2014 marked a farewell to a turbulent decade, but it could be replaced by an even more chaotic one, writes Salah Nasrawi
A map generated by the Islamic State group, with regions renamed to conform to its representation of the ‘caliphate’
They weren’t exactly foreseen by Nostradamus, but the dramatic events that unfolded in the Middle East in 2014 are reminiscent of the apocalyptic prophecies of the 16th century French seer.
Across the Arab world, countries, some of them as old as the world’s ancient civilisations, are unravelling, and the whole region seems to be heading towards a massive geopolitical shift that will have far-reaching consequences for the international order.
A century after a series of treaties between the European colonial powers and the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France to carve up the region after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, the Middle East is facing Balkanisation.
Today, as Al-Ahram Weekly writers explain in their reports for this special end-of-year issue, it can seem difficult even to imagine the magnitude of the changes that could take place in the future.
The rise of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group and its seizure of vast swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq and proclamation of an Islamic caliphate has been a turning point. The group has abolished the borders drawn with the creation of two modern Arab states and raised its black banners over areas from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean.
The damage to the national fabric and unity of the countries hit by the IS advance and the sectarian civil war it has unleashed is immeasurable. It has deepened the confessional divide beyond repair and created ethno-sectarian enclaves that have sown the seeds for the geographical and political disintegration of the two countries.
The war front goes beyond the captured territory in Syria and Iraq. While civil wars have also raged in Libya and Yemen, several other Arab countries have been wracked by sectarian divisions and political uncertainty.
In Libya, the popular uprising against the former regime of Muammar Gaddafi has now evolved into a war that could tear the country to pieces. While a civil war is raging in many parts of the country, some parts of eastern Libya have declared their autonomy. Tribes in southern Libya with Tuareg or Sahara identities are looking for closer bonds with neighbouring countries.
Following the overthrow of its long-time dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen has entered a turbulent era with tribal, sectarian and provincial communities fighting over sharing wealth and power. A federal system proposed by an UN-led national dialogue is in tatters with southern Yemen now pressing to break away from the north.
Lebanon, suffering from the repercussions of the war in Syria, is threatened with a sectarian flare-up.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries do not seem to be immune from the ripple effects of the Middle East Balkanisation. With sectarian strife escalating all around them, governments and large segments of the population fear that they might be the next ones hit by the turmoil.
All in all, the Middle East seems to be heading towards a tectonic shift which could redefine its political landscape and its century-old national borders. The changes may take time, but if the momentum continues there will be no Middle East such as we have known it for the past three-quarters of a century or so in a few years.
In many ways, the new political map and regional order will be a major regression and an invitation to transform the admittedly imperfect existing order into a jungle in which ethno- and sectarian-based new countries will be pitted against each other.
Western analysts tend to blame the Arab Spring, which removed several Arab dictators, for the turbulence. They claim that the movements for regime change kindled long-dormant identity conflicts.
Yet, the conflagration set in motion by the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 is in fact largely responsible for today’s Middle East. The American adventure in Iraq, its ten years of occupation, its dismantling of the Iraqi state and society, its abysmal failure to rebuild it and now its reoccupation by its military “experts” all stand behind the disaster.
If the Middle East is to be remapped, it will be a direct result of Washington’s blueprint for imperial meddling in the region. The invasion of Iraq was not only a godsend for the terrorists who have torn down borders and established a phony Islamic caliphate, but it also acted as the catalyst for a polarisation which has split the region on sectarian lines and is now triggering its redrawing in blood and tears.