(Swans - October 21, 2013) When Wikileaks released over 250,000 US diplomatic cables between 2010 and 2011 (Cablegate), the US government was quite embarrassed and furious with the leaker (Manning) and the releaser (Assange). It quickly turned out that the diplomats were pros at doing their job of assessing situations in the realm of politics and socioeconomics. The uprising in Tunisia (December 2010-January 2011) coincided with that release, but as early as 2006, then US ambassador to Tunisia William Hudson was telling Foggy Bottom that an increasing number of Tunisians were talking about the end of the Ben Ali regime. Washington, and one presumes many other capitals, was fully aware that something was boiling and bound to explode in that region -- say North Africa and the Greater Middle East -- MENA plus non-Arabic states (Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia). The Tunisian uprising and fall of Ben Ali became in popular jargon the Arab Spring, or the Wikileaks Revolution. It then spread to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and to a lesser extent other emirates and countries in the region. It has yet to abate. The causes for the ongoing turmoil are much debated among observers and commentators depending on their doctrinal penchant. It's about freedom and democracy; revolution against authoritarianism; high unemployment; food and water scarcity; corruption of the elites, religions, tribes; sectarianism; worldwide economic crisis; and, of course, the usual culprits: capitalism, imperialism, and the good ol' USA. It may well be all of the above...and more. It's the "more" that should raise a modicum of curiosity. Two weeks ago, I ended my third article about Syria with a question: "Why does The New York Times publish an article from the elite journalist Robin Wright, 'Imagining a Remapped Middle East' (September 29, 2013)?" Indeed, why? Is there more than meets the eye, a few dots that we are not connecting?
Robin Wright, a solid connoisseur of the Orient and a member of the US Establishment (see her entry on Wikipedia) wrote that instructive piece about remapping the Middle East; that the Arab Spring was a game changer; and that at long last the Asia Minor Agreement (aka, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916) was unraveling under our eyes and a new Middle East was slowly being born under much human suffering. In some way, she was clarifying what former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice used to say diplomatically -- that this region was going to change and that it would take a generation or more to make it happen -- and which Mr. Bush Jr. and his apparatus began to implement in Afghanistan and Iraq (actions that were a direct continuation of his father's, and other former US presidents, all the way back to FDR).
Without getting back into antiquity one must read the seminal 1989 book written by David Fromkin, A Peace To End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East to grasp the significance of that region in world history, even before modern history and the discovery of oil. Before the end of WWI and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire that region became game for the vultures of the day, the great powers (at that time, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia). These powers negotiated who would be in charge of whom, and which territory one would control. The UK, at the zenith of its power, imposed its will. France safeguarded as much as could be, and Russia, soon in the midst of a proletarian revolution, got a few crumbs. Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot defined borders and literally created countries according to their economic interests and imperial ambitions and rivalries, without taking much into account religions and cultures -- hence the title of Fromkin's book, A Peace To End All Peace. Bits and pieces and people were carved out and reassembled, like, for instance when Italy colonized three autonomous northern African provinces, Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan, which became known as Libya.
Wright, who has lived for many years in the Middle East, explains that these 100-year-old borders may well be in the process of being redefined and countries reconfigured, possibly renamed, taking into consideration tribal cultures and religions -- with Iraq and Syria being the pivot, or the fault line between the Sunni and Shia worlds -- and the geopolitics of the 21st century (U.S., Russia, China). This upheaval of paramount importance gets little coverage in the mainstream media, though it does here and there.
On September 13, 2013, CNN International Edition published an article by Soner Cagaptay and Parag Khanna, two up and coming members of the International Establishment, "Middle East reconfigured: Turkey vs. Iran vs. Saudi Arabia." The authors describe the current rivalries in the region. Noting that while Egypt, once "the anchor of the Arab world," is presently sidelined due to its political and economic woes, three regional rivalries for control of the Middle East are in full bloom -- three distinct axes with their concomitant alliances: Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Turkey, allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, a member of NATO, and on-and-off again friend of the U.S., is promoting a Sunni-dominated Middle East. Rejected by the EU, no longer looking West like Atatürk, the country, under Erdogan leadership, is not forgetting the golden age of the Ottoman Empire. Iran manipulates the Shia axis with the support of Russia, extending its influence to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia vies for the status quo, the defense of the Gulf monarchies, with an anti-Shia agenda. The U.S. tries to navigate as best it can in these poisonous seas. Russia hopes to regain the status of great power, and China remains in the background, acting silently to move its pawns on this formidable chessboard.
Then, on October 13, 2013, the same Parag Khanna had an article published in The New York Times, "The End of the Nation-State?", written from Singapore where he resides. He began by reminding readers of a scenario put forward earlier this year by the US National Intelligence Council in its quintenial "Alternative Worlds" report, which described a "Nonstate World" future. Governments are increasingly subcontracting tasks to the private sector. Special economic zones, or "para-states," are mushrooming from China to the U.S., the EU, and the Middle East. Devolution is the greatest political trend happening in the world -- devolution to smaller political entities (cities) and business partnerships. Khanna concludes:
Nowhere is a rethinking of "the state" more necessary than in the Middle East. There is a sad futility to the reams of daily analysis on Syria and Iraq that fail to grasp that no state has a divine right to exist. A century after British and French diplomats divided the Ottoman Empire's eastern territories into feeble (and ultimately short-lived) mandates, the resulting states are crumbling beyond repair.
The Arab world will not be resurrected to its old glory until its map is redrawn to resemble a collection of autonomous national oases linked by Silk Roads of commerce. Ethnic, linguistic and sectarian communities may continue to press for independence, and no doubt the Palestinians and Kurds deserve it.
And yet more fragmentation and division, even new sovereign states, are a crucial step in a longer process toward building transnational stability among neighbors.
Now, does the above make sense? I can't tell. I've been racking my brain for months to find some meaning or logic to these implacable events. I'm sure I do not understand it all but I refuse to fall into the usual binary clichés peddled by whomever (I'll be polite and not name names). Please do not fall into the trap of single-minded and moralizing opinions. Something huge is happening in the midst of worldwide turbulent times.
"Middle East reconfigured: Turkey vs. Iran vs. Saudi Arabia," Soner Cagaptay and Parag Khanna, in CNN, September 13, 2013.
"Imagining a Remapped Middle East," Robin Wright, The New York Times, Sept. 29, 2013.
"The End of the Nation-State?", Parag Khanna, The New York Times, October 13, 2013.
"Parsing The Anti-al-Assad Propaganda," Gilles d'Aymery, Swans, October 7, 2013.
"Asma and Bashar al-Assad," Gilles d'Aymery, Swans, September 23, 2013.
"Blips #139," Gilles d'Aymery, Swans, September 9, 2013.
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