The Middle East Crack-Up

JERUSALEM – The horror stories emerging from northern Iraq, as well as the continuing slaughter in Syria’s civil war, point to a tectonic shift in the Middle East. Almost 100 years after World War I, the regional state system established after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire is unraveling.

The contemporary map of the Middle East was drawn by the victorious Western imperial powers, Great Britain and France, during and after WWI. While the war was still raging, they signed an agreement drafted by the diplomats Sir Mark Sykes and François George-Picot, which delineated their respective spheres of influence across the Levant – an agreement that entirely disregarded the region’s history, ethnic and religious traditions and affiliations, and the will of local populations.

The modern states of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon thus arose as separate, independent entities. Their borders were arbitrary and artificial, and none had ever existed in such form. (The case of Palestine was even more complicated, owing to Britain’s conflicting promises to Arabs and Jews.)

Eventually, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon became independent countries, modeled on the Westphalian idea of the modern nation-state. Their leaders maintained this system – and its borders – as the best available. None of these rulers, especially the authoritarian ones who emerged after independence, had an interest in rocking the boat.