On March 21, 2004 – a year after America invaded Iraq and one week after the Madrid bombings where 191 commuters were murdered by Islamic fundamentalists – I wrote the following in this column.
I am reproducing it now not to appear prescient, but because I believe the geopolitical analysis to be correct today, and because I believe that if the EU is to be a serious global player it has to involve itself directly in the redrawing of the map of the Middle East with money, military and diplomacy.
Here’s what I argued in 2004:
“As the British Empire collapsed into chaos, the Muslim population was terrorised off its lands in one disputed region. In 1948, a civil war erupted between the Muslim and non-Muslim peoples of this region.
Historically, the smaller non-Muslim group had lived in peace with their majority neighbours, but in 1948 it seized its chance.
The newly-founded UN, based on an earlier British promise and postwar guilt, gave this group a new state. As the civil war raged and pogroms ensued, ethnic cleansing on a monumental scale created millions of refugees.
The British did what they do best and partitioned the country. The majority Muslim areas of the protectorate were divided in two – a large Muslim state and a small sliver of terribly overpopulated land wedged against the sea. This small, pathetic piece of land is now among the poorest places in the world. It is sealed off by a heavily patrolled border, characterised by desperation, and is a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalism.
The bigger Muslim entity was cut off from its hinterland, with only tiny access to the ocean. Beside it, a new democratic but non-Muslim state emerged, absorbing displaced refugees from far and wide.
These two states have been involved in three major wars since 1948. The borders are today the most heavily policed in the world, with two huge standing armies eyeballing each other over disputed territory.
Where am I talking about? Not Israel and Palestine. Arguably, it is the far more worrying conflict between India and Pakistan. If the story sounds like Palestine, it is because both conflicts are the result of the collapse of empire, whether British or Ottoman.
Many observers are now warning about the impending collapse of what is left of the Ottoman settlement. The implications of this are so significant that it is difficult to know where to begin.
The vast area between the border of India/Pakistan and the Mediterranean at Tel Aviv and Gaza is an ethnic fabrication. What we now call the Middle East is the creation of British and French bureaucrats who cobbled together the maps in an agreement called the Sykes-Picot pact.
This agreement laid the groundwork and ground rules for the way that Britain and France carved up the Ottoman Empire between them, prior to its demise in the latter stages of World War I.
It paved the way for subsequent development in the region, including the establishment of Iraq, Palestine, Trans-Jordan (invented by Winston Churchill one afternoon in 1922), Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia as distinct political entities and, in theory, nation states.
This process of diplomatic and military engineering has proved remarkably stable. Amongst other upheavals, it survived several Israeli/Arab wars.
The arrival of the Americans in the heart of the region has irrevocably changed the whole picture.
The concern now (one year after the war) is not only what happens to Iraq, but what happens to the region. How long will Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon last in their present guise?
And if there is an implosion, what else will change? What chain of events could trigger upheaval? Might it, like the collapse of the USSR ten years ago, be dramatic but amazingly peaceful? Or could it be violent? And where would that violence end – in Madras, Mecca or Madrid?”
Today, in 2015, we know that this is what has happened. The countries that were Syria and Iraq are no more. The region is embroiled in a vicious sectarian and ethnic civil war, which has been fuelled by barbarous Islamists from all over the world.
Jordan is extremely fragile, as is Lebanon, while Saudi Arabia has been reduced to financing the murderers of Isis because of its hatred of Iran, which is supporting Assad.
The Assad regime controls about a quarter of the old land mass of Syria but, apart from that, the entire region is controlled by a band of freelance militias and so-called armies from Hezbollah, Isis and Shi’ite militias under the direct control of the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps.
This is a medieval vista of roving, stateless, mercenary armies terrorising defenceless people.
Historically, the implosion of the Middle East bears some similarity to the implosion of the Holy Roman Empire and the 30 Years War in 17th-century Europe. This was a similar sectarian war in a vacuum that had its own stateless, mercenary army under Wallenstein, who sided with the Pope against the Protestant forces of northern Germany.
By the way, at the end of the 30 Years War, a quarter of the population of the German principalities were dead. This is what we are looking at in the Middle East, if nothing is done. Nearly 20 million people have already been displaced, including 12 million in Syria, more than half the population.
Without massive outside intervention the slaughter will continue until either there are no Shias, Alawites and Christians left in Syria or there are no Sunni. This is a sectarian bloodbath.
It can only be stopped by the big powers doing something very old-fashioned, which is dividing up the region along ethnic lines.
Iraq needs to be divided up immediately into three separate countries: one Sunni, one Shia and one Kurd. Likewise, Syria has to be divided into two: one Shia/Christian/Alawite in the West and the other Sunni in the East.
There needs to be a true international force put in on the ground to police this new arrangement. We are seeing the unraveling of a post-colonial settlement – the post Ottoman settlement and the map needs to be redrawn immediately.
If not, the terrified refugees will just keep coming, because the war will get worse.
This is where the EU has to take the lead. It is the EU’s problem because America’s landmass is not affected. So having waited for the Americans to act internationally since 1945, the EU needs to act alone. It will have to involve two big power-brokers, Iran and Turkey – and to do this, it needs Russia. It also needs to get the US to lean on the Saudis.
It’s time for the EU to grow up and realise that it has geo-political responsibilities commensurate with its economic prowess. The free ride is over. It’s time for the EU to show leadership, otherwise it will have to deal with the demographic consequences of its political emasculation for years to come. The choice is ours.