by Martin Chulov
In late-2009 I met an official in the administration of Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. We had barely sipped our teas when, without prompting, he dived into the issue of partitioning the country.
'Let's talk about this nation state of Iraq,' he said. 'Is it any shame to acknowledge that the Shia are the majority here and that they naturally lean towards Iran? The Kurds are around a third of the country and they have no fondness for it either. They're busy building a state in the north. That leaves the Sunnis. Most of them are in Anbar, and they can go to Saudi Arabia.
'We need an honest national debate about whether the current boundaries of the state of Iraq are tenable.' The official wouldn't put his name to his remarks back then and is now even less inclined to do so, with his prophecy lurching towards fulfilment -- albeit through means that no one had foreseen at the time.
The Iraqi state, post-Saddam and post-US occupation, struggles to hold together even on a good day. But events in Syria are testing its resilience more than any shock since the country was carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.
Each week since the start of the year has yielded fewer reasons for either Iraq or Syria to confidently predict it will be able to exercise sovereignty up to its current borders. Conversations in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon over the past two years have revealed a region under grave and, I believe, unsustainable pressure
Last summer, Walid Jumblatt, as astute a reader of events as any Levantine politician, cut a mournful figure in his palace in Lebanon's Chouf mountains as he pondered a rebel advance into Aleppo. 'This is the breakdown of the Sykes-Picot Agreement,' he said of the Anglo-French carve-up of the region during the First World War which led to the eventual formation of the borders of Syria and Lebanon. 'Historically, this is hugely significant.'
Syria and Lebanon have had very different experiences. From the early 1970s, Syria was under the dictatorship of Hafez al-Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect who consolidated power with ruthless efficiency, Lebanon, meanwhile, lurched from crisis to war, then back again, prey to its neighbour to the east and weakened by the sectarian tinderbox within its borders.
Though Syria is a majority Sunni country, Assad aligned it with Iran, where Shia Islam is the national religion, and with Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed militia of the Shia population of Lebanon.
For the past 20 years, the nexus has been resented -- though at times admired (Hizbollah's 2006 war with Israel is one example) -- by the Sunni Arab world, which has seen Iran's presence in the heart of the Arab world as a form of hegemony. The uprisings known as the Arab Spring have done more than give scope to reclaim lost dignity. They have created a forum for score settling -- and nowhere more than in Syria.
Since the middle of last year, Syria's predominantly Sunni opposition has become convinced it is fighting Shia oppressors, not just a despotic regime. Almost every rebel militiaman or army defector has a story of an encounter with an Iranian or Hizbollah fighter. Most are embellished. Some are clearly true. But the belief is that the Shias have come to fight them and that they, as Sunnis, must fight back.
'Syria is essential to the Sunni world,' a school teacher turned rebel fighter told me earlier this year. 'We have always co-existed with the Christians and we understand the situation they are in [their tacit support of the Assad regime]. But the Shias are worse than the Israelis. Much worse. They have come to conquer.'
By last November, with the presence of the Al-Qaeda-aligned al-Nusra Front growing daily, I had become convinced that the post-First World War boundaries in the Levant were under serious threat. This year has done nothing to shake my concerns. Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq has since set himself up as a protector of Shia interests, going after Sunni power bases wherever he sees them.
I fear for the region more than at any point in my eight years here. Borders are becoming increasingly irrelevant. The will to cling to national identities, not sectarian allegiances, also appears to be slipping. Warlords are on the rise in Syria as state control disintegrates. The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East will not be the same 10 years from now.
Martin Chulov covers the Middle East for The Guardian
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