BEIRUT, LEBANON — Since the Arab Spring, chaos seems to have further engulfed the already volatile Middle East.
Back in 1982, a former Israeli Foreign Ministry official forecast in a little noticed policy paper the disintegration of many of the countries of the Middle East with the violent redrawing of borders and the emergence of smaller, weaker states based on greater ethnic and religious homogeneity.
Thirty years later, as Syria continues its sectarian civil war, some are arguing that prediction is taking shape as state-based nationalism is declining and something larger and older is taking over.
The Syrian war they believe marks the beginning of the end for the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided the Ottoman Empire after World War I and created the modern Middle East.
Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general and now the director of a political think tank in Beirut, believes the likely outcome of the civil war is the breakup of Syria. He foresees Alawites, members of an offshoot sect of Shia Islam, and Christians cleaving together along Syria’s coast, and Kurds and Sunni Muslims establishing separate states of their own.
That would have devastating repercussions across the region, he warns.
“In my opinion the unity of Lebanon, of Turkey, of Jordan, of Iraq will not be secure or guaranteed at all,” he said.
American University political science professor Bassel Saloukh, based in Lebanon, agrees. He says the Arab Spring-uprisings, along with the geopolitical rivalry of Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, have pushed the region into unchartered and dangerous waters. He suspects the sectarianism that has been unleashed will mean at the very least the end of strong unitary states for many Middle East countries.
“I think the only way to maintain them as political entities, as political units is by experimenting with some kind of institutionalized ethnic-sectarian power-sharing agreement,” he said.
He says Lebanon may well be seen by some as a model for power-sharing arrangements by other countries - from Syria to Jordan.
“What Lebanon serves today is as a model for countries like Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Jordan in the future. Those countries where state power has collapsed, there is no more consensus on the different ethnic sectarian groups living together,” he said.
But the Lebanese model is not working so well either, Saloukh says. And if that is the best Syria and some other Middle East countries buffeted by sectarianism can hope for, the future will be difficult.
“There is a sentiment now in the country and you see it mainly with the Maronites which is that this power-sharing agreement is not working because it is built on a centralized state. The Maronites who created this country find themselves now playing third fiddle for Sunnis and the Shi'ites and they look around and see the whole region up in arms,” he said.
Analysts say the Middle East seems to be heading towards a future of enfeebled states and possibly smaller ones, divided along sectarian lines and so weak they are unable to resist the influence of Saudi Arabia, Iran or Western powers or curb the activities of non-state actors like al-Qaida.