Almost all commentators of conflicts in the Middle East start their investigations by looking back to the 1920s when most of the current borders were drawn after the crumbling of Ottoman authority. During this time, Britain and France transplanted onto the region the idea of borders delineating the authority of the state which emerged in early modern Europe. It is questionable how well the modern state model was suited to the region due to pre-existing ethnic and tribal affiliations that straddled borders (even in Europe where the nation-state model emerged, it never fully reflected the reality of identities across borders). Most commentators therefore attribute the source of the current turmoil to be the bordering process that happened just under a century ago.
Borders, although far from being the only source of conflict in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), deserve careful research and analysis. Their importance has increased significantly since the Arab uprisings and the beginning of the wars in Syria and Iraq. Now more than ever, leaders must come up with creative solutions for problems in the region and this requires an understanding of the complexities of border politics. The cases of Syria, Turkey, Libya and Egypt are good examples of the complexity of border politics and sovereignty in the region.
The condition of the Syrian state and its borders, where conflict in the region is most intense, is a particularly interesting case. After the Ba’athist revolution of 1963, there began a construction of a centralized state with a clear territorial and administrative hierarchy. Regional development programmes and the improvement of transport infrastructure into the periphery continued apace in the following decades. However, since the current president Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000, there has been a shift away from territorial and social redistribution towards greater polarization between the core of the country and the desert periphery. This withdrawal of state authority enables cross-border criminal activities including the smuggling of weapons into Lebanon and fighters into Iraq.
Control of Syria is now approximately split into government control in the west, ISIS control in the east and Kurdish control in the north, with various other groups holding territory around the country. Although this might seem to give reason to question the relevance of the future existence of the country, it is important to note that with the notable exception of ISIS, the aim of most opposition groups is to topple the Assad regime, and to establish a new government within the Syrian borders, not to destroy the state. Therefore the Syrian state may prove to be very relevant for the future configuration of power in the region.
Control of the borders is particularly contentious. Historically the border was managed normally, in the framework of sovereignty and territorial cohesiveness, but this now exists on only one side of the border. Neighbouring states manage their borders with Syria based on their political alignment, security concerns, and capacity to exert control. For example, Jordan allows Free Syrian Army (FSA) activity along the border, yet has begun to close its borders to Syrian Palestinian refugees for fear of destabilization. Turkey has also allowed a northern safe-haven for groups opposed to Assad, but more recently a wall has been built in parts, both to split Kurdish groups and to satisfy US demands to kerb the flow of ISIS militants. Similarly, Israel has fortified its fence in the Golan Heights to enhance its border security. In contrast, Lebanon has been unable to manage its border with Syria effectively due to Hezbollah control along much of it.
The trouble that Syria now has controlling its own borders should serve as a lesson to countries in the region who are neglecting their borderlands. Although it may be helpful to let peripheral populations have a degree of autonomy, passing them over for development initiatives and integration may have consequences for maintaining state cohesion in the future.
The current turmoil in the Middle East provides both opportunities and challenges for Turkey. Although the mobilization of Kurdish nationalism is a threat to its territorial integrity, Syria’s troubles are an opportunity to change the regional power structure in Turkey’s favour.
Under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has sought to become a leader of Sunni Islamist states in the region, beginning with Syria, as well to as stem the tide of Kurdish separatism. In pursuit of these goals, Turkey has opposed the Assad regime and supported the FSA against Assad. Turkey has also supported the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) as an alternative to the more radical Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD).
However, Turkey has struggled to achieve these aims. The FSA has lost ground to hard-line Islamists and jihadists whilst the PYD and its armed wing – the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – have gained control of much of the territory abandoned by the Syrian regime. Moreover, ISIS expansion was met with stiff resistance by the YPG, helping to win US support and intensify Kurdish nationalism.
Turkey’s management of the border reflects the government’s aims as well as events in Syria. Early on in the Syrian conflict, Turkey tolerated a high degree of movement across the border. Northwards flows of refugees served to delegitimize the Assad regime, and the circulation of arms and fighters across the border empowered opposition groups – until they became a threat to Turkey too. After the circulation of Islamist fighters over the border became internationally embarrassing and a series of terrorist attacks in 2013, Turkey began to solidify the border. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers now guard the border and a fence is being built.
The evolution of Turkey’s border policy is quite revealing. It shows that high levels of illegal cross-border activity – often labelled by Middle East experts as a symptom of state failure – can actually be part of a purposeful policy to achieve national aims. This should be taken into account before would-be state builders attempt to ‘fix’ borders in the region.
Egypt and Libya
Cross-border activities, namely smuggling, over the Egypt-Libya border are another example of the complexity of border politics and sovereignty in the region.
The border was officially demarcated after the end of Italian rule in Libya and the British protectorate in Egypt, but the local Bedouin tribes were largely ignored throughout the process. Now they straddle the border as a sedentary population after the discovery of oil in Libya in 1959. The local Bedouin engage in smuggling within its kinship group which in a Eurocentric context would be an unacceptable affront to sovereignty. However, the reality in the Middle East is such that the blurring of the border is not something that needs to be ‘fixed’.
The local Bedouin populations distinguish between ‘trade’ and ‘smuggling’; the former being the movement of consumer goods between members of the kinship group on different sides of the border (avoiding customs), the latter being the movement of hard drugs, weapons and people, conducted by criminal networks, beyond the kinship groups. Hence, trade in consumer goods without customs is not understood as being ‘illegal’, because it happens within the framework of tribal customary law. The chaos in Libya prevents state enforcement of laws on its side, whilst the Egyptian government under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi are not cracking down on these activities in exchange for political and military support.
The cross-border activities of the Bedouin are important, as they prove that sovereignty need not be dominated by central governments. A workable modus operandi can emerge when sovereignty is ‘shared’ between central governments and local populations. It is not necessarily a sign of state failure.
An end to claims of the end of ‘artificial’ states?
Despite the fragility of many MENA states, there are pockets of relative calm. Iran has been stable since the ‘Green Movement’ in 2009 whilst the nuclear deal of 2015 has dampened international tensions (though this may be under threat from the Trump administration). The various Arab monarchies also proved their resilience throughout the Arab spring and they are robust for the time being. The borderlines established by the treaties 100 years ago may be ‘artificial’ but they have proved to be resilient through a century of turmoil. Even now, the ISIS threat is receding, albeit slowly. Iran, Iraq, Russia and Hezbollah are all supporting the status quo in Syria, and Syrian state authority has actually been consolidated in the territory that it still holds.
Before we declare an end and think about remaking the current state system prevalent in the MENA region, we ought to consider whether states are really as weak as they look.