Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The perils of partition

Of all the proposed ideas for solving the region’s conflicts, partition of Arab states — whether proposed by the left or the right — is the worst and the most dangerous, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

Following the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings at the outset of the second decade of the third millennium, analysts predicted that all the wind and dust storms, civil wars and upheavals, foreign intervention and economic decline, and human and material destruction they caused would last until the end of this decade and perhaps beyond.

Today, nearly six years have passed since the onset of that “spring,” with its attendant pains and costs, and it seems that the conflict raging throughout the region has reached its zenith. The battles have reached their climax, as we see in Fallujah and Raqqa, and warfare is now mixed with diplomatic drives seeking solutions and settlements.

Thus, in a sense, from the womb of conflict has emerged the first sign of plans for an end to the chapter. The key is a new regional order, which to some means “redrawing the regional maps”, while others call it the “post-Sykes-Picot era” while to a third group among us (the Syrian regime, for example) it means returning to the way things were before, as though that “spring” had never occurred, dreams had not turned into nightmares, that the seas and land were not awash with refugees and displaced persons, and our towns and villages had not run out of shrouds and burial grounds.

In the US, as in other Western countries, think tanks and research centres are probing beyond the current battles that promise the descent and fall of the most violent and savage terrorist organisation the world has seen to date: the Islamic State group. As we watch the decline of Islamist radicalism in the so-called “caliphate”, its weakening strength in Sinai and its receding grip in Libya and Yemen, we, too, should see that there is good reason to think of the future. One way or another, the future begins now.

There are many ideas being floated. Some are serious; others are more in the nature of trial balloons. In this column we have discussed one: the concept of federalism. But there is also a dangerous idea that appears to be gaining ground in some quarters. It sees “partition” as the solution to the problems of Arab states.

Iraq would be turned into three states: one for the Arab Sunnis, one for the Kurds and another for the Shia. Syria would be similarly divided into three: one for the Alawis, another for the Kurds and a third for the Sunni Arabs. Yemen would be split into north, south and Hadramawt, and Libya into east, west and south.

As for the Arab states that have not been mentioned, this is not because of the need for their continued unity but because the partition argument requires some paradigms that are generally available where circumstances are sufficiently ripe to match theory to reality.

Once again, this “idea” or this approach to the region does not necessarily stem from a “conspiracy”. Its proponents may genuinely consider it the key to peace and the best solution for the problems of the Arab region and the security and developmental needs of its people. The idea may hail from the left, which has argued that the current states of the region are the products of the colonial era and that the borders that were drawn were not grounded in the realities that shaped the contours of “real” nations.

It has also been said that the Arab world is a variegated mosaic of different tribes, ethnicities, religions, sects and denominations that the borders cut through with no sense or reason simply in order to promote colonial interests. The proponents thus echo the Arab nationalists’ references to “artificial borders” and “illusory states” and speak of partition as a kind of new “liberation” from the yoke of colonialist history.

The idea might also hail from the right, in either its liberal or conservative shades. Here its proponents maintain that the Arab state has failed in economic development and in liberating its people, and that the only way to reform it is by recognising its “natural” ethnic and sectarian divisions.

The point, then, is to reintroduce the concept and practice of “the right to self determination” with Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya serving as the models for what awaits the rest of the region. They further point to Europe after the first and second world wars, and even after the Cold War, where conflict always ended in new partitions.

Did not tiny Kosovo get to become a political entity of its own? So come the questions accompanied by expressions of surprise at how ignorant some people are of the lessons to be learned from the post-independence periods of Arab states and the nature of their events.

Whether the idea comes from the right or left, its proponents will always rest their case on the claim that partition is the practical solution that best suits the situation as long as the current boundaries and divisions no longer permit for peaceful coexistence and, indeed, drive hordes of masses to kill one another.

Framed this way, the idea is an appeal to spare bloodshed and, perhaps, the most pragmatic solution in that it will most likely find those within each group or faction ready to put the idea into practice as long as it gives them the power to rule. But here, precisely, resides the Achilles heel of this approach and the reason why it should be opposed in the realm of ideas, at the negotiating table, and on the field of battle.

The crux of the matter is not borders, how they were drawn and their lack of justifications. Rather, it is the realities that unfold over the decades, creating markets, relations and modes of interplay. In fact, these types of realities are what shaped the contours of nations throughout the world.

It is also a fact that attempts to change existing borders and to erase states that were built on societies and peoples have not served progress or the cause of civil peace. In addition, however intense the violence we see today in the Arab region, it is nowhere near the magnitude of that which prevailed during the two world wars or even before that, during the 19th century.

Consider, too, that the moment borders are changed marks the beginning of calls to change them again. When US Vice President Joseph Biden proposed dividing Iraq into three states he failed to appreciate two matters. First, the boundaries between the Sunni Arabs, the Kurds and the Shia Arabs are not as clear as he imagines. The borders that would be drawn between them now would immediately trigger disputes that would last for decades.

Second, there is no such thing as an ethnically pure area. Indeed, there is no area in this region that is free from violent internal disputes over everything from understandings of religious doctrine to the form of government.

The partition of Sudan after the long civil war in the south did not bring peace. The borders between Sudan (the north) and South Sudan are still seething with tensions over how the borders are drawn and over oil and other natural resources around the borders.

Taking the Kurds as another example, whether in Iraq or Syria, they too have always had their divisions that sometimes drove them to battle, or that resolved into another division of one sort or another.

“Partition” flings open the gates to hell. It also slams the door shut to peaceful settlement processes in which various societies return to the national negotiating table to devise a system of government that safeguards the state and its existing borders and, simultaneously, prevents reversion to the conditions that prevailed in the past.

In this regard, contrary to certain deceptive claims, the preservation of Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad is not synonymous with the preservation of the Syrian state. In fact, the preservation of the state is contingent on the departure of the man who has divided Syria.


The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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