The map of the modern Middle East, a political and economic pivot in the international order, is in tatters. Syria’s ruinous war is the turning point. But the centrifugal forces of rival beliefs, tribes and ethnicities — empowered by unintended consequences of the Arab Spring — are also pulling apart a region defined by European colonial powers a century ago and defended by Arab autocrats ever since.
A different map would be a strategic game changer for just about everybody, potentially reconfiguring alliances, security challenges, trade and energy flows for much of the world, too.
Syria’s prime location and muscle make it the strategic center of the Middle East. But it is a complex country, rich in religious and ethnic variety, and therefore fragile. After independence, Syria reeled from more than a half-dozen coups between 1949 and 1970, when the Assad dynasty seized full control. Now, after 30 months of bloodletting, diversity has turned deadly, killing both people and country. Syria has crumbled into three identifiable regions, each with its own flag and security forces. A different future is taking shape: a narrow statelet along a corridor from the south through Damascus, Homs and Hama to the northern Mediterranean coast controlled by the Assads’ minority Alawite sect. In the north, a small Kurdistan, largely autonomous since mid-2012. The biggest chunk is the Sunni-dominated heartland.
Syria’s unraveling would set precedents for the region, beginning next door. Until now, Iraq resisted falling apart because of foreign pressure, regional fear of going it alone and oil wealth that bought loyalty, at least on paper. But Syria is now sucking Iraq into its maelstrom.
“The battlefields are merging,” the United Nations envoy Martin Kobler told the Security Council in July. “Iraq is the fault line between the Shia and the Sunni world and everything which happens in Syria, of course, has repercussions on the political landscape in Iraq.”
Over time, Iraq’s Sunni minority — notably in western Anbar Province, site of anti-government protests — may feel more commonality with eastern Syria’s Sunni majority. Tribal ties and smuggling span the border. Together, they could form a de facto or formal Sunnistan. Iraq’s south would effectively become Shiitestan, although separation is not likely to be that neat.
The dominant political parties in the two Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq have longstanding differences, but when the border opened in August, more than 50,000 Syrian Kurds fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, creating new cross-border communities. Massoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, has also announced plans for the first summit meeting of 600 Kurds from some 40 parties in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran this fall.
“We feel that conditions are now appropriate,” said Kamal Kirkuki, the former speaker of Iraq’s Kurdish Parliament, about trying to mobilize disparate Kurds to discuss their future.
Outsiders have long gamed the Middle East: What if the Ottoman Empire hadn’t been divvied up by outsiders after World War I? Or the map reflected geographic realities or identities? Reconfigured maps infuriated Arabs who suspected foreign plots to divide and weaken them all over again.
I had never been a map gamer. I lived in Lebanon during the 15-year civil war and thought it could survive splits among 18 sects. I also didn’t think Iraq would splinter during its nastiest fighting in 2006-7. But twin triggers changed my thinking.
The Arab Spring was the kindling. Arabs not only wanted to oust dictators, they wanted power decentralized to reflect local identity or rights to resources. Syria then set the match to itself and conventional wisdom about geography.
New borders may be drawn in disparate, and potentially chaotic, ways. Countries could unravel through phases of federation, soft partition or autonomy, ending in geographic divorce.
Libya’s uprising was partly against the rule of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. But it also reflected Benghazi’s quest to separate from domineering Tripoli. Tribes differ. Tripolitanians look to the Maghreb, or western Islamic world, while Cyrenaicans look to the Mashriq, or eastern Islamic world. Plus, the capital hogs oil revenues, even though the east supplies 80 percent of it.
So Libya could devolve into two or even three pieces. The Cyrenaica National Council in eastern Libya declared autonomy in June. Southern Fezzan also has separate tribal and geographic identities. More Sahelian than North African in culture, tribes and identity, it could split off too.
Other states lacking a sense of common good or identity, the political glue, are vulnerable, particularly budding democracies straining to accommodate disparate constituencies with new expectations.
After ousting its longtime dictator, Yemen launched a fitful National Dialogue in March to hash out a new order. But in a country long rived by a northern rebellion and southern separatists, enduring success may depend on embracing the idea of federation — and promises to let the south vote on secession.
A new map might get even more intriguing. Arabs are abuzz about part of South Yemen’s eventually merging with Saudi Arabia. Most southerners are Sunni, as is most of Saudi Arabia; many have family in the kingdom. The poorest Arabs, Yemenis could benefit from Saudi riches. In turn, Saudis would gain access to the Arabian Sea for trade, diminishing dependence on the Persian Gulf and fear of Iran’s virtual control over the Strait of Hormuz.
The most fantastical ideas involve the Balkanization of Saudi Arabia, already in the third iteration of a country that merged rival tribes by force under rigid Wahhabi Islam. The kingdom seems physically secured in glass high-rises and eight-lane highways, but it still has disparate cultures, distinct tribal identities and tensions between a Sunni majority and a Shiite minority, notably in the oil-rich east.
Social strains are deepening from rampant corruption and about 30 percent youth unemployment in a self-indulgent country that may have to import oil in two decades. As the monarchy moves to a new generation, the House of Saud will almost have to create a new ruling family from thousands of princes, a contentious process.
Other changes may be de facto. City-states — oases of multiple identities like Baghdad, well-armed enclaves like Misurata, Libya’s third largest city, or homogeneous zones like Jabal al-Druze in southern Syria — might make a comeback, even if technically inside countries.
A century after the British adventurer-cum-diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and the French envoy François Georges-Picot carved up the region, nationalism is rooted in varying degrees in countries initially defined by imperial tastes and trade rather than logic. The question now is whether nationalism is stronger than older sources of identity during conflict or tough transitions.
Syrians like to claim that nationalism will prevail whenever the war ends. The problem is that Syria now has multiple nationalisms. “Cleansing” is a growing problem. And guns exacerbate differences. Sectarian strife generally is now territorializing the split between Sunnis and Shiites in ways not seen in the modern Middle East.
But other factors could keep the Middle East from fraying — good governance, decent services and security, fair justice, jobs and equitably shared resources, or even a common enemy. Countries are effectively mini-alliances. But those factors seem far off in the Arab world. And the longer Syria’s war rages on, the greater the instability and dangers for the whole region.
Robin Wright is the author of Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World and a distinguished scholar at the United States Institute of Peace and the Wilson Center.