Would Redrawing Map Bring Mideast peace?

Monday marks the second anniversary of a Tunisian fruit vendor’s self-immolation that triggered the Arab Awakening. It is widely understood that a fundamental source of the strife is a crisis of political legitimacy, a millennium-old malady of Islamic societies. Less well understood is that many Arab states are artificial constructs, with borders seemingly drawn by a drunken cartographer. Their societies need to liberalize, or could face a redrawing of the map of the Middle East.

After World War I, the victorious Allies and the League of Nations created countries in the Middle East out of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Many are not modern nation-states but unnatural structures with borders that randomly cross ethnic, religious and tribal boundaries. Most local political leaders have been unable or unwilling to overcome the resulting social, political and religious unrest without resorting to illiberal or oppressive rule, if not bloody conflicts.

Jordan, for instance, has its origins in 1921 when British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, guided by staff, rashly gave 75 percent of Britain’s League of Nations-authorized Palestine Mandate to a member of the Hashemite dynasty.

Abdullah, son of Sherif Hussein bin Ali, the sharif and emir of Mecca, had no connection to the territory. This disposition was to dissuade Abdullah from helping his brother, Faisal, who was being evicted by Britain’s ally, France, from its Syrian Mandate. The decision shrank the area in which a Jewish homeland was to be established to the west bank of the Jordan River. Jordan became a state 25 years later, and long has been strained by divisions among native East Bankers, Palestinians and now Iraqis and Islamic extremists.

Churchill then made Faisal king of Iraq, a new territory encompassing the regions inhabited by Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Jews and Christians. The Sunnis resented being ruled by someone from the Arabian Peninsula, even a Sunni. The majority Shiites were furious at the imposition of Sunni rule, and the Kurds in the north wanted their own state. Churchill gave so little thought to this policy that only months later, he wrote to a subordinate, “Let me have a note … as to Feisal’s religious character. Is he a Sunni with Shiah sympathies, or a Shiah with Sunni sympathies …? What is Hussein? Which is the aristocratic high church and which is the low church? … I always get mixed up between these two.” The staffer replied that Hussein’s clansmen were nominal Sunnis who favored Shiites.

If true, it would have made Churchill’s Faisal appointment wiser, but then should have raised questions about Abdullah’s suitability to rule Sunni-dominated Transjordan. In fact, they were Sunnis who favored Sunnis, and Iraq experienced almost a century of bloody rebellions, coups, sectarian conflict and dictatorships. This wasn’t Churchill’s finest hour.

When considering that Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya were created with similar forethought, it is no surprise that they endure internal disorder and fragile borders.

These fundamental cleavages recently have been aggravated by Iran, today a Shiite power seeking strategic and religious domination in the region, which threatens Sunni Arab countries, Israel, and a retrenching United States. Syria, Bahrain, Gaza, Lebanon and Iraq serve as battlegrounds in this struggle. A nuclear Iran would exacerbate tensions, transform the landscape, potentially leading to a dangerous conflict.

To best enhance political legitimacy, domestic tranquillity and regional stability, Arabs and their leaders must widely embrace liberal values that include proper treatment of minorities. Preferably this would include democratic institutions and elections, but those that yield radical victors, as in Gaza in 2006 or Egypt in 2012, are regressive. They undermine civil society and impede development of vibrant economies that offer broader opportunities, as some regional non-Arab entities – Turks, Kurds and Jews – have achieved.

If Arab societies resist liberalization – and the ascent of Islamic extremists in Egypt and Syria suggests so – then the redrawing of borders to hopefully reduce tensions appears inevitable. The Palestinians are heading toward states in Gaza and West Bank. The Iraqi Kurds might assert independence, perhaps joining with restive Kurds in neighboring countries to correct an historical injustice. A post-Assad Syria could fracture into parts. Such breakups aren’t always panaceas: They don’t necessarily address the secular-Islamist divide, can trigger instability in neighbors and can lead to new conflicts to regain old territory.

The Middle East of the next 100 years likely will look very different from that of the past century. U.S. policymakers need to be cognizant of history and work closely with local leaders to help shape a region that will be more just and peaceful.

Michael Makovsky, foreign policy director of the Bipartisan Policy Center, is a former Pentagon official and author of “Churchill’s Promised Land” (Yale University Press).

Originally appeared in SF Gate on December 13, 2012.