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Robert Springborg

Saving Sykes-Picot

Partitioning existing nation states would exacerbate rather than resolve current conflicts in the region [Getty]

Date of publication: 30 June, 2016

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Comment: Instead of dividing existing states, or sustaining "fierce but brittle" states, the aim should be to bring about institutions that are more responsive to their citizens, argues Robert Springborg.

The imperial carve-up of Ottoman Arab territories on the basis of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement created centralised colonial states in which citizenship rights were sharply curtailed. The post-colonial Arab states that replaced them did not address either of these shortcomings. If anything, those states further centralised power in the name of this or that nationalist ideology, while curtailing citizenship more by diluting already thin democratic institutions, rights and processes.

These "fierce but brittle states", to use Nazih Ayubi's apt description, thus tried to sustain overly large governments on inadequate foundations narrowed by geographic distance from popular bases and lack of institutional representation of citizens. Just as colonial regimes were swept away by nationalist movements, so have many of their post-colonial successors now succumbed to popular discontent.     

The inheritance of emerging post-post-colonial states is thus a meagre one upon which to found effective and inclusive political orders. Why then even bother to attempt to save them? After all, the borders drawn by Sykes and Picot respected the wishes of the British and the French, not the preferences and loyalties of local inhabitants. Colonial and post-colonial states were centralised and non-democratic precisely because they had to be. In the absence of unified national political communities based on consensus, rulers, whether foreign or local, had little choice but to impose their will.

Now that the likes of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gadaffi, Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak and Ali Abdullah Saleh have been swept away, with Bashar al-Assad hanging on grimly thanks only to the Russians and Iranians, isn't it time to reconsider the attempt to build successor governments on the same fragile national foundations, rather than reconstructing nations on the firmer ground of ethnic, religious, regional and possibly even tribal solidarities?

Saudi Arabia, for example, a veritable paragon of stability by the standards of the region, is the only country in the world named after its tribal founders. Indeed, the logic of national homogeneity as a prerequisite for effective state building has already impelled map drawing exercises by contemporary Sykes-Picots, whether US Vice President Joe Biden as regards Iraq, or others for the region as a whole, one of which refers to this as "the big idea" for 2016.

A Kurdish nation state cut out of Iraq and possibly parts of Syria would stoke irredentism in Turkey and Iran, to say nothing of Arab-Kurdish conflicts in the bifurcated nations themselves

But is this "big idea" a good idea, or at least the lesser of two evils? Or might the devil we know in the form of brittle states be better than the one we don't, in which redrawn borders invite a host of new, yet more profound, intractable problems?

Bad as things are in the region, they can get worse.

Partitioning existing nation states would exacerbate rather than resolve current conflicts between irredentist and centralist forces. The largest partition of the post-colonial era, that of the sub-continent in 1947, led to massive and immediate dislocation, hardship and conflict, then to state institutionalisation of Hindu-Muslim animosities. Entrenched interests in perpetuating the conflict prosper to this day in both Pakistan and India, stoking popular animosities in pursuit of those interests.

The UN endorsed partition of Palestine in the very same year also led to immediate suffering and conflict, followed by three generations of Israeli and Arab politicians who have typically seen it in their interest to exacerbate rather than to attempt to resolve tensions and conflicts between Jews and Arabs.

Interestingly enough, progressive Israelis and Palestinians are now entertaining the idea that a return to the pre-partition Palestine consisting of one state and two nations might actually be preferable to the two-state solution. Experience is a tough teacher.

It is not difficult to imagine contemporary analogues to the consequences of those 1947 partitions. A Kurdish nation state cut out of Iraq and possibly parts of Syria would stoke irredentism in Turkey and Iran, to say nothing of Arab-Kurdish conflicts in the bifurcated nations themselves. The fates of those caught on the wrong side of the lines, such as Kurds in Damascus, Aleppo or Diyala Province in Iraq, or Arabs in Sulamaniya or Irbil, would be precarious at best.

At the very least, border wars could be anticipated in virtually any reconfiguration of the present map, whether pitting Alawis against Sunnis in Syria, Shia versus Sunni in Iraq, Zaydi northerners versus Sunni southerners in Yemen, Benghazi oriented tribes in Libya's east versus Islamists and Tripoli oriented tribes in the west, and so on.

Can existing, over-centralised nation states that do not extend real citizenship rights to their peoples be sufficiently reformed to avert the probable disasters that would flow from partition?

Moreover, the example of South Sudan, currently wracked by civil war, is suggestive of the likely outcomes in newly created nation states as forces within them vie for power. The Kurdish region of Iraq is already subjected to such strains, as are the Benghazi and Tripoli areas in Libya. A partition of Yemen between north and south would immediately give rise to struggles for power in both, with the Houthis, al-Qaeda, IS and others all entering the fray.

So what about the devil we already know? Can existing, over-centralised nation states that do not extend real citizenship rights to their peoples be sufficiently reformed to avert the probable disasters that would flow from partition?

Theoretically, the answer on both counts is yes. As for fixing the defect of overly centralised governance, discussion is already underway in various countries in the region as to how this might be accomplished. Decentralisation of existing unified states is one alternative, federalism another, confessionalism a la Lebanon, where power is essentially handed over to the respective religious confessions is a third.

One of the calls from the barricades in Cairo and other Arab capitals during the 2011 uprisings was for power to be devolved from the centre of the respective states, a call that continues to have considerable resonance among moderates and reformers hoping to improve the quality of governance. Advocates of security sector reform throughout much of the Arab world and especially in Iraq and Libya have been speaking of creating "national guards" based on the American model of state-based reserve military units, thereby hopefully averting conflicts between citizens and security forces that flow from their different sub-national identities.

So at least consideration is now being given to the ways and means by which today's overly centralised governments can be made more responsive and effective through one form or another of devolution of their authority and power. These deliberations deserve all the support and assistance that can be provided, internally and externally.

Unfortunately, the principal "investors" in the region's stability are currently uninterested in supporting decentralised governance responsive to empowered citizenries

Having personally worked on various decentralisation projects in the region since the early 1990s, I am well aware that the opposition to them is deep-seated, both within governments and among political forces that perceive them as plots to divide the nation, rather than strengthen it. Today's circumstances are so grim, however, that the willingness to take risks may be greater.

Establishing and extending rights of citizenship is the second antidote to partition. People must have a stake in their nation state if they are to support it. That stake is the byproduct of representation of citizen interests within the context of freedom to express and act upon them. It is paradoxical but true that the greater the freedom citizens have to make choices about their nation state, the more they will support its persistence. Alienation from existing nation states is the consequence of having fewer choices to impact them, rather than more.

Unfortunately, the principal "investors" in the region's stability are currently uninterested in supporting decentralised governance responsive to empowered citizenries. Whether the US, the EU, the Russians, the Saudis or others, the primary efforts are either to divide existing nation states, or to sustain or re-erect "fierce but brittle" ones, again on the foundations of coercive forces. Democracy assistance has all but ended, displaced by "security assistance", a misnomer for aid to militaries and militias.

In the case of the US and no doubt others providing foreign aid to Middle Eastern countries, this misdirection of support does not result from ignorance of how the defects of centralisation and denial of citizenship rights contribute to radicalisation and state collapse in the region.

Some five years ago, the United States Agency for International Development produced a major report which argued that improvement of governance through empowerment of citizens was essential to countering violent extremism and insurgency

Some five years ago the United States Agency for International Development produced a major report which argued that improvement of governance through empowerment of citizens was essential to countering violent extremism and insurgency. This report remained a dead letter in the Obama Administration, which from that year steadily decreased funding in support of those aims while increasing its military, especially counter-terrorism assistance.

This securitised approach reinforces the binary choice between support for partition or for shoring up brittle states. When outside actors tire of the latter typically they blame the locals for failure, while accepting partition as "inevitable". The third choice, which is to support reconfiguration of brittle states so that they are more responsive and accountable to their citizens, is the only one that offers real prospects for success. Alas, it is now off the table.   

Robert Springborg is Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. Until October, 2013, he was Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and Program Manager for the Middle East for the Center for Civil-Military Relations. 

From 2002 until 2008 he held the MBI Al Jaber Chair in Middle East Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where he also served as Director of the London Middle East Institute. Before taking up that Chair he was Director of the American Research Center in Egypt.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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