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History's Lesson for the Middle East: When Superpowers Leave, Stability Doesn't Follow

Ali Al-Saadi/AFP

In December 1971, at the outset of “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland, Edward Heath’s then home secretary, Reginald Maudling, announced that the British government had managed to ensure that an “acceptable level of violence” had been achieved. Taken out of context, these awkward words—which essentially meant that civil war had been averted—were thrown back at the government many times thereafter. They were said to denote a poverty of ambition, implying that the people of Northern Ireland would just have to deal with terrorism and civil strife as part of everyday life. The current conflagration across the Middle East brings to mind Maudling’s words once more. It seems that the wider the flames spread, the less the west seems exercised by the details.

The one exception to this is the Israel-Palestine conflict, for which there has historically been a lower threshold of tolerance for “acceptable levels of violence” than elsewhere in the Middle East. This is a phenomenon for which many explanations have been offered. Some point out that there is a double standard when it comes to criticism of Israel, especially when compared with the acts of brutal authoritarian regimes such as that in Syria. The death toll in Syria’s civil war is reported to have been 3,000 in July alone. Another 1,300 civilians were killed in Iraq in the same month.

Others have said that Israel occupies a special place in the western psyche because it has the support of the most powerful western states and because, as a democracy, it should be held to a higher standard of behaviour—hence the greater emphasis on the question of “proportionality” in the present Gaza war. Both suggestions have an element of truth to them.

Yet there is perhaps a third explanation for the despair that has greeted the latest gut-wrenching violence in Gaza. It is that, of all the conflicts engulfing the Middle East, the one in Israel-Palestine is seen as having a solution that is both conceivable and possible to envisage for those on the outside looking in. While the “hand of history” has come and gone here on many occasions, several peace deals have been close in the past. Indeed, the latest war came after ten months of talks, led by the US secretary of state, John Kerry. These began in July 2013 and had aimed at a final status agreement by the middle of this year.

Kerry embarked on the process in the sincere belief that he could achieve success, and there have been fleeting glimpses of progress. The contrast with Syria—or even with Iraq, the default response for which has become a shrug of the shoulders—is worth noting.

One fallacy that has been exposed in recent years is that the Israel-Palestine conflict was the main source of the Middle East’s wrongs and a “root cause” of international terrorism, rather than just another of its many interconnected micro-conflicts. This notion was once received wisdom among influential voices at the Foreign Office and, ironically, was given succour by Tony Blair in 2001-2002 as the “soft power” counterpoint to the harder edges of the “war on terror.” It now looks like a wilful oversimplification from an earlier era, when the lid had not yet been blown off to expose the extent of internal divisions within Egypt, Syria and Iraq, and when the regional cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran did not loom so large.

The Gaza conflict is not a priority for neighbouring Arab states in the way that it once might have been. Although they have always viewed it through the prism of their own concerns, this is now more obvious than before. Witness Bashar al-Assad’s comment on the war on 16 July, in which he junked Hamas, in effect, by distinguishing “between real resistance fighters, which we support, and amateurs who wear the mask of resistance according to their interests in order to improve their image or to consecrate their authority”.

Assad has been infuriated by Hamas’s support for the rebels in Syria. Hezbollah, which has been engaged in the sectarian war in Syria on Assad’s behalf, has struck a more emollient tone, expressing solidarity for Hamas. But such expressions of intra-Muslim solidarity seem opportunistic set against a broader backdrop. In May and July, two high-profile Hezbollah commanders were killed in Syria and Iraq in a self-styled Shia “jihad” against Sunni forces, with not a Zionist in sight.

There is evidence to suggest that even some of the Sunni states in the region, notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have not been entirely unhappy with the damage inflicted on Hamas—the local chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza. Meanwhile, Egypt is no disinterested broker but rather has its own security concerns about the border with Gaza and Sinai (where it faces a low-level but violent insurgency). John Kerry’s separate efforts to negotiate through Turkey and Qatar, regional backers of Hamas, have run up against the objections of the Egyptians and Fatah, Hamas’s bitter rivals in the West Bank. Thus, another established mantra of Middle Eastern politics, made famous by Henry Kissinger in 1971, is in danger of being turned on its head: “You can’t make war ... without Egypt and you can’t make peace without Syria.”

These odd anomalies of the political scene in the Middle East are creating an ever more entangled web. Everyone is playing a game but no one is sure of the endgame. There is a broad Sunni-Shia fight for supremacy, in which Saudi Arabia and Iran are the main protagonists at state level. But this does not translate easily into events on the ground, where the panoply of non-state actors is unprecedented.

Iran remains one of Hamas’s greatest supporters and suppliers of weapons, yet does anything it can do to shore up Assad against the prospect of a Sunni victory in Syria. Another irony is that so much Gulf money finds its way to the more extreme elements in Syria’s opposition (including jihadists), whereas the rise of the comparatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was greeted with despair in Riyadh. The jihadists of the Islamic State (previously known as “Isis”) have recently snorted at Hamas’s very raison d’être as a group aspiring to the false idols of “freedom” and “national liberation”. In July, a prominent Egyptian Salafist cleric, Talaat Zahran, declared that Gaza was unworthy of support because the people elected their leaders and they, in turn, were in hock to Shia paymasters in Tehran.

No one state is playing out an ingenious Machiavellian master plan here. What is happening is hedging, balancing, bolstered by a desire to avoid the worst-case scenario: encirclement by one’s enemies. And the affliction touches not just those in Middle Eastern capitals. In Washington there are many figures who point out that there is a flaw in the logic of an official policy that calls for the overthrow of Assad but shares with him numerous mortal enemies, chiefly Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra.

This dilemma explains why it took the plight of Iraq’s Yazidis to force Barack Obama out of his preferred position of sitting in neutral gear: it is not clear whether the US is better served by Shia pre-eminence (spearheaded by Iran, with a Shia-dominated Iraqi government in tow) or a Sunni resurgence that tilts the balance against the Syrian and Iranian regimes but also opens the door to al-Qaeda’s latest incarnation. Something in between is preferable, of course: what Kissinger would call a “balance of power.”

The Middle Eastern see-saw rarely settles at that happy equilibrium. As the region unravels, it is worth noting that negotiations between the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) and Iran on the latter’s nuclear programme have been extended for another four months beyond the original 20 July deadline. Some sort of détente on the nuclear issue might calm the international atmosphere somewhat, though it is unlikely to change the calculus in Syria or Iraq.

The US government—supported by its people—has abandoned grandiose hopes of regional transformation and returned to a preference for stability and containment in the Middle East. Yet it remains uncertain about how to achieve this. A lack of clarity and coherence about the direction of US policy has fed into the mad scramble in the region that we are witnessing. In a barb against the president, Hillary Clinton has said that his “Don’t do stupid stuff” doctrine is no organising principle at all.

This is not to say that the solution lies in Washington. The lesson of the past decade of US involvement is that the Americans do not have the ability to solve the underlying problems that make the region so combustible, no matter how much in the way of troops, money and intellectual effort they throw at it. Yet the shift of emphasis from “fixing” to managed withdrawal and “offshore balancing” comes with its own perils.

History provides a sobering lesson about western involvement in the Middle East. It is that, when superpowers drift away (often after they have had their fingers burned), peace, progress, moderation and stability do not necessarily follow in their stead. Such is the power of the US that even a ten-degree turn of the head has created something of a vacuum, as other states and non-state actors rush in to fill the void. While the pattern is familiar, we never fail to be shocked by the consequences. Thus, once again, we see the great unlearned fact about 200 years of interaction between the west and the Middle East: that “non-intervention” comes with consequences that mean it is rarely in the ascendant for long.

It is in this vacuum that even more hopeful developments—such as a rapprochement between the Turkish state and the Kurds of Iraq—have been put in jeopardy. Contrary to much that has been written, the Iraqi Kurds are not “delighted” by the present dispensation in Iraq and the collapse of central authority within the state. Kurdistan was more stable and safe before Isis flooded into the country. Living cheek by jowl with the jihadist militia over a non-existent border hundreds of miles long is a problem rather than an opportunity.

The Kurds had more to gain from a functioning Iraqi state with a stable power-sharing agreement than they do from the unravelling of the country into disorder and near civil war. Rather than any reckless dash to independence, their next move depends to a great extent on the position of the US. Their difficulty, senior Kurdish officials tell me, is that they are “completely bemused” by what this might be.

The contemporary Middle East is not conducive to the flowering of new nation states, even in the case of the Kurds, who have many of the vital ingredients in place. They have bitter experience from the events of the first Gulf war of how running out ahead can lead to catastrophe—and how quickly the west can avert its gaze at the critical moment.

Over the past hundred years, western engagement in the Middle East has lurched between two poles. One is a desire to “fix,” tackle the “root cause” at core and find a cure for the “sickness” that has afflicted the former dominions of the Ottoman empire for so long. The other is fatalism about the west’s ability to do anything about these problems, beyond making sure the contamination does not spread further.

History also tells us that the most dangerous moment is when one prevailing mood swiftly gives way to the other. In the past decade we have seen the pendulum swing both ways, from vast overextension to hurried abdication.

Yet this pattern is not unique to the 21st century and the post-9/11 era. As we get further from the epoch-defining period of 2001 to 2003 (from the terrorist attacks in the US to the invasion of Iraq) in many ways it seems less exceptional. Viewed another way, it fits into a longer lineage that stretches, at the very least, back to the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. It was this pact that carved up the region between British and French influence —named after the diplomats Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, who struck the deal.

The “end of Sykes-Picot” has been widely pronounced in recent weeks. In May this year, as Isis pushed across the border from Syria into Iraq, it did so with the claim to be re-establishing the caliphate that was abandoned by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk after the formal collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1924. Its weekly English-language outlet, Islamic State Report, boasted of “smashing the borders of the Tawaghit” (idolators), and its Twitter account published pictures of operatives bulldozing the earthen mounds that separate the two countries.

Many commentators have been eager to pick up on the implication that the Middle East required some sort of redrawing of boundaries to reflect new realities. Yet those declaring the end of Sykes-Picot, and arguing for a new “grand settlement,” would do well to remember the circumstances in which the original arrangement was made.

First, both the Sykes-Picot Agreement—and the alternatives suggested by its critics at the time—were based on rather tentative, wishful and half-developed readings of local circumstances in the Middle East. Second, its fundamental aim was to manage the ambitions of great powers in the region rather than to usher in a new Middle East. Third, the only reason why it lasted so long, and provided a modicum of stability, was that it was guaranteed by the dominant external powers after the victory of the Allies in 1918. A century later, the one power capable of acting as guarantor for any significant changes to Sykes-Picot, the United States, is unwilling to play that role.

That is not to say, however, that the debates over the Sykes-Picot arrangement are not worth revisiting. Indeed, a hundred years later, there are some uncanny echoes of the problems that faced the framers of the agreement. Equally, certain myths that have risen around the original deal are worth unpicking. Chief among them is the notion that Sykes-Picot represented the ultimate “missed opportunity” to set the region on a different footing. This interpretation, popularised by T E Lawrence, pointed out that Sykes-Picot was concerned only with short-term gain in the context of the First World War, which blinded its framers to the chance to set Arab development on a road to greater stability and peace.

Even before the outbreak of the war, in which the Ottoman empire sided with Germany, a growing number of British Foreign Office officials (particularly the Arabists in the Cairo bureau) were flirting with the notion of establishing a non-Ottoman, Arab-led caliphate, based on Mecca. By being the sponsor of such a scheme Britain would be able to secure its own interests in the region, which centred around unfettered passage through the Suez Canal and access to emerging oil markets. To this end, Britain would give up conquered territory in Mesopotamia—such as oil-rich Mosul—to local Arabs in order to preclude an Arab alliance with the Ottomans.

The chief obstacle to this scheme was France, which, at the same time as being Britain’s most important ally in the European theatre of war, was unwilling to give up its claim to Arab territories in Syria and Lebanon. Georges-Picot, the French representative, believed the existence of a cohesive pan-Arab movement in the region had been greatly exaggerated. Mark Sykes, who negotiated on behalf of the British, prioritised the immediate gain of coming to terms with France, thereby shoring up British interests in the Middle East against a threatened German-Turkish incursion.

To the fury of the Arabists, the result of his deal with Georges-Picot was to draw a line through the map delineating the separate spheres of British and French influence. This specified areas of direct French administration in northern Syria (the “blue” area) and direct British “influence” (“red”) in the regions around Basra and Baghdad. The interior of Syria and northern Mesopotamia were divided up into zones of French influence (Area A) and British influence (Area B).

Lawrence was one of a number of Arabists horrified by the terms of the deal (and its rebuttal of the notion of an Arab empire), a story told well in Jeremy Wilson’s authorised biography, published in 1989. He condemned Sykes the Francophile as “the imaginative advocate of unconvincing world movements ... a bundle of prejudices, intuitions, half-sciences. His ideas were of the outside; and he lacked patience to test his materials before choosing the style of building ... He would sketch out in a few dashes a new world, all out of scale, but vivid as a vision of some sides of the thing we hoped.”

These were memorable words. Many schemes to remodel the Middle East might be said to have suffered from similarly half-developed thinking. And yet, to introduce another motif in the western approaches to the region, the alternatives put forward by the Arabists also required a huge leap of faith. Just how great was this missed opportunity?

As Sir Edward Grey, the Liberal foreign secretary, noted when negotiations were coming to a head, “This Arab question is quicksand.” His permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office, Sir Arthur Nicolson, responded to Arabist objections to Sykes-Picot by noting that, “People talk of the Arabs as if they were some cohesive body, well armed and equipped, instead of a heap of scattered tribes with no cohesion and no organisation. I think myself that we are trying to treat with a shadow ...”

In a memorandum on “The Politics of Mecca” that he sent to the Foreign Office in January 1916, Lawrence made the case that Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, was the ideal Arab leader: powerful enough to unite the Arabs and detach them from the Ottomans, but never strong enough to challenge British interests—“his activity seems beneficial to us, because it marches with our immediate aims, the break-up of the Islamic ‘block’ and the defeat and disruption of the Ottoman Empire”.

Although more sensitive to Arab claims, Lawrence’s vision was not much more benign: “The Arabs are even less stable than the Turks. If properly handled they would remain in a state of political mosaic, a tissue of small jealous principalities, incapable of cohesion, and yet always ready to combine against an outside force.”

He attempted to play down the importance of Hussein’s Arab opponents—not least the Wahhabis, “who pose as reformers of Islam, with all the narrow-minded bigotry of the puritan.” History later showed that these forces also had a momentum of their own that was not so easy to dismiss.

Given that it was so controversial at the time of its creation, it is not surprising that the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 has been revisited many times since. After the Second World War, when the US began to inherit much of the responsibility for former portions of the British empire, similar controversies raised themselves again.

Hugh Wilford’s recent book, America’s Great Game: the CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, demonstrates how a new breed of Arabists attempted to resurrect many of the schemes that Lawrence had toyed with. A prominent group of CIA analysts attempted to right these wrongs. They included Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson Kermit Roosevelt and Miles Axe Copeland, a maverick covert operations specialist. Thus, they came for a time to see Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt as a new hope for Arab unity and a strategic partner for the US to follow in the footsteps of Hussein.

In the end, however, these neo-Lawrentians were frustrated by the 1957 Eisenhower Doctrine, which committed the US to protect the integrity of the existing state system, against both Nasser and the Soviets (whose co-operation represented the worst-case scenario).

Wilford shows how, like the early British Arabists, these American figures had a feel for the region superior to many of their contemporaries’ yet still made grave miscalculations. Instead of making good on the “disinterested benevolence” that fitted their self-image, they ended up replicating the mistakes of British imperialist experience—trying to prop up client governments with covert interventions and subsidies long after they had demonstrated their incapacity for government.

Even in those instances where they periodically supported “progressive” nationalist forces, as in Syria and Egypt, they ended up fuelling the tendency towards military authoritarianism by encouraging the hurried formation of Bonapartist states. Such attempts to cajole and create also facilitated the rise of bastardised political philosophies such as Ba’athism. There was, in all of this, a residue of the “orientalism” that they claimed to reject. As Nasser once told Copeland: “The genius of you Americans is that you never made clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves.”

Not for the first or last time, western “fixers” in the region mistook self-appointed vanguards for the dawn of a “new” Middle East. There are echoes of this in the way that the west spent so long reconciling itself to the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood would inherit post-Mubarak Egypt—and grooming it for the accession—only to have years of analysis blow up in its face when the Brotherhood fluffed its lines.

Those pronouncing the end of Sykes-Picot, therefore, are looking at the question the wrong way round. What is occurring at the moment is not a coherent attempt to redraw the boundaries of the Middle East, in the way that Nasser or Saddam Hussein once hoped to do. The ostentatious declarations by Isis about the re-establishment of the caliphate should not obscure the true picture. The greatest driver of violence in the Middle East is not a revanchist challenge to existing borders but an internal combustion of some of its most important states.

The failure of the modern Arab state is not, first and foremost, a product of the inherent artificiality of the borders left by the imperialist powers a century earlier; Jordan, perhaps the most artificial state of all, is one of the few that has managed to muddle through. The pattern is clearest in Syria and Iraq. In both cases, the rot started at the centre. It is this phenomenon that Isis has exploited—not because it embodies some powerful new transitional “moment” but because it has flourished in two areas where two states have lost control.

The same pattern has been seen in Libya, Lebanon and Yemen, which have all experienced the collapse of governing authority in lopsided and dysfunctional polities. Iran and Egypt have come very close to the brink in the past decade. The notion that the wrongs of Sykes-Picot should be revisited and amended, or that the future lies in another round of partitioning, skirts around the core problem, which is one of governance. Even the proxy cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is due less to the intensification of sectarianism than to weak governments having invited external actors to participate in their domestic conflicts.

When one looks to the historical record of western involvement in the modern Middle East, what one finds is not some sort of uncracked code but a tragic cycle: interference giving way to extrication, in which external powers attempt to cordon off the region so that history can do its work. That Obama, against all his instincts, finds himself sucked back into the morass so quickly—not only bombing Isis but helping to force Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from office—is just the latest example of how difficult it is to leave the scene.

In recent days, as I read the Palestine files in the National Archives for 1945-51, when the British cabinet debated how to retire from the region at the end of the Second World War, something else became apparent—that some of the deepest thinking about these questions came in inverse proportion to the will or capacity to see solutions through. In his correspondence with Prime Minister Clement Attlee in 1947-48 the then foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, said that the best the British could hope for was that their withdrawal from the region could “induce a sense of realism among Jews and Arabs”, and thereby create the conditions for peace. Attlee was unconvinced.

The dilemma thrown up by the collapse of the Ottoman empire is the same as it ever was. Second-guessing the future and anointing the would-be leaders of the “next phase” of Middle Eastern history has proved to be beyond the gift of western policymakers for a hundred years. Yet shutting the door on the region, and hoping they just get on with it, is no sort of solution at all.

This article originally appeared in the New Statesman