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The Uncertain Middle East

  • Blog Post by: Steve Hunegs
  • July 19, 2013 - 9:26 AM

The seizure of power by the Egyptian military marks yet another convulsion in the thirty months of increasing instability in the Arab world which began in Tunisia.

Touring the Middle East – including and beyond its Arab component – presents this stark geographic picture from the perspective of Israel and its remarkable stability.

Egypt (386,700 square miles) – which has long seen its deep history and large population as its foundation for leadership in the Arab world – has gone from Mubarak to Morsi to the military in 2.5 years following a leadership chain of Nasser to Sadat to Mubarak which lasted 55 years.  In the last thirty or so years, Egypt honored its cold peace with Israel while receiving billions of dollars of foreign aid from the United States.  The Egyptian military immediately faces three areas of instability either within Egypt or Gaza: 1) the protests in Cairo; 2) arms smuggling with either Jihadist and/or Iranian influence or origin in the Sinai peninsula; and 3) Gaza with Hamas – vowing Israel's destruction trying to maintain its own order with a finger on its rockets – with a backdrop of either more radical-terrorist elements trying to provoke conflict with Hamas by attacking Israel.  Given these circumstances how far will the Egyptian military go in restoring calm?  And how much will its behavior reflect larger issues in the Arab world from Amman to Damascus to Beirut – not to mention the ongoing Sunni oil-producing states’ considerable and legitimate fear of Iran's nuclear program?  From a United States and Israel vantage point, the former has its foreign aid leverage for a country whose tourism trade has largely evaporated; the latter can – largely only watch from a distance, albeit a short distance – and wonder if any power configuration will emerge which will provide a stable regime on Israel's southern border – keeping in mind the poverty and despair of the Egyptian people which precipitated the Tahrir Square revolution in the first place in 2011.

The three 1920s and 1930s Arab states – that is nations carved out of the carcass of the Ottoman Empire through such demarche as Sykes-Picot – are teetering towards the salinity line between order and disorder in varying degrees (Lebanon and Jordan) or have descended into the abyss of civil war and humanitarian crisis (Syria).  Beginning with the smallest and arguably the most fragile Lebanon (4,036 square miles) "hosts" both Hezbollah which has planted a Shia (Iranian vassal state-let) in Lebanon as a frontal position for Iran's terrorism with Israel which has all but crippled the decades-long power sharing agreement between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon.  Meanwhile, the Hezbollah support for the Assad regime, in Syria in accordance with Iranian Middle East strategy, has intensified the Syrian civil war forcing large numbers of Syrians to enter Lebanon (and Jordan and Turkey) as refugees.

Next door in Syria (71,498 square miles) nearly 100,000 have died – with Bashar Assad pursuing full-scale war against his opponents trying to oust his minority regime – a conflict whose large-scale bloodshed dates back to 1982.  Israel's northern Golan border was once characterized by an uneasy but long-standing modus operandi with Syria, but now, just a few miles beyond the frontier, a great proxy conflict between the Shia and Sunni worlds has erupted which can’t help but impact Israel beyond the wounded of the Syrian civil war it is treating and the artillery and mortar fire which has crossed the border into the Golan.   Meanwhile, Russia has embarked upon Cold War-like stratagem of pursuing its own interests relentlessly in Syria including the provision of sophisticated anti-aircraft to the Assad regime which the West had implored Putin not to send.  This is an issue for United States and Russian relations and geo-political influence.

In geographical summary, Israel's 8,019 square miles is an outpost of democratic stability – relatively – among the 1,436,806 square miles of these six nations bordering on all sides of Israel or just beyond Israel's horizon – this does not take into account the future of Iraq.

Amid the human suffering which is Syria, some historians and other commentators are suggesting the civil war and participating proxies represent the denouement of the end of the Ottoman Empire a century after the fall of Sultan Mehmed VI and the rise of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.  At the risk of seeming callous in seeking historical context when tens of thousands of people have died in a conflict in which Bashar Assad has used chemical warfare against fellow Syrians and the Syrian regime, Iran (for Iran, see The pentagon’s 2013 Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat Assessment describing the efforts of China, Iran and North Korea to develop and share advanced ballistic technology.), Hezbollah, Russia and Israel are preparing for possible war.  Nevertheless in a war where choosing between the sides is a Hobson's choice, Americans ought to have some background of why so many are staring into the abyss.

Among the many historical facets leading to July, 2013 are the contradictory impulses (some would say promises) of British foreign and imperial policy during and after the First World War.  Certain representations were made to Arab Middle East interests in exchange for fomenting of uprising against the Ottoman Turks in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence.  Two years later, with Russia tottering on the brink of the Bolshevik Revolution, United Kingdom Foreign Secretary James Arthur Balfour wrote to Baron Rothschild noting his Majesty's government "viewing with favor the establishment of a Jewish National Home" in Palestine.  Astride these promises was a mutual British and French imperial motivation to carve up the Ottoman Empire as it was purportedly disintegrating under pressures of the First World War and the internal contradictions of national minorities seeking their Independence.

This last demarche was portrayed most vividly in the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916.  Or as described by Israel's Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren: "The map of the region — drawn a century ago by European powers to reflect imperial interests rather than ethnic realities" (Washington Post, 5/24/13).  The territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River (including the ports of Haifa and Acre) and southern Iraq was allocated to the United Kingdom.  Southeast Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon were assigned to France.  These territorial designations would in some instances become national boundaries.

These national boundaries had little relationship with a coherent national identity.  In David Fromkin's "A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East" (Henry Holt & Company, 1989), the author relates the experience of the de Bunson committee whose recommendations preceded Sykes-Picot.  Tasked with defining the best interests of Britain, the committee believed there were four alternatives: 1) Annexation of the Ottoman territories by the Allies; 2) Dividing the territories into spheres of influence; 3) Leaving the Ottoman Empire in place – with a subservient government; and 4) Decentralizing the Empire into semi-autonomous units.  Per number 3, there was a camp within the British government which faired keeping the Ottoman Empire believing its disappearance would "presage" the disappearance of the British Empire.

The spheres of influence in combination with annexation which informed Sykes-Picot was the result of deliberations – as Fromkin points out – as the committee feeling free to "remake the face of the Middle East as they saw fit."  There was no need to follow lines of existing political subdivisions. Greek and Latin classics with their geographical terms studied at public school became the basis of territorial division as did national aspirations centuries old.  There was the historic French mission to rule the Levant and protect its Christian communities.  There was the long-standing British imperative to secure the Empire with a Middle East presence which protected the trade and communications networks to India.

Sir Mark Sykes believed – despite the British and French primary desire to remake the Middle East in their Anglo-French image – he could reconcile the various national aspirations at the post World War I negotiations.  Mark Sykes intentions – sometimes quickly shifting intentions – have been analyzed by his son, Christopher Sykes – a respected Middle East historian ("Cross Roads to Israel-Palestine from Balfour to Bevin" [Collins, 1965]) with British diplomatic and military experience in Egypt and Iran.  Christopher Sykes explores the motivation of his father in a book of two extended essays: "Two Studies in Virtue" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1953).  Both Christopher Sykes (and Fromkin) agree that a cause in which Mark Sykes believed was Jewish-Arab friendship.  Mark Sykes envisioned a pro-Allied partnership of Arab, Jewish and Armenian interests.  Sadly, whether ever realistic or not – such affinity has likely never seen so remote.

The complexity which Sykes-Picot failed to appreciate or ascertain about the Middle East is seen in the series of bad options which the United States faces with the Syrian civil war and throughout the Middle East.  Is there any ground between the murderous Bashar Assad regime aided by Hezbollah and Iran and the Jihadist opposition with its Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda elements?  Keeping in mind each side would like to have control of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons with which to threaten Israel.

American military intervention in Syria has almost no supporters.  This recognizes the intractable situation which Americans would face in Syria.  Much can be learned from the experiences of American soldiers in Iraq.  Click here for an essay from Corporal Eddie Nevin – now completing his degree at the University of Minnesota in Global Studies with a regional focus on the Middle East – about his Marine Corps experience in Iraq against the backdrop of his current studies about the Middle East.

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