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15 June 2014


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The Sykes-Picot lines have been written off a few times before yet have survived. Lebanon survived 15 years of civil war intact, and I was sure that Iraq would disintegrate at the height of the civil war in 2006 (especially considering that some of the people driving the US invasion had stated this to be their intention in "A Clean Break"). Yet somehow they survived.

Starting in the 1950s, many Arab leaders, while loudly proclaiming their pan-Arabism, actually worked very hard to build national identities. Three generations of Iraqis, Syrians etc. learnt in school about the glories of Babylon (Iraq), the fight against the French (Syria) etc. In Lebanon today, the various sects cannot agree on what the "Lebanese identity" actually is, yet each claims to represent a Lebanese, not a sectarian, identity.

So the Sykes-Picot states, although they are largely artificial and their boundaries often nonsensical in geographic or economic terms, have none the less developed a surprising resilience as definers of identity. Of course such a construct must eventually collapse under intense pressure, but so far they have survived an incredible amount of tension. The new developments may of course be too much to withstand; beside all the other factors (tribalism etc.), the "pan-Sunnism" pushed by the Saudis, especially since the early 2000s in my opinion, may finally tip them over the edge. But I would suggest, in light of past experience, that Syria at least, and maybe even Iraq (although that seems increasingly unlikely), may perhaps surprise us and survive within their current borders. As to whether that would be a good thing, I have no idea.

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