Nation-building in the Mideast? What is needed is a Sunni home in Mesopotamia

Jean Daudelin on why its time to reconsider the borders in the Middle East.

By: /
25 September, 2014
Jean Daudelin
By: Jean Daudelin
Associate professor, Norman Patterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University

In an enthusiastic endorsement of Barrack Obama’s new offensive in Syria, Brookings’ Kenneth Pollack argues that the key to the stability of the region lies in effective nation-building.

In the face of innumerable failures and, over the last 20 years, of the progressive reconfiguration of Germany, Central Europe and the Balkans around newly created — or re-created — ethnic states, Pollack still argues that multi-ethnic or multi-communal nation-building is possible in the Middle-East, from the outside and without rearranging the absurd boundaries of the region.

And yet, if it were successful (a big if), the most likely outcome of the strategy he outlines — arming a “moderate” Syrian opposition and helping it take control of the country against both Assad and IS — would be the rise to power, in Syria, of a Sunni regime that would be a mirror image of Iraq’s Shia one, and under which you wouldn’t want to be a minority: Alawite, Kurdish or Christian, in this case, instead of Kurdish and Sunni in Iraq.

As Pollack puts it, “ISIS is the symptom of that underlying problem, not the problem itself.” Fine, but what is the problem and, in particular, what is the problem that can be resolved? He basically argues that the problem is the need to make Syria and Iraq into unified and functional social and political entities in spite of the tensions and the blood over decades of state-led communal repression of communal massacres and wars. This is indeed a problem, but one that nobody since WWII has been able to resolve, especially not through the “reconstruction” of infrastructure and civil society-building by foreign experts who have been failing miserably everywhere they have tried.

And for good reason: what is being sought is not nation-building but nation denial, nation breakdown, nation oppression and nation fragmentation among artificial states. In a few rich democratic countries like Canada, the UK (barely) and Spain (for now) it has been possible to sustain multi-communal nations. Everywhere else, it just hasn’t worked.

ISIS is the symptom of the failure of the state system that Britain and France, then the United States, and now the UN, have been trying to salvage for decades. It is the expression of a nationalist claim on the part of Sunni populations in Syria and Iraq that just will not (in the case of Syria) or that could not (in the case of Iraq) continue to live under political regimes that are dominated by other communities. Take the Sunni of Iraq and Syria out of ISIS — or the Pashtun out of the Talibans — and you are left with a weak movement devoid or territorial or social anchor.

Aside from the re-establishment of communal dictatorships that would happen to represent majorities, instead of minorities, nothing good can come from the kind of nation building that Pollack advocates. The only sustainable solution to the problem is the creation of a Sunni state on a territory that currently straddles Syria and Iraq. In this region, remember, Sunni Arabs have no home, unlike the Kurds (almost), Shia Arabs, and Shia Persians.

As Jeffrey Herbst has been arguing for years, this kind of solution also beckons in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, I would add, in Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia and a number of other countries.

I can hear the standard objections: re-opening the border issues would lead to chaos and anyway, we don’t do that anymore. We patch things up at the UN.

Well, chaos is here and has been here for a long while and, as I mentioned before, we have in fact been doing lots of boundary adjustments in recent years, though only in Europe and almost exclusively with white people. The time has come to open up the communal state club to other peoples.

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