Western Colonialism, ISIS, and the Break-Up of a State System in the Middle East

Written by | Monday, November 30th, 2015

EUBULLETIN has talked to Emeritus Professor Shlomo Avineri from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel mainly about the consequences of Western colonialism for the contemporary security quagmire in the Middle East that, according to him, has brought about a break-up of the state system in the region.

EUBULLETIN: 150 years ago, during the height of European colonialism, Great Britain or France states could intervene militarily anywhere the world with little fear that London or Berlin would be bombed or civilians would be shot on the street. But now, even the increased security measures and intensified intelligence activities imposed in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo were insufficient to save the Bataclan concert goers. To what degree can we trace the current upheavals across the Middle East and North Africa to European colonial era?

Avineri: Many of the countries of the Middle East, as we know, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, were cut out by the French and British imperialists after WWI when the Ottoman Empire disintegrated and the British and the French, out of their imperial interest, set up protectorates and mandates that eventually became independent states – it was them who set up Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Unlike in Europe, these Middle Eastern states did not come about out of the will of the people. The people were not asked in 1918 whether they wanted to live in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon whose borders were very arbitrarily drawn by the British and French imperial forces, disregarding the geography, demography, history, whether there is an ethnic affiliation and certainly the will of the people was not even considered.

EUBULLETIN: And then the authoritarian regimes rose to power in these countries and these strove to maintain the status quo.

Avineri: Those state systems were maintained by the authoritarian successor regimes established after those countries became independent but this was under pressure. During the Arab Spring, it became very clear that these were not just regimes but also state system. Something similar what happened in Central and Eastern Europe – the end of communism was not just the end of communism, it was also the end of the Soviet Union that broke up into fifteen nation states. Just look at some of the problems, like the one in Ukraine, Yugoslavia that broke up into six or seven countries and even Czechoslovakia broke up into two nation states in a very pacific and very friendly way but it eventually broke up.

EUBULLETIN: Are you basically suggesting that a similar dramatic scenario that occurred in the post-Soviet space in early 1990s is currently unfolding in the Middle East?

Avineri: Well, it may be that what we are seeing now in the Middle East is a break-up of a state system. Iraq under the pressure from the American invasion is already now very different from the unitary state under the former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. There is a de facto Kurdish state, it’s not just autonomy but it is a de facto state. We do not know yet how the Shia-Sunny divide in Iraq will end. The Americans are trying to create an inclusive government, it is understandable, but I am not sure they will succeed. And in Syria, the protests and the armed struggle by the opposition forces and the ISIS against the Assad regime have led to a very bloody civil war which fractured Syria and I am not sure that Syria will have a chance to reinstitute itself as a coherent entity in the near future.

EUBULLETIN: This looks like that what we are seeing here may be the beginning of a demise of the state system in the Middle East.

Avineri: Yes, we see the dismantling of the state system and the relinquishment of the notion of a uniform Arab state, which was in earlier days very much the accepted idea in the region. We see a similar development in Libya – yet again, Libya was created as an entity by the Italian colonial system before WWI and now the ability to create a uniform state has failed. Sudan’s experience with British colonialism has had similar consequences – the state has already disintegrated when it saw the emergence of a new entity, South Sudan – and this may not be the end of the story.

But the whole state system, which lasted more less a century, is now being undermined very seriously. When the crisis in Iraq or in Syria occurred, people saw all of a sudden not primarily as Syrian or Iraqis, but the Sunni or Druzes or Shia – their allegiances were suddenly to their respective religious, ethnic or regional entities and not to the idea of Iraq or Syria that appeared to have been strong for a very long time but now no longer. Interestingly, Egypt is very different because it is a uniform, integral country with its own history – nobody is challenging the integrity of Egypt or its borders.

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