As the Levant is reborn, let us leave the old borders behind

Leave the borders on maps and let us think about a formula that will ensure us the ability to work and move freely

Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi
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“What is happening in Iraq today is an extension of what is happening in Syria,” this is a statement that could have been if the Iraqi prime minister, who chose to be the leader of single a community rather than the people, did not relate the situation to terrorism. He is involved in a “war to combat terrorism” echo his counterparts everywhere. In fact, everything is changing in the world except our leaders; the entire Levant is undergoing fundamental political and demographic changes that will lead to the birth of a new world quite different to what was formed in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and their independence after World War II.

In the past, colonial powers called for international conferences so they could organize their affairs, demarcate borders and share powers. Of course, no one would dare call for such a conference now, not even the Arab League since it has become an issue purely related to Arab countries that have achieved their independence. The Arab league cannot do so and Western countries are not even interested in doing so. Moreover, the regimes in these countries did not completely collapse; their battles are still ongoing, but changes are taking place and no one can stop that. These regimes strengthen themselves in times of war and chaos.

It is obvious that the Sykes-Picot agreement, which mapped out the modern Middle East as we know it after World War I, has expired and will soon be celebrating its centurion. However, its boundaries will always remain valid, or at least they will always be recognized by the international community because the borders are a critical issue. No one should open these maps again, even if they seem fair here or should be modified there. People in the region, however, are moving from one area to another and forming a new reality in the Levant. On their way, they are sweeping away the tool that segregates and controls these areas: borders. Borders, during eras of dictatorial and repressive regimes, represent the walls of a big prison, jailing any shepherd who wishes to freely herd his flock and any family wishing to celebrate the marriage of a cousin. What stands in their way is a grim picture of their immortal leader – they must declare loyalty to him, above and beyond declaring loyalty to any border.

Then suddenly, those borders collapsed without the “Berliner” celebrations, as happened at the time of German unification. They collapsed as the result of a disintegration of regional security. It began in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and was reiterated when the Syrian uprising began three years ago. The violence led to the migration of millions of Arabs from one country to another: the Iraqis and Syrians fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, for example. This is not to mention the staggering internal displacement that took place within countries, for example some Iraqis migrated to Kurdistan. As for Syria, internally displaced refugees have not yet settled as the war rages on.

Every cloud has its silver lining and the migration of the region’s people has unified them and has removed all borders between them

Jamal Kashoggi

There is also the Christians exodus from Iraq and Syria, a community which usually flees the Levant region. Such an exodus will surely have an impact on the identity and culture of the Levant, an identity and culture rooted in thousands of years of history. Sectarianism is also a main reason behind these migrations, as there exists a sectarian division that no one can deny in Iraq. Apparently, there is no solution for this menace since sectarianism has managed to reach even the highest authority in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is acting upon a sectarian agenda, while Bashar al-Assad, who allegedly is liberal and secular, thinks and act according to religious directives. The outcomes of this sectarian policy will linger on even after his departure.

What is to happen?

While the focus is on the tragedies of migration and the suffering of refugees along with the gathering of large families in houses too small for them, there is a cross-border economy that has formed in the new Middle East despite all the difficulties, restrictions and lack of organized legislations. Similar to Europe, where the economy was the main stimulus behind the disintegration of borders between European countries, the economy of the Levant will be the first beneficiary. Thus, it will be a key factor in the formation of the final system which is to succeed the Sykes-Picot arrangement.

This new reality, that waited neither for the fall of Assad nor for moderation on Maliki’s part, forces regional powers to think about a new Levant and what it could possibly look like. The wise thing to do would be to plan for such a reality, but the Arabs as well as the international community do not dare do so, especially since they have face so many hurdles in organizing the Geneva II conference. There exists great uncertainty on the Arab’s ability to implement the recommendations of the power transfer in Syria, if such a decision is reached at the conference.

What will the new Levant be like? Shall we accept sectarianism as a bitter reality in exchange for cooperative Federalism? What will the Jordanian-Syrian border regions be like after the fall of Assad? Will it be possible to reinstall strict policies on the borders dictated by Assad’s security concerns? Or will parties take into account the economic gains they are witnessing today – the gains that are based on the convergence of Jordanian capital with Syrian expertise and manpower. In fact, in certain Jordanian governorates, there are more Syrians than Jordanians at this present time.

What about the Kurds of Syria who have broken through the barriers with their people in Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey? They know that there is no room for talks about any change of the borders. There is a need to find another formula that ensures the continuation of the freedom of movement and work in peacetime as given to them in the time of war. Can the problem of Anbar’s Sunni Arabs, and all Iraqi Sunnis who feel threatened by their fellow Shiites in the south and Baghdad, be solved through a political formula that will bring them together with the Arabs of the Levant? In return, Maliki could gain control of southern Iraq, a position he sought several years ago.

The current strife in Iraq and the situation in Syria have shone a spotlight on the risks of division and will surely lead to the reestablishment of borders. However, every cloud has its silver lining and the migration of the region’s people has unified them and has removed all borders between them. They only need to regulate this situation in a way that ensures its durability. Leave the borders on maps and let us think about a formula that will ensure us the ability to work and move freely in a new Levant.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Jan. 4, 2014.


Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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