independent states had reinforced and sanctified the borders drawn by the colonial powers. The commitment to those borders is as strong today, no matter how seriously they may seem to be under threat.
Of all the Arab states, Iraq is the one where unity seemed potentially most fragile, even before the appearance of ISIS. For years the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north seemed set to take the final step towards independence. The ISIS advance had the welcome effect, from the Kurds’ point of view, of bringing areas that had been disputed with the federal government in Baghdad under their control, notably the land around Kirkuk and its major oil field.
Tempting though it might be to create a new international boarder around Kurdish-governed territory, the likelihood is that the leadership in Irbil will continue to explore ways of re-establishing an accommodation with Baghdad. Declaring independence would remove the prospect of ever again receiving funds from the federal treasury. It would also leave the Kurdish government dangerously vulnerable to Turkey, through which the bulk of its oil exports must pass. The Turks’ failure to send forces to protect Irbil when it was under ISIS threat and their refusal to help the Syrian Kurds at Kobani and elsewhere have not inspired confidence in Ankara being a totally reliable friend in an independent future.
At present, with both Syria and Iraq in turmoil and little sign that ISIS is buckling under either American airstrikes or Iraqi army forays, it would be unwise to predict what the Middle East map will look like in five or 10 years from now. But it is certainly too soon to write the obituaries of the current nation states. Any change to the face of the Middle East will be slow and gradual. Don’t, in other words, expect a Berlin moment in the Arab world.
Gerald Butt, a former BBC Middle East correspondent, is an analyst and author on the region.