Let’s look at the reality on the ground in the Middle East: Iraq and Syria are effectively partitioned along sectarian lines; Lebanon and Yemen are close to fracturing; Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia survive intact but as increasingly authoritarian states.
In the current, chaotic moment, we see two post-imperial systems collapsing at once: The state boundaries drawn by the Versailles Treaty in 1919 to replace the Ottoman Empire can’t hold the fractious peoples together. And a U.S.-led system that kept the region in a rough balance has been shattered by America’s failed intervention in Iraq.
The “line in the sand,” as author James Barr called the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement to partition the region, is dissolving before our eyes, and the primary beneficiaries are ruthless Islamic terrorists. These Sunni extremists (and their Shiite counterparts in Hezbollah) are the beneficiaries of the sectarian war that has been financed and encouraged by Saudi Arabia and Iran.
This is reality, June 2014.
Reading today’s news, it’s haunting to recall a November 1914 dispatch by the U.S. consul general in Beirut, quoted by Scott Anderson in “Lawrence in Arabia,” his vivid book about a similar time of unraveling, “Sir: I have the honor to report that conditions are going from bad to worse here.”
Here’s the new map: Iraq has splintered into a Sunni north and west; a Kurdish northeast; and a Shiite south that, with Iranian help, retains Baghdad; Syria is a patchwork, with an Alawite-dominated corridor from Damascus to Latakia on the Mediterranean coast; Druze and Kurdish minorities have mini-cantons, but much of the rest of the country is held by fighters from the Sunni majority. These pieces won’t be put back together anytime soon.
What can the dominant powers do about this mess? Should they try to shore up the post-Ottoman world and redraw those lines in the sand? Should they instead let the nations dissolve into their ethnic cantons (or “vilayets,” as the Ottomans called them)? Should they create a new coalition (dubbed the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund by President Obama in his speech at West Point last month) to fight the al-Qaeda-inspired fighters who threaten terrorism outside the zone of disintegration?
History tells us that the only way to restabilize this region is to gather the essential players around a table and begin framing a new security architecture. The participants would include Saudi Arabia and Iran, joined by the United States and the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council: Russia, China, Britain and France. Turkey and Egypt should attend, too, since they have big militaries that could play a stabilizing role.
Henry Kissinger described a model for the statecraft I have in mind. In his 1957 book “A World Restored,” he recounted the diplomacy that reconstructed a stable Europe at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, following the ruinous Napoleonic Wars that capped the French Revolution. The statesmen’s task, argued Kissinger, was to reconcile the rising powers of the day (back then, France and Prussia; in contemporary terms, Iran and its proxies) with the status quo powers (in 1815, Britain and Austro-Hungary; today, the United States and Saudi Arabia). The alternative to this concert of Europe was chaos.
“Nations learn only by experience; they ‘know’ only when it is too late to act,” wrote the young Kissinger. “But statesmen must act as if their intuition were already experience, as if their aspiration were truth.”
Initially, such an action plan could probably do no more than establish cease-fire lines, aid refugees and empower Sunni moderates against the toxic power of the al-Qaeda offshoot known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The aim would be to exclude ISIS, not enfranchise it. Those goals are shared by all the regional and global powers. Russia and China (with their Chechen and Uighur Muslim populations) have as great an interest in stopping the super-violent extremists as does the United States. The aging monarchy in Saudi Arabia should want to roll back ISIS as much as Iran does.
We can’t know now whether the post-1919 borders will survive in this new order, or how the different ethnic minorities can be accommodated. The breakup of Yugoslavia shows that ethnic decentralization is possible, but also the potential cost in blood.
The discussions might start with a divisive issue that was on the agenda at Versailles: Should the Kurds have an independent state of their own, or can they be loosely integrated with Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran? Nobody knows the answer yet. That’s what crisis conferences are for.