Chaos in the Middle East: Its Historical Roots and a Sykes-Picot 2.0 to the Rescue

In January 2018, Turkey started a military offensive in Afrin, Syria. The official aim of Operation Olive Branch is fighting (a non-existent-in-the-region) ISIL and the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, its armed wing People’s Protection Units (YPG), and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In February, a US-led coalition struck pro-regime forces while Israel did the same with Iranian targets in Syria. These military operations are the latest events happening in the seven-year Syrian conflict; a conflict that has left 480,000 dead, 6.3 million people internally displaced in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, and 5.1 million refugees (the largest refugee population in the world) including 2.8 million children. Far from being settled, the conflict is becoming more complex day by day.

How did this war start? Who is involved? How will it end? How will it impact the whole region and beyond? These are some questions that come to mind when thinking about this conflict. To answer these questions, a look back in time is mandatory. This article aims to present the modalities of the Syrian conflict and, by ricochet, those of the whole Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the risks of the rise of some hotbeds in the area as well as a solution to this chaos.

The Problem Context: Beyond the Syrian Conflict…

The MENA region is experiencing an era of extreme turbulence. This is not new nor recent, which is why a diachronic analysis of the region’s history is critical to shedding new light on these problems. Since the 19th century, the region has been under increasing tensions that can be summarized in three movements: two of which are opposite to each other while the third is a middle-way synthesis of the two.

The Modern Arab Intelligentsia educated in the West and Russia (including the former USSR) leads the first movement. These intellectuals hang on the specificity of their respective state; meaning they define themselves as Lebanese or Qatari (for example) instead of Muslim or as a nation (millet) as was the case under the Ottoman Empire. They want to establish a democratic nation-state, which is a colonial/mandate (France, the UK, and Italy) legacy. This movement has failed so far and is opposed by the second movement, which is the Islamist one, led by the religious powers, groups, and militias such as the Jihadists, Al Qaeda, and ISIS. This movement rejects the idea of the nation-state. Instead, this movement seeks to establish a Caliphate, as was the case in the 7th century when all Muslims were living under Sharia Law in the same country, led by the Caliph.

Finally, the incumbent current historical political powers lead the third movement. This movement is aware of its historical legacy and of the utopia of having a Muslim caliphate. It is seeking a middle way solution to the cleavage between the two other movements by establishing a historic state that is being modernized while battling against Islamist interventions. The weakness of this movement is its heterogeneity and its differences in nature (i.e., Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Iran). Some countries are old while others are recent. Some are more socially developed while other are severely underdeveloped. Some have relatively low rates of literacy despite the gains of the last forty years while others have high rates of literacy. Some have an educational system in pressing need of modernization while others have made some welcome changes…

The struggle between these movements constitutes the reality of the MENA region countries whether they are stable or not. But how did the region evolve to this point? History offers some answers to this question.

The Root Causes: Premises 1.0 (the Crusades) and 2.0 (the Modern Crusades)

Most of the conflict analysis often goes back to the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 to explain the current situation in the Middle East. But the core of the conflict goes way back into history, and here is how the story unfolds.

The Premises 1.0: The Crusades

The Crusades, a series of religious wars, were authorized by the Catholic Church to recover the Holy Land (Terra Sancta) from Muslim rule and to campaign militarily (among other things) to allow pilgrims to access holy sites in the mostly-Muslim Middle East. These wars became military occupations of the Middle East that allowed the creation of several kingdoms, principalities, and counties. Later, they became proxy wars that highlighted the European nobility power games. The Crusades strengthened the relationships between militarism (the army, the Knights Templar, and the Knights Hospitaller), religion (the Catholic Church in Western Christendom), and society (feudalism).

The Crusades officially lasted nearly two centuries (1095-1291). They were re-ignited during the 14th and 15th centuries to counter the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans, an essential element that will be a constant in the subsequent centuries. The Ottoman-Venetian wars (1396-1718), a series of conflicts mostly of commercial interests in the Mediterranean Sea, took over the narrative.

Despite the Muslim victory in 1291, the Crusades heightened tensions between East and West and left remnants of the struggle between Christianity and Islam. More specifically, they laid the foundation for the Western domination in the Middle East that the Modern Crusades continued and highlighted the Muslim disunion and disagreement.

The Premises 2.0: The Modern Crusades

Based on my research, the Modern Crusades are historical moments of tension exerted by the West on the Muslim civilization, and they continue today. During these new Crusades, the West has not been defending the Holy Land in the name of the Christ but, instead, has had different motives over time as presented below:

The first Modern Crusade was military. It started with the French Campaign in the Ottoman territories of Egypt and Syria (1798-1801), led by Napoleon Bonaparte with the aim of defending France’s trade interests to counterattack Britain’s rise and stronghold on India. Napoleon was defeated in 1799 during the Siege of Acre facing the Ottoman Empire and the forces of Great Britain. This defeat did not stop France from invading another Ottoman territory, Sidi Ferruch in Algeria, in 1830. This invasion pushed the indigenous Algerians to call for jihad in the strict sense of self-defense. The carve-up of the Ottoman Empire had begun.

The second Modern Crusade was diplomatic. It was launched by the Old World’s desire to ‘protect’ the ethno-religious minorities living in the Ottoman Empire: by France (the Maronite Christians in Lebanon and Syria); by the Russian Empire (the Orthodox Christians in Lebanon and Syria); and by Great Britain (the Jews at the instigation of Disraeli, the Shia by supporting the spread of Baha’ism, and the Druze). The idea was to annoy and to fragilize the Ottomans in order to hasten their collapse. The minorities welcomed and helped these countries in their interference. Meanwhile, in Algeria, the Crémieux Decree in 1870 granting French citizenship to the Jewish population irked Muslims, both Arabs, and Berbers, who were considered second-class indigenous people by the French. This situation rapidly deteriorated relations between Muslims and Jews who had been living peacefully together for centuries.

The third Modern Crusade was military. The Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 defined the sphere of influence of France and Great Britain (while the Russian Empire assented to it) and the control over Southwestern Asia following the Ottoman Empire’s defeat (which happened in World War I when the latter entered in the Middle Eastern Theater).  France and Britain further partitioned the remains of the Ottoman Empire under the terms of the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920. While Southeastern Europe was balkanized, it was the case as well in the Middle East; new countries were created (e.g., Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq) and people displaced.

France and Britain’s interests passed from geopolitical (protecting minorities to weaken the Ottoman Empire) to geoeconomic, related to the geography of resources (oil, gas…) and access to the seas; the San Remo Oil Agreement in 1920 embodied this new reality. It was difficult for France and Britain to give each minority a state because of the communities’ interpenetrability. The territorial division made some countries larger than others (e.g., Syria and Iraq) because of their strategic importance; some countries (e.g., Iraq, Bahrain, and Kuwait) were Shia in the majority but led by the Sunni minority. The losers in this partitioning were the Kurds, the Druze, and Christian minorities.

The country that gained most from this division was Lebanon, with its power equation inspired from the Ottoman Empire and reinforced by France following Confessionalism (a political system based on a specified power-sharing among religious communities), where the eighteen recognized religious sects are all represented in parliament. It led later in 1989 to the Taif Agreement where the President must be a Maronite Christian, the Speaker of the Parliament a Shia Muslim, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Deputy Prime Minister and the Deputy Speaker of Parliament Eastern Orthodox.

Arabs, in general, were satisfied since they got rid of the Ottomans and gained their ‘freedom’ within limits imposed by the League of Nations that designated both France and Great Britain as mandates to manage these countries.

The fourth Modern Crusade was ethno-demographic. It began with the Balfour Declaration in 1917 when the British promoted Jewish immigration to Palestine which led later to the creation of the state of Israel. Some Arabs, many of whom were illiterate and not aware of what was at stake on the global stage, began selling their lands to Jewish immigrants.

The fifth Modern Crusade is ideological. The world endured the Cold War following the Yalta Conference in 1945 where the US was declared the leader of the capitalist world and the Soviet Union the leader of the communist one. As a reaction to the West’s ways (including their racism towards non-whites), many Arab countries (Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Algeria) were in the bosom of the Soviet Union, which considered Israel (the American ally in the region) as an Imperialist state. Clashes with Israel could only increase, along with jihad (in its self-defense sense).

The sixth Modern Crusade is sectarian. Western countries led a proxy-war Crusade by pushing and helping Saddam Hussein into a war with Iran (1980-1988); a war that goes back to the 16th century and that was simmering since 1937 (Treaty of Saadabad). As a result, sectarianism (mostly ShiaSunni) took rook once and for all within the Muslim world, and Salafist/Wahhabi movements mushroomed to thwart the Iranian Shia.

The seventh Modern Crusade is military. It coincides with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Saddam Hussein asked Arab countries to pay the bill of the Iraq-Iran war. When nothing came his way, he invaded Kuwait. The US then launched the (first) Gulf war (1990-1991). Iraq lost, and came under harsh sanctions. As a reaction, Al-Qaeda (a network that had emerged in 1988 and was made up of Salafist jihadist such as ex-CIA operatives and Arabs who fought the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan) strengthened its power base and turned firmly against the US and the West.

The eighth Modern Crusade is also military. This crusade is associated with the invasion/occupation of Afghanistan (2001) and the second Gulf War (2003-2011). The strategic objective of the Capitalist camp (the US) was to finish with all Arab regimes that were pro-Soviet. The case of Somalia was settled, as it became bogged down in a civil war that started officially in 1991 after a decade of military-junta resistance. The same thing happened for Sudan in 1997, by imposing economic sanctions, and Iraq in 2003. The Arab and the Muslim world saw a significant increase of jihadist groups formed to attack Western countries as well as other Muslims (liberals, Shia, Sufis…).

The ninth Modern Crusade is technologic. It is a proxy war facilitated by Western social media and the Internet, known as the Arab Spring. It is not surprising that some ask serious questions about the Arab Spring being linked to the actions of the Western powers, as it gave the West the opportunity to get rid of the Soviet-bloc influenced Arab countries. Egypt, which had escaped the US’ ire in 1979 by signing a peace treaty with Israel, fell and Mubarak (a Soviet-educated technocrat) was arrested and the government overthrown. Libya saw a foreign intervention in 2011 and ended up in a devastating civil war. Yemen knew the same fate and is living one of the worst humanitarian crisis, along with pro-Russia Syria that has gone through a bitter conflict with unexpected and multiple consequences. Algeria (the last pro-Soviet bastion) will probably be the next domino, with the on-going energy crisis not helping matters. Beyond regime collapse, jihadism has become endemic and pandemic. Jihadists oppose the incumbent Arab regimes that are accused of working at the behest of the Western powers.

Today, the MENA region counts states protected by the West, threatened states (from within and/or by external groups or states), destroyed states, and bomb-ticking states as shown in the figure below:

The Sahel-Sudanese region (Sudan, Chad, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso …) and Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan), that are contiguous to the MENA region, have become a fertile ground for the jihadism that overflows from the MENA (Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda, ETIM…), leading to hotbeds of tension and killings that have caused large numbers of refugees fleeing to Europe.

The Consequences: The layers of the Syrian Conflict and its ripples in the region

The MENA region is living through the consequence of the arbitrary carving-up of the Ottoman Empire by the West that acted as a ticking bomb for the whole 20th century with some spasms here and there until exploding into a form of brewing-for-decades chaos, reminiscent of Europe before the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

An analysis of the Syrian conflict shows that Syria is experiencing a superposition of wars:

  • A civil war between the Syrian regime and its opponents;
  • An interfaith war between Sunni and Shia;
  • A holy war where ISIS is trying to gain territory;
  • An ethnic war where Kurdish people want to establish their country;
  • A ‘social’ war in which secularists are battling against Islamists;
  • An ‘energy’ war where Syria is competing with Turkey to be the terminal of the New Silk Road pipelines while Israel interferes by claiming the Golan heights and their gas reserves (the Four Seas Strategy); and
  • A proxy war with its four faces – (1) the US vs. Russia, a remnant of the Cold war; (2) Iran vs. the KSA and the UAE; (3) the Christian Democratic West vs. the Muslim Autocratic/Theocratic Middle East; and (4) the West meddling to preserve its geoeconomic interests in the region (oil, gas…).

It appears then that Syria is a microcosm of the Middle East big picture that summarizes the tensions the region has known from Napoleon to the present day. These tensions will continue because of the historical and social offset existing between each country of the region and because of the ticking bomb created by Churchill that is the Kurdish problem; a problem that will keep the tensions high between Arabs themselves, Arabs and non-Arabs, Turkish and non-Turkish people, and Iranian and non-Iranian people.

That said, as a counter-reaction to the interference of the Western powers, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia are trying to take the lead in the region. In an ironic twist, a new Middle East is emerging under their lead following a religious form: Sunni with its Turkish version (Hanafism) and its Saudi version (Hanbalism/Wahhabism), and Shia with its different forms (Ithnā Ashariyyah, Druze, Alawite…). The biggest losers are the Christian minorities of the Levant who are fleeing the region when they are not slaughtered or obliged to hide. The Jewish populations of the region got Israel while the Christians got nothing.

The pro-Western Arab Gulf Monarchies are also reacting to Iran and Turkey’s rise in the region. Their project is to have a new Arab nationalism identity with a double objective: 1) closing the Arab world to Iran since the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (the KSA) and the other Gulf monarchies do not want the Iranian political interference that challenges their legitimacy at the level of the ideology of power (democracy vs. shura) and theology; and 2) pushing away Turkey which is a threat because of its secular (for now) Republican nature and its economic success which give a ‘bad’ example to these monarchies.

Finally, the Trump effect is worth considering. Trump is scrambling everything. By making Jerusalem ‘officially’ the capital of Israel, he is serving the interests of the Christian Evangelists who believe that the Apocalypse will happen (the Antichrist will be battled and the Messiah will come back) when Jerusalem will ‘rightfully’ be returned to the Jewish people. The dream of the Crusaders who were stopped by Saladin is on the way to becoming a reality, much to the discontent of mostly the whole world. Trump thus adds another layer to the complexity of the Middle East situation, which does not bode well for finding a sustainable solution quickly.

The Solution: A Sykes-Picot Agreement 2.0?

The interests of each country in the Middle East and those of the West are opposed to each other, which makes finding a solution a very complex process. During a visit to the US, Netanyahu discussed with Obama the possibility of a new redrawing of the Middle East, following the discovery of new oil fields in the Golan Heights. It was met with a non-response. China and Russia’s role as members of the UN Security Council is crucial here. These two countries recognize state sovereignty that is sanctioned by the UN, which means that a country cannot be divided; hence, Syria (and Iraq) must stay as is.

Following this logic, could a solution inspired from the Lebanese Confessionalism political system be applicable to Syria and, by extension, to Iraq? This could be a solution. The map of the Middle East would remain the same as defined by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, while each country would have to find the best combination among its various faiths/ethnicities to manage the state. Will it work? Not likely! Why? Because modernism has failed to penetrate the Middle East, thereby failing to produce a secular citizen who makes a clear separation between Legality (the state) and Morality (religion). Paradoxically, those who tried to introduce modernism into Arab countries (Nasser in Egypt, Saddam in Iraq, and Assad in Syria) were fought by the West because they were pro-Soviet (ideologically opposed to the West).

So, what will happen? The Middle East will continue to be the production center of terrorist ideologies, terrorists, and may be on the way to becoming a new Afghanistan if left as is. Meanwhile, the Palestinian question will continue to be a cause and an example to produce the Jihadist ideology the West helped create and then lost control over. It is a cynical but realistic point of view, unfortunately. Tensions will continue as long as Arab countries do not provide a modern version of their Islam. They could draw inspiration from three examples: Turkey, Iran, and Morocco. As Foucault said, changes appear in the limits of things. Changes had already appeared at the borders of the Ottoman Empire in the two countries that were not under its jurisdiction: Morocco and Iran.

As long as the Arab countries do not find their balance between cultural values, religion, and politics, chaos will prevail. Modernism and state modernization are inexorable even though, for some countries, the idea seems utopic. A new form of ‘secular’ Arab nationalism needs to emerge, as was the case from the 1940’s to the 1970’s when Arab identity was advocated as the common denominator before the US and Israel undermined it.

China and Russia (to a certain extent) are examples that may appeal to Arab countries, as both the Dragon and the Bear are wary of the West; they are not democracies, they challenge the West’s hegemony and ways, and they are also threatened by terrorism. China with its Chinese-oriented socialism based on its cultural values ​​(Confucianism and legalism among others) and Russia with its ‘enlightened’ despotism (that goes back to Czar Peter the Great and Empress Catherine the Great) are modern states with a deficit of democracy. They represent a successful example for Mid-Eastern countries, unlike the West, whose legacy is one of conflicts, manipulation and exploitation. The MENA region needs these examples to make a smooth transition — to maintain its cultural values, progressing and aiming slowly for democracy that is a horizon to attain.

Then what solution to bring the very-much-needed peace to the region? For a thousand years, the MENA region has witnessed crusades of all kinds and had become a boiling cauldron. Since 1945, the UN is managing some measure of peace in the world, but there is no peace in the Middle East. Emotions have dominated decisions to the detriment of reason and rationalization. The situation is worsening and tends to take over the entire Arab-Muslim space. On the one hand, with regards to the Palestinian question, the Oslo Accords led to a stalemate. With Bush, the peace plan sunk while, with Trump, the chances of peace are completely destroyed. The Arab League has proposed a peace plan that was rejected by Israel. On the other hand, the Syrian Conflict is still in an impasse despite the Geneva and Astana processes and the Vienna and Sochi negotiations. With this in mind, initiating a new Sykes-Picot is urgent and mandatory.

This Sykes-Picot Agreement 2.0 must take place, in the form of an international conference under the umbrella of the UN that must last as long as it takes to produce a major breakthrough. Sykes-Picot 2.0 must not be a private matter between powers to divide a loot as was the case for Sykes-Picot 1.0. This time China and Russia will have an active role that recognizes a multipolar world where the West is not as dominant as it used to be. It is necessary to include the permanent members of the UN Security Council. The other participants in this conference, who are part of the problem and part of the solution, must be the Mid-Eastern regional powers that are Shia Iran, Hanafi Turkey, Hanbali Saudi Arabia, Shafi’i Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian National Authority. These ‘enemies’ must all sit at the table of negotiations to talk once and for all and to come up with a solution to bring the very-much-needed peace to a region in dire need of it. Other participants must be included for different reasons: Indonesia and India, Pakistan and Malaysia (weight of their Muslim population), Nigeria (threatened by Boko Haram), Morocco (example of an Arab-Muslim monarchy that adapts to modernism), and Malaysia (example of peaceful coexistence).

Sykes-Picot 2.0 will be aimed towards peace, cohabitation, and socio-economic development. It must be a peace agreement in which the international community commits to recognize the Mid-Eastern powers and work towards maintaining peace in the Arab-Muslim world. This agreement must include a (utopic) clause in which Western powers, Russia and China commit to stop selling arms to the Middle East. The outcome of this conference must be some sort of Marshall Plan that includes 1) an economic and social development plan to boost the economies of the region and to put the countries at the same level, erasing the current gaps; and 2) a revision of the various education systems to eradicate radicalism, oriented towards a peaceful inter-faith and inter-ethnic cohabitation.

Will the West and the Mid-Eastern powers dare to participate in this conference and to abide by its rules to bring peace to the region? Not likely in the short term, unfortunately! But, sooner or later, all these powers will have to have peace talks, before another humanitarian crisis unfolds. This proposal for peace is utopic but it will become a necessity. It is like the climate change issue: many states disregarded it, letting everyone do what they wanted, but today the world feels the danger and the need to act before it is too late. The MENA region deserves peace after a thousand years of war.

Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia

Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia is a lecturer at HEC Montréal and Polytechnique Montréal, a consultant, and an independent researcher. She holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration with a focus on China and Japan. Dr. Er-Rafia specializes in cross-cultural management, international affairs, strategy and organizational behavior. Her focus is on Weberian sociology, politics, economics, and history, and she uses aspects of all these disciplines to study Asia.

Dr. Er-Rafia previously served as a Corporate Strategist at Desjardins Group and as a Management Consultant, Director of Operations, and a Strategy and Business Development Consultant at Stratégies Internationales. She provides training for Business Executives at the international level and regularly gives presentations about Asia’s geopolitics, and its business, management, and culture. She is the recipient of several honors and awards and author of two book chapters on China and Japan, several articles and over twenty business case studies.

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