A blistering jihadist offensive has sparked debate on the Middle East’s colonial-era borders being redrawn, but experts say this is unlikely as Arabs have grown accustomed to their nation states.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant posted pictures online this month of militants bulldozing a berm dividing Iraq and Syria, symbolising its goal of uniting its forces in the two countries.
ISIL entitled the photo series “Smashing the Sykes-Picot border” — a reference to the secret deal that Britain and France signed on May 16, 1916, carving up the Middle East, with the former taking Iraq and the latter Syria.
To this day, the agreement remains a symbol of the duplicity of the world powers across the volatile region.
From the ruins of the Ottoman empire, the birth of a greater Arab kingdom as promised by the Britons never eventuated, with nation states persisting.
“I’m not sure how much people are attached to the borders they have, but they have become used to them,” said Peter Sluglett of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.
“If you look at Middle Eastern borders, there have been no major changes since 1920… After nearly 100 years, I think these boundaries are probably here to stay.
“Pan-Arab nationalism has had its day,” said Sluglett.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement, which was endorsed at the San Remo Conference in April 1920, riled Arab nationalists and Islamists, but the leaders of these new states have jealously held on to power and decolonisation has changed little.
The only attempt to form a united Arab republic between Egypt and Syria proved to be fleeting. Initiated by Gamal Abdel Nasser, it only lasted between February 1958 and September 1961.
“The Arab nationalists called for Arab unity and for the elimination of the arbitrary borders… but failed dismally,” said Raed Fahmi, an Iraqi former minister.
- ‘Most want peace’ -
And “later on all leaders focused on enhancing their power within each individual Arab country,” said Fahmi.
Rather than Arab nationalism, the jihadists of ISIL are driven by the goal of a caliphate, as established after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in accordance with Islamic sharia law.
Jihadists nostalgic for the Golden Age still aspire to creating an empire like the one that grew through conquest to include the Middle East, North Africa and Spain.
For Sluglett, the jihadist offensive that this month captured tracts of land linking Syria and Iraq is little more than a “symbolic gesture”.
“Most people in Iraq and Syria are far more interested in peace, and the vast majority are absolutely fed up with Islamic extremism.”
Syria specialist Fabrice Balanche also believes the borders drawn up under Sykes-Picot will be difficult to erase.
“New states will appear in the Middle East, but within the current borders,” said Balanche.
“I don’t think that a piece of Syria and a piece of Iraq would constitute a new state.
“Iraq will undoubtedly break up eventually, with the Kurds in the north the first to claim independence and the Sunni-Shiite Arab federation eventually bursting,” he added.
- ‘No change without violence’ -
But Pierre-Jean Luizard of the Paris-based Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique thinks the region is about to get new borders.
“I fear we are on the eve of very important changes that challenge states seen as colonial creations,” said Luizard.
“As we come up to commemorations of World War I, the state and political order of 1920 is being questioned. We are seeing a great new game at play, one that delegitimises states — not only Iraq and Syria, but also Lebanon.
“Such change won’t come without violence.”
But for Waddah Abed Rabbo, chief editor of Syria’s pro-regime Al-Watan newspaper, ISIL serves the interests of American neo-conservatives.
“They want to create entities hostile to each other that will lead the region in endless wars, driving out the brightest and setting Syria back hundreds of years,” he said.
“Behind the scenes in the US administration, there is much debate between different streams, with some believing that if ISIL manages to settle in western Iraq, it would be an opportunity to cut the Tehran-Baghdad-Beirut axis and isolate Syria.”