The Greatest Curse of the Middle East Region

On September 28, Arab nationalists throughout the Middle East will mark the 56th anniversary of a military coup that shattered the Syrian-Egyptian Union of 1958-61. Gamal Abdul Nasser promised that his union regime would last 100 years but it came crashing down just three years later, due to political repression and chaotic socialist policies that led to the confiscation of land and private enterprise and ultimately to the destruction of the Syrian upper class.
When the Ba’athists took power in 1963, via a military coup, they promised to restore the Syrian- Egyptian Union and, on paper and in theory, they are still determined to do that.
This ultimately is the greatest curse of the Middle East. Nobody was satisfied with the borders they ended up with at the end of the first world war. The Turks cried foul play, claiming that the former Ottoman Empire had been sliced into pieces and the people of Syria complained that they were left with only a fraction of what Bilad al-Sham had once been.
At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the Zionists aggressively lobbied for their share of the cake — a Jewish state in Palestine — and so did other minorities, notably the Kurds, whose representative, Serif Pasha, pointed to the Fourteen Points of US President Woodrow Wilson, which, among other things, promised “self-determination” for “non-Turkish races” of the Middle East.
When the final borders were drawn and accepted internationally, neither the Arabs nor the Kurds got their independent state. The Kurds were divided among Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey while the Arabs were scattered throughout the kingdom of the Hejaz, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and throughout North Africa. The Jews had to wait until 1948 to get their country while the Kurds carved one out of Iraq in 1991.
Obviously, nobody was satisfied with these settlements, wanting to believe that they were temporary. Some within the Alawite community petitioned the French in 1936, demanding that they get to keep an independent mini-state in the Syrian coast instead of being reunited with Mother Syria. Abdullah I of Jordan dreamt of a throne in Damascus and constantly positioned himself as a king-in-waiting, pleading with the British to install him whenever a vacancy emerged in Syria. In the 1940s, he tried to talk Syria’s Druze into seceding and merging with his kingdom.
His brother Faisal, who was briefly king of Syria before becoming sovereign of Iraq, often suggested a Syrian-Iraqi Union under his crown, with a rotating summer/winter capital between Baghdad and Damascus.
When parliament tabled a bill demanding the restoration of Baalbek, Rashaya, Hasbaya and the Bekaa Valley to Syria, arguing that they had been forcefully annexed to Lebanon, Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli, an Arab nationalist, turned it down saying: “What difference does it make if they are in Syria or Lebanon? These borders are temporary and we will one day erase them to create an Arab Nation.”
More recently when President Hafez Assad — Bashar’s father — mentioned Palestine in private talks with Arab nationalists, he referred to it as “southern Syria.”
Some residents of the Middle East wanted to expand their borders to include larger more ambitious Arab projects; others worked for mini-states based on ethnicity or religion. More than ever, this is materialising in Syria and Iraq today.
Before its ambitious “caliphate” began to crumble, the Islamic State (ISIS) carved out what effectively became “Sunni-Stan” in major cities such as Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and Mosul. The Kurds did the same in north-eastern Syria, creating militias to fight just about anybody who hovered close — be it the Free Syrian Army, ISIS, al-Nusra or government troops.
Two referendums that will bring them closer than ever towards statehood were set.
The first was September 22 in Syria, with the selection of leaders for approximately 3,700 communities with the intention of creating a Kurdish-backed federal government in the north within the framework of the present borders. Areas voting were al-Hasakah, including the strategic city of Qamishli; Tal Abyad and Kobane, near the Turkish border; and Afrin, west of the Euphrates. In all three the vote went smoothly, with no interference from the central government in Damascus. Syrian Kurds are to have municipality elections in November and parliamentary ones in January.
The second one — far more controversial — was set for September 25 in Iraqi Kurdistan, eyeing full independence.
Arab nationalists are furious, claiming this further breaks down the dwarfed and artificial states that were created by the British and the French in 1916. Kurdish independence might inspire more fragmentation as other minorities make claims to statehood. Turkish and Persian nationalists are unhappy with the Iraqi referendum because it would trigger similar ambitions among the Kurdish minorities in their countries, which have been persecuted for more than a century.
Dividing countries in conflict or those emerging from war is not new and not without benefits so long as it is done with vision and relative consensus. It happened to India in 1947, which gave birth to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. A civil war in 1971 resulted in the secession of East Pakistan as the new country of Bangladesh. It happened to Korea in 1948. It happened to Germany in 1949. It happened to Egypt, when Sudan was carved out as an independent state in 1956. It happened to Yemen in 1969. More recently, it happened to Sudan in 2011. The list can go on. Looking at the bright side of it — Germany reunited. So did Yemen.

Sami Moubayed
is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015). He is a former Carnegie scholar and founding chairman of the Damascus History Foundation.
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