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August 08, 2013

Analysts: Arab Uprisings Could Redraw Middle East Map

by Henry Ridgwell

With civil war raging in Syria and the conflict threatening to draw in neighboring states, there is speculation about possible geopolitical consequences. Analysts say the map of the Middle East could be redrawn for the first time in a century.

The end of WWI almost 100 years ago signaled the death of the Ottoman Empire.

Even before the guns fell silent, Britain and France agreed to carve up Ottoman lands, including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. That was key to understanding the modern Middle East said Michael Clarke, head of the Royal United Services Institute in London. 

“The Arab world as we know it was established effectively in 1916 by the British and the French in the Sykes-Picot agreement. And it hasn’t changed, hardly at all since then. Nothing very strategic has happened apart from the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. And now, this year, for the first time, the map of the Middle East is beginning to be pulled apart,” he said.

That is being felt most in Syria. The country could fragment, said Robert Lowe of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.

“The balances of power between so many competing elements at the moment seem almost quite equal. It’s hard any one faction gaining much control. The Kurds have gained a lot of control over their towns and they’re struggling and working to sustain that,” he said.

When WWI ended, the Kurds were split among Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq.

The downfall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 - and Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq - emboldened Kurdish claims for an independent state.

But Iraq has shown reslience, said Professor Saad Jawad, also at the London School of Economics.

“First, that they are not prone to go into civil war. Total civil war I mean, like the one Lebanon witnessed in the seventies. And the second thing, that there are no real popular intentions to split the country, even in Iraqi Kurdistan, apart from the parties,” said the professor.

The scars of Lebanon’s recent civil war are still visible across the capital, Beirut. There are fears that this country too could be torn apart as the Syrian conflict reignites Lebanese rivalries.

In recent months, dozens have been killed in clashes between rival Sunni and Shi'ite militants.

The forces unleashed by the Arab uprising could re-draw parts of the Middle East, said Michael Clarke.

“There is a possibility of the Balkanization of the Levant, where we’ll end up with a series of states, semi-states, contested areas, and disputes. And that is new territory for all of us,” he said.

But Clarke said the revolutions across the Arab world were in the early stage and the consequences may not be known for years to come.