The Middle East's New Map

By Robert Kaplan

The most appropriate image of the present-day Middle East is the medieval map, which, in the words of the late historian Albert Hourani, depicts an age when "frontiers were not clearly and precisely delimited" and the influence of a regime was not uniform "within a fixed and generally recognized area," but, rather, grew weaker with distance as it radiated outward from an urban core. Legal borders, where the power of one state suddenly ended and that of another suddenly began, were rare. And thus, Hourani was not the only scholar to point this out.

We are back to a world of vague and overlapping shadows of influence. Shia and Sunnis in northern Lebanon cross the border into Syria and kill each other, then retreat back into Lebanon. Indeed, the military situations in Lebanon and Syria are quickly fusing. The al Assad regime in Damascus projects power not unto the legal borders of Syria but mainly along parts of the Sunni-dominated Homs-Hama corridor and also on the Mediterranean coast between Latakia and Tartus, where the regime's Alawite compatriots are concentrated. Beyond that there are literally hundreds of small rebel groupings and half-dozen major ones, divided by their own philosophical and Islamist orientations and those of their foreign patrons. Then there are the half-dozen or so Kurdish factions controlling parts of northern and northeastern Syria. As for the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, there are two main Kurdish groups that are basically sovereign in different sectors. Significant Sunni areas of Iraq, particularly in sprawling Anbar between the Euphrates River and the Syrian border, are in varying degrees independently governed or not governed at all. Even Shiite central and southern Iraq is not completely controlled by the Shia-dominated Baghdad regime, owing to a half-dozen parties that in some cases exercise a degree of sovereignty.

Rather than a temporary situation, this is one that can last for many years. For example, Bashar al Assad's regime need not necessarily crumble immediately but may survive indefinitely as a frail statelet, supported as it is by Russian arms arriving via the Mediterranean and from Iran across the weakly governed Iraqi desert.

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Gone is the world of the Ottoman Empire, in which there were relatively few battles for territory among the various tribes and ethnic and sectarian groups, because the Sultan in Istanbul exercised overarching (albeit variable) sovereignty between the mountains of Lebanon and the plateau of Iran. Gone is the colonial era when the British and French exercised sovereignty from the capital cities unto the fixed legal borders of newly constituted mandated states and territories. Gone is the post-colonial era when tyrants like Hafez al Assad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq ran police states within the same fixed borders erected by the British and French. Further down the road, the only states left that wield real sovereignty between the eastern edge of the Mediterranean and Iranian plateau could be Israel and Iran.

In a cartographic sense then, we are back to medievalism, but without the storied cultural and intellectual benefits that the Middle Ages conferred upon the Arab world. A thousand years ago, what is now known as Iraq was for significant periods under the sway of Iran; but more to the point, Baghdad and Damascus constituted different dynastic poles of pulsating influence that did not always configure with specific frontiers and were contested by Abbasids, Seljuks, Safavids and Ottomans. Of course, the heartlands of Syria and Iraq did, in fact, constitute different agricultural and henceforth different political regions, even as the line between them could be extremely fluid -- as were the distinctions between Turkey and Iran. Places in what is today northern Iraq were linked by caravan routes to Syria, even as places in northern Syria were linked by caravan routes to Iraq. As it concerns the map, subtlety ruled in a positive sense, as it does in a negative sense today.

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Robert D. Kaplan is Chief Geopolitical Analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical analysis firm, and author of the bestselling new book The Revenge of Geography. Reprinted with permission.

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