Slowly but surely, with the help of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, President Bashar Assad is regaining control over Syria. The process is still underway, but all the regional actors realize that Syria, in its current territorial format, is here to stay. The possibility that the “new” Syria might become a federation (similarly to Iraq) has not yet been ruled out, but even if it materializes, Syria’s boundaries will not change. Internal importance aside, the recent developments in Syria enfold much more far-reaching, familiar implications, specifically that the Arab state in the Middle East has proven to be much more cohesive and resilient than many believed.
Not so long ago in 2016, the centennial “festivities” commemorating the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 were accompanied by the assessment that the days of many Arab states are numbered and that the events of the Arab Spring and their outcomes – including the declaration of the caliphate of ISIS – represent a belated correction to the artificial borders of the Arab states, which had been drawn by the hands of Western colonialism in the wake of WWI. But here we are, two years later, and there has been no change to the borders of any Arab state. Several factors explain why the borders have not moved.
First, is the existence of a strong and stable national identity. In Egypt and Tunisia, territorial identity predated independence. As a result, territorial integrity withstood the threats posed by the recent shocks to these countries’ ruling powers. In more “artificial” states, the ruling establishment constructed a particular local identity through various socialization processes including national holidays, school textbooks, art and literature. The success of these efforts is difficult to quantify, but the existence of an Iraqi identity cannot be denied if, after 15 years of US occupation, ISIS-backed terrorism and a civil war, Iraq is on its way to recovery and is even conducting democratic elections.
Second, the “deep” state institutions have successfully coped with the local revolutions. In Egypt, the army and the legal system brought the system back to its pre-revolution condition. And in Tunisia, civil society forces managed to complete a democratic revolution, and were even awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.
Third, the involvement of external actors also contributed to the preservation of territorial integrity. Global and regional powers – Turkey, Iran, and Israel – have an interest in maintaining the status quo. Any violation of that could lead to instability and, ultimately, to war, rising oil prices, disruption to maritime traffic through the Persian Gulf and the Suez Canal, and to regional turmoil. The best example of such a contribution is, of course, Syria, which was largely saved by the involvement of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. The US, Jordan and Israel also played a secondary role in this process. US involvement in Iraq had a similar stabilizing effect on that country. No less important is the fact that Iran also had an interest in maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity, but wished to subjugate it to its influence. Moreover, all the global and regional powers (with the exception of Israel) prevented the secession of Iraq’s Kurdish area, due to concerns over irredentist claims by Kurds in neighboring states.
Fourth, several Arab leaders followed a shrewd strategy that prevented any deterioration in the situation. The manifest examples are the region’s monarchs, King Mohammed VI of Morocco and King Abdullah II of Jordan. Both initiated reforms designed to satisfy some popular demands and maintained dialogue with the opposition forces in their respective states. Demonstrations in Morocco and Jordan continue to erupt occasionally but have not yet deteriorated to the point of an actual threat to the monarchy or to the state’s territorial identity. A different situation prevails in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states which used oil revenues to elicit the support of its citizens in exchange for a series of economic benefits and, more recently, governmental reforms. An interesting point is that the Gulf states – in particular UAE, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia – score high on the Fragile States Index (reflecting weak central government, non-provision of public services, widespread corruption, refugees and a sharp economic decline).
Fifth, with the memory of civil war still fresh in their minds, the citizens of several countries, including Algeria, Lebanon, Sudan and the Palestinian territories, elected not to rock their respective governmental boats. As a result, the internal developments in these states are not expected to lead to territorial changes, with the exception of the Palestinians who are struggling to attain a state of their own.
All of which leads to the conclusion that Syria is not an exception in terms of the overall pattern of stable territorial integrity in the region. Even the two remaining states – Yemen and Libya – will not change the overall picture. There is a good chance that Yemen will break up into two entities (North and South) as was the situation before the unification in 1990; and Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army, appears to be geared to assume control over the entire country. Consequently, the main question that should be addressed by scholars of the modern Middle East is not why the territorial Arab states are destined to break up, but rather, what factors underlie their persistence, despite their artificial origin.
Prof. Elie Podeh is a Board Member at the Mitvim Institute. He teaches at the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.