I understand why so many Arabs and Western, especially American, decision-makers refer so casually and frequently to partitioning Arab countries into smaller ethnic units. This happened again earlier this week when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Washington could move towards a “plan B” that could include a partition of Syria, if the current ceasefire plan fails and the fighting continues unabated.
I understand why people ponder breaking up Iraq and Syria, for example, into smaller ethnic units based on Kurdish, Sunni, Shiite, Alawite, Druze, Christian, and other identities. This reflects two main operative reasons in the minds of Western powers and ordinary Arab citizens.
Western powers constantly mention partition and redrawing borders because European officials applied this idea when the modern Middle East was created around 1915-1920, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. This is the easiest way, in their minds, to resolve nagging wars such as those in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, whose export of refugees, terrorism and human despair threatens the peace and security of the Middle East and the rest of the world as well. War in Iraq? Break it up. War in Syria? Redraw the borders, and so it goes, century after century.
Consequently, ordinary Arab men and women at the receiving end of this legacy constantly ask if their countries will be engulfed by war or partitioned into smaller units, for they, too, have lived through such actual occurrences during the past troubled century of fickle Arab statehood. The Arab citizens’ sense of total and chronic helplessness to shape their own fate stems from a simple reality: The five generations of Arab citizens since 1915 feel they have had absolutely no say in how their future evolved, how their countries were shaped, how their governments were chosen, how their national values and policies were defined, and how public power was wielded, checked, or legitimized. Arabs tended to assume that the big decisions in their lives were made either by the self-imposed, unaccountable leaders of their countries, or by Arab or foreign powers who shaped their destiny.
So I totally understand why people say, as Kerry did last Tuesday, that, partition could form part of an eventual solution, that, “there are certainly plan B options being considered,” and that, “this can get a lot uglier and… it may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria,” if the war continues much longer.
The American and European notions of statehood in the Arab World as essentially being glorified ethnic city-states is an old idea that has been actualized during the past century. The first explicit and lasting ethno-sectarian state in the modern Middle East was Israel; it sought to be a Jewish state to the greatest extent possible, and it demands today that the Arabs recognize it as a “Jewish state.” The latest expression of this phenomenon is the so-called “Islamic state,” also called Daesh in its Arabic acronym, which proclaims itself as a pure Sunni Muslim state.
Both Israel and Daesh have had serious problems being accepted in the region by the other existing states. Both have found themselves, albeit in their very different trajectories, constantly at war with their surroundings, and sometimes also with people within their borders. Historians will tell us one day whether this has been due to the problematic nature of such exclusivist “pure” states in a pluralistic region, or to their policies, their neighbors’ rejectionist sentiments, or other reasons.
So partitioning larger existing Arab states into pure ethnic-national statelets may not be such a good idea, if history is any guide to date. The more intriguing thing about the 22 existing Arab states with their apparently wobbly borders is how durable the borders of 1920 have been. Even today, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon and other Arab countries with serious ethno-sectarian-national stresses seek long-term solutions based on maintaining the existing state frontiers.
The problem in our region is not so much the artificial nature of states that were manufactured by foreign powers or imposed on native people by triumphant local military powers. The problem has been that centralized power in the modern Arab states has never been credibly validated by the citizens of those same states. National identity has never been fully shaped by the nationals themselves, but rather by a combination of narrow local elites and their partners among foreign or regional powers.
Until the Arab World and the wider Middle East region escape these two historical albatrosses that have held them back from stable statehood, the partition talk will continue. This is because the quality of our existing statehood remains thin, and largely detached from the citizens and nationals of these states who must be the ultimate purveyors and guarantors of that elusive goal of viable, legitimate, and stable statehood.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.