In 1916, British and French diplomats agreed in secret to divide the Ottoman Levant into their own spheres of influence should they prevail over the Turks in the Great War. The subsequent accord, known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, divided up the Middle East into areas of French or British influenced or directly controlled zones, irrespective of ethnicity or religion. The lines drawn by Sykes and Picot heavily influenced the borders and ethnic makeup of Middle Eastern states today, and the sectarian violence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, is a testament to the colonialist perspective with which Great Britain and France viewed the region. The western colonial powers valued the area for its natural resources and strategic military importance, and were willing to ignore the ethnic and religious realities on the ground in order to exploit them.
For decades, the groundwork laid by Sykes and Picot stabilized the Middle East by strengthening dictatorial leaders in the ethnically heterogeneous states established in the wake of decolonization. This consistent paradigm of Arab geopolitics finally began to change because of the development of the so-called Arab Spring which started to openly question the legitimacy of these supposed monarchies and autocracies. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt raised expectations for democratic reforms across the region, which were significantly reduced with the election and subsequent ouster of Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the ongoing civil war in Syria.
As the Syrian Civil War enters its third year showing few signs of subsiding, Sykes and Picot’s conceived borders have never been more contested. Today, Lebanon is blowing up. Car bombs exploding in markets, mosques, and residential areas are becoming routine in Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods alike, putting the Lebanese government and army led by Sunni Prime Minister Tammam Salam under increasingly enormous pressure to halt the sectarian strife. The once murky consequences the Syrian Civil War would have on its neighbor Lebanon are crystallizing. Hezbollah, which may have invited the spillover by fighting for the Assad regime in Syria, is now having to deal with Sunni Lebanese guerrillas on the homefront intent on punishing Hezbollah for their decision to assist in arms against their Syrian Sunni brethren. Further east, Iraq is also deteriorating due to the war in Syria, with ethno-religious tensions stemming from the infamous accord at the heart of the strife. From Beirut all the way to Basra, Sunni and Shiite Muslims are taking up arms against one another, with the borders between the countries becoming especially dangerous and targeted areas. As Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to funnel funds and resources to Shiite and Sunni militias respectively, battle fatigue has led to a semi-stalemate between the Syrian Army and the divided rebel front. Free Syrian Army, Kurdish, and al-Qaeda affiliated groups like the al-Nusra front and the Islamic state in the Levant (ISIL) are carving out semi-autonomous regions of Syria for themselves, further inflaming ethnic tensions in addition to prolonging the fighting.
The situation on the ground is exceedingly complex, featuring a rebel front comprised of groups that have serious ideological gaps with each other which are weakening their joint ethno-religious opposition to Assad. Due to this complexity, the defensive strategy of the IDF vis-a-vis Israel’s northern border has undergone a corresponding transformation. First, once it became clear that the Assad regime could and would transfer advanced Russian weaponry to their Lebanese Hezbollah allies across the border, the IDF has adopted a doctrine of preemptive defensive action to prevent game-changing developments, namely, taking out Hezbollah-bound weapons at either their points of origin in Syria or en route to Lebanon. Just last night, there were reported Israeli airstrikes in the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian-Lebanese border which destroyed weapons being transferred to Hezbollah, reports which were vehemently denied both by Israel and Hezbollah. This principle has been in effect for years, beginning with Israel’s destruction of Syria’s nuclear reactor, but the disintegration of borders stemming from the civil war has opened the door for constant weapons transfers from group to group, borders notwithstanding, and it appears that Israel is ready and willing to engage more frequently as a preventive measure.
The second aspect of this transformation is the growing Israeli awareness of al-Qaeda affiliated groups amongst the rebels, fronts like al-Nusra and ISIL, which openly state that liberating Palestine and Jerusalem is their primary objective once the Assad regime has been deposed. The presence of such groups in close proximity to sovereign Israel is a hugely significant concern, resulting in an Israeli reevaluation of the violence up north. The reassessment has led to a fundamental change in Israel’s disposition, namely that Israel is no longer actively seeking the removal of Assad from power. Rather, in line with the newfound awareness of the growing jihadist rebel element, Israel is necessarily prioritizing its own security in the Golan. At present time, the anti-Israel elements in Lebanon and Syria are preoccupied warring with one another in the context of a more widespread Sunni-Shiite conflict. As the last remnants of the Sykes-Picot Agreement slip away due to the clashes on Syria’s western and eastern borders, Israel now has to contend with the the chaos of a borderless warzone, a reality which has resulted in unprecedented flexibility for IDF operations across the northern border.
One hundred years ago, the Western powers assumed control over the Middle East and divided it up for themselves. Today, as the people of the region take sides in the fight for its future, the West has shifted tactics, resorting to financial and military support (or lack thereof) distributed to the secular-minded rebels and others. The reason for the conflagration is that unlike one hundred years ago, the Western powers are not uniquely dominant as they once were. Russia is no longer content with simply a seat at the table, and Saudi Arabia and Iran have serious religious, as well as political reasons for financing their proxies in Syria. In the West, the Assad regime is cursed, and governments compelled to stand up for human rights and against war atrocities. The historical irony in play here is the fact that the conflict unfolding in the Levant today, which the West is desperately trying to resolve, is only possible because of the cavalier nature with which the Western colonialists secretly partitioned the land amongst themselves during World War I. The cruel irony is that the violence and bloodshed caused initially by Sykes and Picot has only intensified since the West’s renewed entry into the region. Great Britain, France, and other Western countries decry Assad’s butchery of his citizens without fully realizing that the civil strife underway stems directly from the nonsensical borders they instituted in the first place. As the conflict drags on, the official barriers between Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq will continue to disintegrate. Violence and terror will continue to spill across those pseudo-borders, embroiling citizens throughout the region in the conflict, and deepening the ethno-religious chasm. For now, Israel can be grateful that the two warring sides are focused on one another. However, one day this conflict will end, and on that day, Israel must be prepared for the victors, whomever they may be, to turn their attention southward, and expand their desire to do away with Sykes-Picot southward, to the Holy Land.