The only constant in the Middle East is change. And with the tectonics currently grinding across the region, more change is certainly coming. It has not been a good decade so far to be an Arab autocrat.
The foundational treaties on which the modern state system was created are eroding, and eroding at a very rapid rate. One of the treaties was signed at Westphalia in 1648. It determined that citizenship was decided by where a person lives and surrounded them by a supposedly inviolable border.
In Eastern Europe, that concept is now being challenged by Russian President Vladimir Putin acting on the theory that citizenship is based upon the language someone speaks in their mother’s kitchen. Nothing could be more destructive for the state system than his getting away with something like this
Another treaty eroding at a much greater rate was signed at Versailles in 1919. Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and even the Soviet Union were all created there and each broke up in varying degrees of messiness.
The problem was that when these countries were created everybody wasn’t in the right chair when the world war music stopped.
Whole groups of people where clumped together and geography sliced in ways most inhabitants of the new nations were deeply uncomfortable with.
The artificial lines suddenly erected froze internecine conflicts, not solved them. It was only a matter of time until they burst. The Middle East is now dealing with its own conflict story as the façade crumbles.
It’s probably fairly safe to say that Iraq and Syria are not coming back and despite anything policy makers may say publically, the goal in the future will be to work towards a soft landing to contain the forces currently being unleashed like opening a bottle that was shaken for 100 years.
What the world is slowly understanding about the Middle East is how differently the people see themselves. Where the West sees chaos and instability, the locals see only history. The lines on our maps often meant more to the Western world than they did to those living inside them.
The reality of this was captured perfectly by two poignant events. One was the image of Islamic State militants dismantling a border crossing between Iraq and Syria this year. The other was the statement by a British official that armed intervention was designed to “defend Iraqi state sovereignty”. The two are connected but represent diametrically opposite worldviews.
The people on the ground never saw the border lines in the first place. The images released on the internet of militants tearing down outposts was carefully orchestrated propaganda built for Western eyes, not Iraqi or Syrian.
Most of those nations didn’t exist until the latter half of last century. Some of the Western decision makers at the time may have been arrogant, but they did it for the expediency of European diplomacy and trade goals, accomplished with complete indifference to ethnic, cultural or religious realities.
All they wanted to do was restart the global system. To achieve this the world needed to play the same game with the same rules. And to avoid future total war calamities and open the world for trade, new lines were drawn on the map. Sometimes those lines carved one village into two but they had to be placed somewhere.
The people living in those countries, while perfectly happy to play the West’s game and say all the right words suggesting everything was flowing nicely, they never believed the illusion in the same way. The new borders were kept in place first by raw European power, then by Cold War superpower tension and finally by the resultant authoritarian regimes which are now so spectacularly imploding.
The shock of watching militants drive unimpeded across Middle Eastern borders stabbed right through the façade of nations that only the West had been convinced ever truly existed.
With the collapse of Arab autocracies the last artificial imposition of external power keeping the frozen conflicts frosty in the region is now gone. Iraq and Syria are only the current implosions, not the last.
Will Iraq and Syria maintain a seat at Turtle Bay in New York City in the UN General Assembly? Maybe. But if they do, it will only be to appease the global system and will say nothing about the true constituency of the “countries”.
What is happening in the Middle East will not be isolated to that region. The theory of the state system clearly has plenty of competition and outside the Anglosphere countries it is difficult to find a nation completely comfortable with where the lines are currently drawn and who is included inside them.
In short, don’t get used to the map. The world might be getting less violent in the long run, but there are deep historical and ethnic issues remaining still to be sorted out across the planet.