Geographic Transformations in Middle Eastern Conflicts

Sunday، November 13، 2016
Geographic Transformations in Middle Eastern Conflicts

Borders in the Middle East were redrawn after former colonial powers Britain and France ratified the Sykes-Picot Agreement one hundred years ago. Through this document, the legacy of the Ottoman Empire was divvied up following their defeat after World War I.

These borders, both within and outside of nations, have undergone changes and have shifted during the past last years after regimes collapsed, states fell, armed militias were formed, terrorist organizations expanded their spread, regional parties entered the fray, proxy wars intensified and domestic conflicts became internationalized. All this created an environment of instability between countries of the region to the extent that shifting borders are becoming more common.

These border issues prompted the Emirati Al Ittihad newspaper to entitle its tenth annual forum “Arabs Ten Years after Sykes-Picot.” The forum was held on October 20th 2016, and concluded that the international and regional context of the issue had changed and that external ambitions continue to exist. Regional borders are not demarcated geographically through consensus between nations and international forces, but more closely resemble “fragile paper maps” that are violated through an agreement or out of necessity. These borders shift in accordance with forces in control on the ground in the applicable geographic region.

Massoud Barzani, President of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, said in a February 6th 2016, interview with Al-Hayat newspaper in London that, “The borders inherited from the Sykes-Picot agreement are artificial. The new borders in the region have been drawn with blood both within and among countries.”

Writer Ghassan Sherbel touched on the same idea in the Al-Hayat newspaper on November 12th, saying, “There will be no return to the previously proposed borders, nor will the new borders be recognized.” Either existing countries were formed on new bases, or old countries’ borders expanded in a manner which conflicts with America’s vision for the new project in the Middle East and the “creative chaos” which foments fragmentations and divisions.

Thus the so-called “dictatorship of geography” or “absolute sovereignty” of states in the region no longer enjoy central importance because a set of major transitions that will impose geographic transformations on conflicts within the Middle East, as reflected in the following points:

Decreasing centralization

1. It is impossible for states to return to centralized units because the state is no longer the main actor and does not have a monopoly on coercive power in regional interactions. Meanwhile, non-state actors have gained new, violent roles, especially during the transitional periods which followed the various revolutions and conflicts of the region. These actors include armed militias, terrorist organizations, regional battalions and sectarian forces which form a type of “parallel army.”

Armed regional conflicts have indicated that no party has been capable of bringing the conflict into their favor in order to fight other parties, thus altering the pre-2010 map of these countries.

CIA Director John Brennan also discussed this topic during an intelligence conference organized at George Washington University in Washington, DC on October 27th, 2015. He said, “When I look at the destruction in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen, I have to imagine the presence of a central government in these countries capable of exercising its authority over the borders that were drawn after World War I.” He added, “A military solution is impossible in any of these countries, and it is wrong to seek a final solution at the present time. We must adopt a more gradual strategy by seeking to reduce the tension and severity of the conflict and build confidence between parties interested in achieving a peaceful settlement.”

French Intelligence Chief Bernand Bajolet agreed with Brennan when he said, “The Middle East as we know it is forever gone.” He added, “We can see that Syria is divided on the ground, and the regime only controls a small portion of the country, representing a third of the original area of Syria founded after the Second World War. The north is controlled by the Kurds, and in this area we have a central portion that is controlled by ISIS. The same applies to Iraq. The future Middle East will inevitably be different from the one drawn after World War II.” Much literature has discussed, “fragmentation within borders” or “hybrid borders within a single country.”

Ankara’s ambitions

2. Restoring regional forces’ historic ambitions: One example of this includes the Turkish policy toward hotbeds of conflict in Syria and Iraq. Turkey has confronted this issue by consolidating its presence in Bashiqa north of Mosul and progressing towards Manbij after capturing Jarabulus in northern Syria.

The publicly announced goal of this policy was to maintain national security against the chaos taking place on the border, and to protect Sunnis from the control of Shiites and Kurds, especially in light of the practices undertaken by Popular Mobilization in Sunni areas which were liberated in Fallujah. All of this has heightened fears that these practices will be reinstated after Mosul is liberated.

The real goals of the Turkish military presence are to control portions of the two countries by proxy. In this context, on October 18th 2016, Turkey’s Dililish newspaper published a map of Turkey which included portions of Iraq and Syria, particularly the areas of Kirkuk, Mosul, Erbil, Aleppo, Idliband Haska. Journalists and political activists called for the cover of the newspaper to be circulated widely.

This comes in conjunction with calls from Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan to restore the “glory” of the Ottoman Empire. According to statements he made on Oct. 11th, “Turkey will join the operation to liberate Mosul, and any talks surrounding the destiny of this city are tied to Turkish national security.”

He added, “Some countries come from thousands of kilometers away to conduct operations in Afghanistan and so on in many areas, claiming that they form a threat, while Turkey – who shares 911km of border with Syria and 350km with Iraq – is told that we can’t intervene while our country is threatened by those borders.”

Erdogan’s statements came in conjunction with the start of the operation to liberate Mosul from ISIS control. The Turkish government refused to withdraw its soldiers, despite the Iraqi government’s request that they do so. Ankara is scared of the American plan put forth to liberate Mosul, which includes securing a pathway in Western Mosul between Syria and Iraq in a manner which could strengthen Iranian influence against Turkey’s role.

This trend is not limited to the Middle East, and extends to European countries as well. On September 29th 2016, President Erdogan stated that the Lozan Treaty of 1923 which drew most of Turkey’s borders was a “defeat, not a victory” for Turkey. The treaty followed an attack on Greece as a result of the latter annexing islands in the Aegean Sea, an overreach of Turkey’s sovereignty. He noted that, “Anyone who shouts on the Turkish coast is heard in the islands to this day”; statements which were described as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras as “dangerous.”

Iranian expansion

3. Growing Iranian interference in the domestic affairs of the countries of the region: Much literature has discussed the actions undertaken by Tehran in several Arab capitals. The concept of an “expanding Iran” is prevalent through political rapprochement, military presence, economic cooperation and cultural bias. Trends with Iran indicate that Arab countries may become divided in the near future, which would work in Iran’s favor.

In this context, the Iranian Chief Advisor to the Supreme Leader of the Republic, Rahim Safavi, said in an October 18th seminar on “geopolitical transformations in the Islamic world” that, “Some countries of the region such as Iraq, Syria and Libya are headed toward division. Iraq will be divided into three sub-states, with Syria and Libya each dividing into two states.”

Tehran’s top priority is to weaken Sunni countries, reflected in their support for increasing the geographic reach of their allies. These include national army forces, the Popular Mobilization militias in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad’s army and Pakistani and Afghani fighters in Syria. Iran is also keen to defend what it calls the “suffering” of Shi’as across the world, although this too serves their own interests.

Minority aspirations

4. Growing separatist practices of armed minority groups: This is reflected in the policies of the Kurds in the Kurdistan region of Iraq who have called for independence and the declaration of a state of Kurdistan. The Kurdistan region has become virtually independent from the capital of Baghdad, except with respect to trade and investment.

In this context, Massoud Barzani stated in an interview with BBC that “Sykes-Picot is over. In the end the Kurds will receive a permanent independent state.” Barzani enjoys the support of Erdogan, reflecting Turkey’s aspirations to support and protect this region due to its neighboring borders. The Kurdistan region has worked to expand its territory with respect to other adjacent Iraqi provinces, draw their borders, and change their demographics.

Turkish military intervention in Syria has increased following Kurdish forces tightening control in cities and towns in northern Syria, due to fears that a Kurdish state established on the border may encourage Turkish Kurds, who number 15 million within Turkey, to pursue this path.

Turkey’s behavior been described in prevailing literature as indicative of a desire to contain the most dynamic, independent groups in the Middle East which call for Turkey not to receive their fair share of the borders. These include Kurds, Shiite, and Sunni tribes, where ambitions for self-rule may be accommodated without any attempts to repaint official borders. Kurds in Rojava have been careful to describe the government of their region as part of the Syrian state while simultaneously “Kurdifying” the lands that have been liberated.

Blood borders

5. Terrorist movement on soft borders: These organizations, ISIS in particular, not only target the security of states and societies, but also seek to establish a strategic vacuum in areas with high population density in key states that are home to natural resources.

Since ISIS began spreading in northern Iraq in mid-2014, it has drawn a map to visualize the areas it seeks to control in six countries: Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. This move demonstrates that ISIS represents, according to their own vision, a state which transcends traditional borders.

Despite efforts made by international coalition forces and some regional powers to combat the spread of what may be called “private mobile armies” across borders in the Middle East and the subsequent reduction in members, declining sources of funding, and shrinking control over some areas, ISIS’s presence  remains.

Many estimates note that ISIS forces fleeing the fires of battle in Mosul have spread along the Syrian-Iraqi border, where there are large, open areas available, creating ‘blood borders.’

Recently, the US Envoy to the International Coalition against ISIS Brett McGurk stated that, “Victory in Mosul does not mean the end of ISIS, but it will restrict the organization and pave the way to a second battle in their Syrian capital, Raqqa.”

6. The competition between violent actors to draw borders on the ground: This has been reflected in the difficult nature of reaching agreements between ISIS, the multiplicity of Kurdish organizations in Syria and Iraq, armed militias such as the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda in Yemen, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Nusra Front (later renamed Fatah Al-Sham), and numerous tribes in Yemen and Libya. The facts on the ground make the process of agreeing on new borders and recognizing their existence all the more difficult.

Here it can be said that the geographic divide resulting from conflicts is accompanied by the formulation of distinctive identities and economies.

Border economies

7. The brutality of economic interest networks along the borders: These networks feed the lack of border security which cannot be set, especially since the entities responsible for establishing borders, in some cases, are unknown but support the process of illegal entry. The regional borders are now subject to the administration of a double standard with regard to “multi-sovereignty.” This includes giving armed groups control of local border centers to aid the appearance of legitimacy.

This occurs with the goal of satisfying local tribes who control border centers. This was the case in Libya following the fall of the Qaddafi regime in order to prevent prejudice in their trade and sources of funding. This has also extended from Egypt and the Arab Maghreb to the remaining Arab borders.

Networks of “frontier economies” have escalated in various parts of the Middle East in recent years through widespread smuggling of arms, drugs, funds, commodities and humans. This smuggling has bypassed the functions of security personnel, border guards and Coast Guard surveillance at unprecedented levels of penetration.

Despite the fact that these practices existed previously and were classified as legal crimes, they greatly expanded following the Arab revolutions after taking into consideration the difficult nature of estimating the extent of these illegitimate commercial exchanges according to differences in growth rates, lifestyle, economic systems and the security situation within the states located on these borders.

Focusing Russia

8. The geographic balance of international forces: This applied more clearly to Russia’s presence in Syria following the agreement to transform Syria’s Tartus into a permanent base for the Russian fleet and to deploy S-300 and S-400 systems to expand Russia’s military intervention in Syria, thereby strengthening the Assad regime’s attempts to draw clear features of a “useful Syria.”

According to Colonel Ahmed Rahal, leader of the Free Syrian Army, Russian troops have been deployed in 25 ground points between Aleppo, Hama, Homs, and Damascus along with a naval base in Tartus, which represents the consolidation of the “Russian occupation” of Syrian territory.

Russian military presence in Syria reflects a consolidation of the strategic prestige of Moscow in counteracting Western powers. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted during the “Middle East: Trends and Prospects” conference on Oct. 20th that, “Instability in the Middle East is the result of the West’s geopolitical engineering. The disintegration of state institutions and the process of unbridled division have led to the emergence of much of the tension in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya. This includes the practice of intervening in states’ internal affairs, attempts to change regimes which are not loyal to them, and imposing democracy as per standards that suit them.”

Dividing the Division

Overall, the geography of the conflict in the Middle East at the end of 2016 indicates the formation of various new border maps through actors both new and old. These actors differ from those that prevailed decades ago after the collapse of the borders dividing hotbeds of conflict in Syria and Iraq, support on part of various rival militias, armed militias’ failure to recognize border lines, growing separatist tendencies toward violent actors, and a new role for Russia emerging in the region. This is reflected in the existences of communities growing on areas of land for which there is no map.

Keywords: Turkeymiddle eastSyriaAnkaraSykes-Picot