Syria war portends Middle East ‘balkanization’?

Robin Wright, author of Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World  (and a "distinguished scholar" at the United States Institute of Peace and the Wilson Center) has an op-ed in the New York Times Sept. 28, ingenuously entitled "Imagining a Remapped Middle East"—as if nobody ever has. Wright sees a portending breakdown of Syria into smaller entities—the oft-discussed Alawite mini-state on the coast and the inevitable Kurdish enclave in the north. But Wright predicts the separatist contagion spreading from Syria to the rest of the Middle East—using some of the most clichéd names imaginable, e.g. Iraq breaking into "Sunnistan" and "Shiitestan." (Note to "distinguished scholar" Wright: the "stan" suffix is of Persian origin, and very unlikely to be taken up by Arabs, of whatever sectarian affiliation.)

She goes on to postulate that Cyrenaica and Fezzan will break off from Libya, and that even Saudi Arabia could fracture into a central "Wahhabistan" (sic!) and a Shi'ite "Eastern Arabia." It is barely noted that the eastern Shi'ite region is where the oil is, and ceding it is therefore unthinkable for Riyadh. We are also asked to believe that the rump Saudi state will merge with South Yemen on the basis of shared Sunni identity. This is again utterly improbable, as even the the secessionists in the South want independence, not union with Saudi Arabia.

The most outrageously naive line in the piece is as follows:

Outsiders have long gamed the Middle East: What if the Ottoman Empire hadn't been divvied up by outsiders after World War I? Or the map reflected geographic realities or identities? Reconfigured maps infuriated Arabs who suspected foreign plots to divide and weaken them all over again.

We're all for the peoples of the Middle East being free to imagine new ways of governing themselves without outside interference—but there has been no shortage of that, thank you. And Wright's own predictions ironically constitute more of it! Wright writes as if neocons have not been hubristically seeking to redraw the map of the Middle East for at least a decade now, as if we haven't been hearing incessant calls from Washington wonkdom to apply a "balkanization" solution to Libya and to Iraq. As we've said before: This is a question for the peoples of the Middle East to decide. Not pontificators in the West.

Towards the end, Wright does admit that maybe this balkanization thing isn't such a great idea, that "cleansing" is a "growing problem" (to say the goddam least!), and that "other factors could keep the Middle East from fraying—good governance, decent services and security, fair justice, jobs and equitably shared resources, or even a common enemy." More wonkspeak.

It is true that many (not allAlawites and Christians in Syria have been driven by the threat of jihadist terror into supporting the regime, and that the growing sectarian character of the conflict is fueling centrifugal tendencies. All too few have taken note of Syria's civil resistance, which is courageously confronting the jihadists and standing up for secularism. We wish we heard more about loaning solidarity to this civil resistance, and less high-handed prognostication upon Syria's (and the Middle East's) future from afar.

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  1. Robert Gates weighs in for Mideast balkanization

    Former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a Jan. 16 BBC interview lectured the Brits not to cut military spending, and also questioned whether "artificial" states in the Middle East "like Libya, Iraq and Syria can be held together absent of repression." 

    Excuse us, did the Libyans, Iraqis or Syrians ask him?