When you look at a map of the Middle East today, what you are seeing is something artificial.
The borders that define these states were not drawn up by local or regional leaders, but instead by Britain and France following World War One.
In an agreement known as the Sykes-Picot System, these borders, often made with little regard for ethno-religious differences, forced the creation of internally fragmented states with groups often in opposition to one another forced to live side by side.
Many have argued that these artificial boundaries and the European imposed version of the nation-state have been flashpoints of conflict within the region for decades, most recently embodied by the Syrian Civil War.
What would happen then if we allowed some of these artificially constructed states to simply dissolve and be replaced by smaller versions formed along ethnic lines?
Is that something that should be done, and could it usher in the peace and stability that so many long for?
Reality meets the map
There are currently several ethnically charged independence movements at play in the Middle East, the most widely known is that of the Kurds.
The Kurds are the third largest ethnic group in the world without a state and are split up among Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq where they maintain a high degree of autonomy, even issuing their own visas for example.
Other groups fighting for greater autonomy and self-governance include the Balochs in Pakistan, the Berbers in Northern Africa, and the Palestinians along the West Bank, who have yet to be official recognized as a state by the UN.
Aside from independence movements, ethnic conflict within the Middle East also takes the form of internal power struggles.
This is the case in Syria where the conflict is sectarian in nature, but doesn’t resemble a genuine effort toward greater autonomy or self-governance among the individual groups fighting.
Instead, it’s multiple groups vying for power over one another within a defined system; the Alawite minority led by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad fighting Sunni factions and the western backed Free Syrian Army for control of the country.
Given the widespread nature of these conflicts, it seems that the idea of a secular European style nation-state being able to keep the peace among various groups has failed to achieve any sort of meaningful stability.
It may be the case that this system simply does not work when applied outside of Europe.
With the last hundred years dominated by civil wars from Lebanon, to Syria, to Yemen, and Iraq, and with insurgencies in Palestine, Turkey, and Afghanistan, the nation-state system is one that lends itself to either outright failure or harsh authoritarianism to maintain order.
States in the Middle East can now be classified into two groups, those that have through strong authoritarianism been able adapt to the artificial structure, and those that have descended into sectarian violence.
The nations of Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan represent Middle Eastern nations that have, though a dense power structure, incorporated elements of the local culture and religion to build up a sense of national identity that transcends tribal relations.
This was made easy in these regions by the fact that the ethnic division were far less apparent than what we see in Syria or Iraq.
In Egypt and Iran for example, both regions have a strong majority ethnic group, Egyptian and Persian, with a rich history to build off.
In Syria and Iraq, the opposite is true.
The countries could be split almost evenly.
Here, there is no dominate group that embodies the region, and thus, attempts to mimic the authoritarianism that has seen some success elsewhere, has only divulged into a near continual cycle of violence.
In these instances, if we want to see an end to conflict, the old borders must be done away with.
We must abandon the old notion of the nation-state as we know it in the Middle East as it has caused widespread death and destruction.
Instead, we should allow smaller states along ethnic lines to spring up and establish a form of governance that fits with their culture.
Until this is achieved, we will continue to see civil wars and insurgencies throughout the region.
The Syrian Civil War has dragged on now for six years, but the Kurds have been in conflict with Turkey for 38 years, and Boloch nationalists in Pakistan have been fighting for independence now since the 1940s!
Conflicts like these won’t end until these ethnic groups are granted their own states.
It is imperative that the West support efforts to see these false states properly re-envisioned and cease polices of reluctance.
In order for such a transition to what many have called “The New Middle East” to take place, there must be a paradigm shift, both in the Middle East and the West.
The idea of the Kurds being granted independence or the resolution of the ISIS problem are both major events that could trigger such a rethinking of the current structure.
If these events were to happen, and we began to see more efforts to divide the old Middle Eastern States into new smaller ones, what then would be the consequences?
The transition would likely follow a similar progression to what we’ve seen in Europe.
Present day Europe with NATO and the EU is all buddy-buddy now, but it didn’t happen overnight or without conflict.
The Netherlands had to fight Spain, Ireland fought Britain, Greece broke off from the Ottomans, Austria-Hungary split up, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Yugoslavia became seven different states.
Oh and there were scores of conflicts that spanned the continent and the centuries.
The lasting peace that Europe has been able to achieve following the resolution of these ethnically based conflicts has not come without a price and the Middle East will likely follow a similar progression should the map be redrawn.
The old order won’t simply give up power, and the prospect of new states raises question for existing ones.
The formation of Kurdistan, which is looking increasingly possible given the support they’ve received in the fight against ISIS and the weakened state of Iraq, will certainly make Turkey nervous.
Will the 15 million ethnic Kurds living in Eastern Anatolia simply pack up their bags and leave their homes for the new nation, or will they be inspired to redouble efforts at independence within Turkey?
These are questions the Turkish government must ask itself and construct policy around.
This is the area where the West can take on a crucial role in the transition.
Western nations can help aid the development of a new Middle East by working to reduce the severity of conflicts that may arise, providing diplomatic support to the new nations, applying pressure to old ones, curbing human rights abuses, and respecting the right of self-determination.
As a leading cause of the current situation, Western nations maintain an obligation to aid the region in such ways.
Currently, major Western powers, such as the U.S., France, and Great Britain, remain reluctant to see the Middle East broken up, instead continuing to support failing governments and interfering with local politics.
Given the amount of influence they maintain in the region, this must change to make the possibility of new states surviving on their own a reality.
The damage of imperialism has definitely been done, and it will take a long time to reverse it.
What is certain though is that the Middle East must change.
It is time for the old structure to be cast off and re-envisioned in a way that takes into account the sheer diversity of the region and addresses the causes of sectarian violence.
Cover Photo Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)