Why Current Conflicts Will Not Redraw Borders in the Middle East

By Nils Hägerdal

Political instability and armed conflicts in the Middle East pose a fundamental challenge to state institutions and basic governance in countries stretching from Libya in the West to Iraq and Syria in the East and Yemen in the South. Crumbling state structures, in turn, create opportunities for political actors backed by major military forces to threaten the integrity and stability of national borders in the region. Yet challenges to existing borders are not novel in the Middle East. On the contrary, there is a rich history of schemes not only to expand, but also to merge state structures. However, none of those schemes were ever successful. We still do not have a full understanding of why borders in the Middle East have been so resilient, but some of the main factors that scholars point to—such as foreign intervention and poor institutional designs—persist today. There seems to be little reason to expect contemporary challenges to international borders to be any more successful than those of the past.

The challenges to established borders are numerous. Kurdish forces have established hegemony over northwestern Syria, and should their military hegemony continue they may begin to integrate modes of governance across the current border between Iraq and Turkey. Islamic State, while severely weakened, may revive in Iraq and Syria; its goal remains to eradicate the border between those two countries. Iran and its proxy forces currently have a dominant military presence across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Hezbollah is no longer solely a Lebanese political organization, but is becoming a regional military power operating across multiple jurisdictions. However, to understand whether these developments are likely to redraw international borders we should not ignore the forces that opposed border revisions in the past.

Most observers who believe that current political conflicts will redraw borders begin their analysis with how those borders originated in the aftermath of World War I. The Ottoman Empire entered World War I late, and in an unexpected fashion, on the German side. As a result, Britain and France sent major military forces to conquer the Arab domains of the Ottoman Empire, which they had long coveted. Yet as they had not planned for this turn of the war they had few long-term plans for how to govern the region, what state structures to implement, or even what borders to establish. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 merely divided the region into zones of control to avoid postwar great power rivalry between wartime allies. Promises of Arab independence, most notably specified in the Hussain-McMahon correspondence, went essentially unfulfilled. The British government was happy to issue the Balfour Declaration, promising a Jewish national home in Mandate Palestine, but not to actually relinquish control of this territory. We know for a fact, through the diligent work of the 1919 King-Crane Commission, that the vast majority of local inhabitants in the Levant resented the outcome and preferred a unified and independent Syrian state covering this whole region. In light of how these borders came to be, it makes perfect sense that local actors should resent the borders today and continue to work to change them. The only question is why they have not managed to make changes already.

It is important to realize that the current upheavals in the region are far from unprecedented. In fact, there is a long history of political actors trying—and ultimately failing—to shift its borders. The monarchs in the Hashemite Kingdoms of Iraq and Jordan conducted face-to-face negotiations over how to merge their two countries in the 1940s. Syria and Egypt merged in 1958 to form the United Arab Republic, although the union broke down in 1961 as Syrians chafed under the authoritarian rule of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Syria and Iraq negotiated in 1963 over how to merge their two republics, both firmly committed to Baath ideology, but negotiations failed to produce an agreement. Saddam Hussein tried to turn Iraq into a regional hegemon by invading Kuwait, thereby capturing both enormous oil reserves and a natural port in the Persian Gulf, but was rebuffed by an international coalition orchestrated by the United States. So while there have been many attempts over the past century to redraw borders, they have all failed. The international borders of the contemporary Middle East look remarkably similar to the ones that emerged from the San Remo Conference in 1920.

We still have only a partial understanding of why all of these initiatives failed but two of the most frequently cited reasons concern foreign intervention and poor institutional design. For instance, American marines and British paratroopers intervened in Lebanon and Jordan, respectively, to prevent those countries from joining the United Arab Republic. Poor institutional design, in turn, quickly caused the United Arab Republic to implode. Without any effective framework for mutual governance, Syrian institutions were simply made subordinate to their counterparts in the Egyptian military dictatorship of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Effectively disenfranchised, Syrian military and business leaders quickly revolted and the union dissolved after only three years.

Both of these factors still shape the contemporary Middle East. American intervention prevented the Islamic State from fulfilling its ideological dreams, and Turkish intervention has imposed strict limits on what Kurdish forces can achieve on the ground. As for poor institutional design, many political actors have spent the past few decades building imposing military forces, but none have spent commensurate efforts on building attractive models of governance.

The international borders of the Middle East originated in European capitals, paid little heed to what local populations wanted, were largely drawn in an arbitrary manner with little regard to underlying social and demographic realities, and generated numerous domestic and international conflicts. However, they have also proven remarkably resilient over the course of a century full of potent challengers looking to redraw the map. The established borders and state structures have generated constituencies of support—both locally and internationally—that have worked to thwart the main challenges we have seen to date. We do not fully understand this process at present. But this history does tell us that redrawing borders is very, very difficult. Any prediction of how borders are about to change should start not with making the case for historic arbitrariness or unfairness of a particular border, but rather why we should expect some contemporary actor to succeed where so many have failed in the past.

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