Ninety-nine years ago a war began in Europe which did more to define the borders of the Middle East than any other event in history. That war was World War 1, and in a round about way it defined the borders of roughly 8 countries out of a conservative estimate of 16 in the wider region. In defining these borders, it must surely rank as one of histories greatest follies that no inhabitants of any of these countries were involved and that such arrangements were ultimately made with only the view points of one Englishman and a Frenchman take into account. Imagine China and Japan dictating the borders of European countries ? Are we to assume they would create borders with the other countries’ interests at heart or we would fall down on the side of the most probable response and assume that if one country was asked to define another countries borders that it would do so only in its own interest. History teaches us many things and perhaps an overarching theme to what we can learn by studying the past is that benignity in politics is as good as non-existent. I highlight this particular viewpoint of mine to make clear from the outset for the reader my views on the disastrous effect the purely self-interested policies of the French and British empires had on the middle east and further, continue to have as we can see in the rapidly escalating crisis in Syria. In defining borders in the Middle East, the gentlemen Sykes and Picot had two ingredients with which they worked, land and people. Land is easy from the point of view of a someone tasked with making a nation, it does not protest to the arbitrary lines scribbled across it by the cartographer and without the intervention of people those lines might well last an eternity in quiet peace. Humans are a little different, they do protest the arbitrary lines that cut them off from friends and family and surround them with different ethnic groups and religions and often the results of humans doing so is an incredibly bloody affair. Anyway back the matter in hand, when Sykes and Picot made their borders they operated on a policy of divide and rule with regards the people by empowering minority ethnic groups to hold disproportionate amounts of power at the expense of the majority. when discussing the middle east many often bemoan the fact that seemingly the region is cursed with what seems an inherent taste of violent conflict with both internal and external enemies and depending on the commentator themselves, they will offer any number of potential reasons for this supposed quality. What these arguments about the violent nature of the middle east miss out is that for comparison we always think of our own countries in the west which as a result of events in the past are generally ethnically and culturally homogeneous whereas the middle east in a word is far more heterogeneous in all ways. this heterogeneity is a direct result of the Sykes-Picot agreement and World War 1 and we are seemingly seeing its side effects emerge more and more on a daily basis in Syria, but the the trouble does not end there as the destabilizing effect of the conflict seems to be escalating previously small civil conflict in almost all neighbouring countries, primarily Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey so that we are on the verge of watching another region burned over as a result of the follies of the west. I will now discuss a briefly the emerging situation in each of these countries and highlight the points of concern.
While I have included Turkey here in my analysis, it is true that of the three countries I mentioned Turkey as it stands has remained relatively free from conflict but none the less there are worrying signs present in the political landscape and further Turkey has many of the ingredients necessary for a civil conflict of it its own. The first point of concern I believe that we should pay attention to is the way in which turkey has involved itself in the Syrian conflict. Turkey has from a very early point in the conflict declared its support for the rebel factions in Syria and has allowed the setting up of a Syrian government in exile amongst its own borders, all of this on top of Turkey having been the primary safe haven for refugees fleeing the conflict. This of course is the official state of affairs but if the rumours many have heard on the grapevine are to be believed then attacks by rebels against the Syrian government forces have been launched from Turkish soil. Further to this another rumour circulating is that after stray mortar shells landed in Turkey that the armed forces used this a pretext for launching raids across the border aimed at their perennial enemies, the Kurds. From all of this evidence we can see that Turkey has become embroiled in the Syrian civil war much like the Gulf Arab states, although unlike the countries of the Gulf, turkey shares a border with Syria that could quite easily facilitate the spread of conflict from one country to the other. In recent weeks we perhaps had a inkling of this process of the conflict spreading beginning when 2 suicide bombs were detonated in a town on the Turkish border with Syria that killed 43 people. The official story, which I believe should be taken with a pinch of salt bearing in mind the number of stories that haver turned out to be false such as the Syrian governments supposed use of chemical weapons, was that the bombings were carried out by groups linked with the Syrian intelligence service. I feel the Syrian rebels a more likely culprit as they stand to gain much more from the conflict escalating in terms of other governments committing military forces to the conflict or failing this at least an increase in the amount of financial and/or technical support that they will receive from the coalition of countries allied against the Syrian regime. Either way, whoever you believe to be responsible for the bombing the fact remains that the conflict appears to be being waged by neighbouring proxies which does not bode well for peace in Turkey itself. While part of the problems then of turkey stem from the conflict in neighbouring Syria, there are aspects of the Turkish political landscape that may well lend themselves to the fomentation of civil conflict independent of anything going on in neighbouring Syria and it is my concern that a combination of Turkish problems alongside the overspill from the syrian civil war may see the country burn. The main troubling ingredient present in the Turkish landscape is the sizeable Kurdish population whose relations with Ankara have never been particularly jovial as a result of the long history of persecution of the Kurds by the Turkish government and in recent weeks a peace deal of sorts has been signed between the two parties. All it would take is for this deal to break down, which history has shown us in the form of previous truce agreements is likely, and combined with the severely militarised climate of south eastern turkey I would not like to hazard a guess as to what the consequences might be other than to guess that whatever they are they will not be pretty. Ultimately of all the countries I discuss in this article, Turkey is the least likely to suffer but this is very much dependent on how long the conflict rages on for in Syria. If the Syrian civil war ends relatively soon then it is easy enough to see Turkey avoiding any crisis but if the war continues indefinitely then Turkeys level of involvement will only increase commensurate with the age of the conflict.
Of three countries I discuss in this post none are more closely interconnected with Syria than Lebanon is. The history of the relationship between the two countries has seen the countries at each others throats on more than one occasion and it has also seen them being the closet of allies. Lebanon has all of the essential ingredients to precipitate the spreading of the conflict into another country. Firstly there is a large bastion of support for Bashar present in Lebanon in the form of Hezbollah who are a formidable fighting force and are in all likelihood loathed by the Islamist rebels in Syria as it is a Shia Muslim group. Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon could easily escalate any emerging crisis especially if they are targeted by rebel groups laying low in Lebanon itself which is a significant possibility being as suicide bombings have been conducted in Lebanon since the start of the conflict in Syria with many citing rebel groups as the party responsible. Another factor that makes Lebanon a likely candidate for an overspill of the conflict emerging is the polarisation along sectarian lines of much of Lebanese society. For fifteen years the world saw Lebanon torn apart by brutal sectarian conflict which again like much of the conflict in the middle east was a result of the borders arbitrarily drawn in the carve up of the middle east after world war 1 which placed minority’s in all of the positions of power in many countries. The Lebanese civil war was a particularly bloody affair as it moved away from any meaningful conflict with clear aims towards a conflict of retaliation and reprisal massacres and were the Syrian civil war to spread across its neighbours border then there is no reason to believe that the same would not be true again. Much like Turkey however, the ultimate deciding factor is how much longer the conflict in Syria continues for but unlike Turkey the likelihood that the Syrian civil war will escalate to the point where its neighbour becomes involved is significantly greater. Another element present in the case of Lebanon is that it has become something of a hub for gulf money making its way into the hands of Syrian rebels and naturally this presents us with the likelihood that alongside this money coming into the country that a far more destabilising import is also entering Lebanese territory in the form of gulf Salafists and other fundamentalists which does not bode well for stability in a country that has never had a particularly strong track record for peace.
Iraq is very much the odd one here as it is recent history is unfortunately full of conflict so it perhaps seems a bit confusing for me to include it in a list of possible countries that the Syrian civil war may spread to but something serious is in motion in Iraq which seems to very clearly linked to the conflict in Syria. The case of Iraq would always be a problematic one for suggesting it as a place where an Arab Spring type revolution or conflict might take place as its history in the lead up to the region wide event was so fundamentally different with the invasion in 2003 and then many years of sectarian conflict and near enough outright civil war. All of the above being true alongside the Arab Spring that we heard about in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia was an identical movement of protest against the current corrupt regime in Iraq which I can only assume was neglected from the media because they didn’t accept stories coming from Iraq that didn’t involve people being murdered aimlessly by suicide bombers. While a peaceful protest movement aimed to some degree at the liberalisation of the Iraqi political sphere was a great positive for the political landscape there, from very early on the movement become somewhat bogged down in Sectarian divisions with much of the protesting being carried out by the Sunni minority who felt (legitimately) that they had been marginalised by the Shia-Kurdish alliance in government. The main area in which these protests took part was also the predominantly Sunni areas west of Baghdad (Sunni Triangle for those who feel the need to use US army terms at all times) and so what I feel that we can observe in the case of Iraq is a genuine movement for political reform like in all of the other Arab Spring protests which was subverted by sectarian causes much the same as in Syria. Of course that being said one thing that Syria had in its favour before the start of its respective uprising was that it had enjoyed peace within its own borders since the Hama uprising in 1982 whereas Iraq has pretty much literally been torn apart by the sectarian divisions created after the ousting of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Iraq like the other two countries I have already discussed has been closely connected with Syria in a number of ways since the beginning of the crisis in 2011 such as hosting a large number of refugees who in a bizarre twist of fate decided that they were indeed safer in Iraq were they had fled from in 2003 than they were in Syria in 2011. Another way in which the countries were closely interlinked was that it was reported that amongst the more hard line Islamist elements fighting in Syria were many of the same who had terrorized large swathes of the Iraqi population previously. Alongside the training that Iraq had provided them with into how to effectively terrorize civilian populations it is also probable that it provided them with a lot of military equipment and perhaps most importantly of all it provided them with a safe haven in the form of the Syrian-Iraqi Desert, a rather inhospitable area which due to the climate is policed A) ineffectively or B) not at all (you choose). This border region will be one of the key factors that could drag Iraq into civil conflict as it has been used once before as a base of resupply for insurgency movements desperate to avoid being traced and it is likely that if its not already being used by Rebels in Syria then it will be soon enough. A further reason I believe that Iraq is standing atop a dangerous precipice at this moment in time with it looking increasingly likely to follow Syria’s example is that much like in the case of Syria in 2011, prolonged peaceful protests have unfortunately not resulted in any massive changes to the system in Iraq and so violence will come to look more and more like the only solution to the problem. There has been a spike in the last month or so in the number of suicide bombings throughout the country and according to an article published in The Indepedent written by their Iraq specialist Patrick Cockburn some Iraqis believe their civil war has already started. whether that is true or not, the likely scenario is that the porous border between the current sectarian hell-hole that is Syria and the recovering sectarian hell-hole that is Iraq will only lead to more blood being spilt. Iraq is probably level with Lebanon in terms of the likelihood that it will become a theatre of the Syrian civil conflict but because of its past experiences you have been warned that what you can expect will be a hell of a lot uglier than the worst of Syria’s fight so far.