Do-it-yourself cartography of the Middle East

The US news media offers blueprints for the dismemberment of the Middle East, writes author.

Robin Wright's recent attempt to map new potential boundaries of various nations - in light of the conflict in Syria - has received a great deal of media attention [Getty]
Robin Wright's recent attempt to map new potential boundaries of various nations - in light of the conflict in Syria - has received a great deal of media attention [Getty]

A recent offering from the New York Times Opinion page is an infographic titled “How 5 Countries Could Become 14“.

Featuring analysis by Robin Wright – distinguished scholar at the United States Institute of Peace and the Wilson Center – it depicts prospective divisions of Libya, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen into territories with predictable names like Sunnistan, Shiitestan, Alawitestan, and Wahhabistan.

Despite the fixation with the -stan suffix, there is no polity called “Palestan”.

In the article accompanying the infographic, “Imagining a Remapped Middle East“, Wright declares the map of the modern Middle East to be “in tatters” thanks to “Syria’s ruinous war” as well as other factors:

… [T]he centrifugal forces of rival beliefs, tribes and ethnicities… are also pulling apart a region defined by European colonial powers a century ago and defended by Arab autocrats ever since”.

Wright acknowledges that Middle Eastern borders were “initially defined by imperial tastes and trade rather than logic” and that subsequent “[r]econfigured maps infuriated Arabs who suspected foreign plots to divide and weaken them all over again”.

Of course, it’s difficult to argue that the Times‘ blueprint for the dismemberment of five countries doesn’t smack of imperialist speculation.

‘Good Syria’, ‘Bad Syria’

Luckily for speculators, imperialism’s contributions to conflict in the Arab/Muslim world are generally excised from Western mainstream media discourse via a couple of easy tricks.

One is to blame everything on an alleged Muslim insistence on prolonging a 1,400-year squabble.

In a slightly hysterical September column for the New York Times, for example, foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman outlined his pet peeve regarding the debate on US intervention in Syria:

“…[P]lease do spare me the lecture that America’s credibility is at stake here. Really? Sunnis and Shiites have been fighting since the 7th century over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad’s spiritual and political leadership, and our credibility is on the line? Really? Their civilisation has missed every big modern global trend – the religious Reformation,democratisation, feminism and entrepreneurial and innovative capitalism – and our credibility is on the line? I don’t think so.”

Thanks to continuous media advertisements of purported Muslim backwardness, any intrusions onto the Middle Eastern map by the West and its militaries are seen to be civilising in nature. This is the case even when said intrusions are accompanied by instructions for Iraqis to “Suck. On. This” – Friedman’s cultured pronouncement at the start of the Iraq war.

Friedman has since toned down his militant cheerleading in favour of calmer remapping suggestions“Syria and Iraq will both likely devolve into self-governing, largely homogeneous, ethnic and religious units, like Kurdistan” – and important anthropological discoveries such as that the Swiss do not care about Syria because a grocery shop cashier in Bern has pink hair.

This naturally does not mean that the newspaper of record has withdrawn from the business of blatant warmongering. In late August, it hosted the headline “Bomb Syria, Even if It Is Illegal“, whose author made a similar argument in a column for Al Jazeera.

Meanwhile, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof – patron saint of “humanitarian” intervention – has augmented his pleas for missile strikes on Syria by threatening that a failure to strike amounts to “landing on the wrong side of history”.

Were Kristof in charge of redrawing the Middle East, we might find ourselves with a Syrian Arab Republic divided into two autonomous regions: “Good Syria” and “Bad Syria”. As Columbia University scholar Mahmood Mamdani wrote in a 2007 essay for the London Review of Books, the columnist’s previous fervent campaign for Western interference in Darfur constituted:

“…the reduction of a complex political context to a morality tale unfolding in a world populated by villains and victims who never trade places and so can always and easily be told apart. It is a world where atrocities mount geometrically, the perpetrators so evil and the victims so helpless that the only possibility of relief is a rescue mission from the outside, preferably in the form of a military intervention”.

Documenting Kristof’s wildly fluctuating death tolls for Darfur, Mamdani questions his “relative silence” on the far more lethal violence in Congo, especially given Kristof’s own admission that “[t]he number of people killed in Darfur so far is modest in global terms”. According to Mamdani, one possible reason for the discrepancy is that the Congolese militias “were trained by America’s allies in the region, Rwanda and Uganda”.

Syria = Iran

The question of how to deal with US friends and foes in the Middle East, meanwhile, has been handily resolved by Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, who in a September dispatch titled “Here’s a resolution for you” drafted a proposed replacement for a US congressional resolution on Syria.

Rubin, who defines herself on Twitter as a “friend of @Israel”, begins her resolution with a series of clauses:

WHEREAS the United States has vital national security concerns at stake in the Middle East;… WHEREAS the United States cannot protect those interests or the interests of allies including Israel by disengaging from the region;…  WHEREAS the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on its own people multiple times;… WHEREAS the United States must not allow users of WMDs to escape the consequences of their actions or to disarm at their leisure”.

It goes without saying that the use of poisonous weapons by the US and its @Israeli friend is exempt from such ultimatums.

Having concluded the prelude to her resolution, Rubin proceeds to list its prescriptions, the first two of which are:

“The president of the United States shall be authorised to use all necessary force against Iran in the event it does not halt all enrichment and allow complete access to all facilities to verify the discontinuation and destruction of its nuclear weapons facilities…

“It shall be the policy of the United States to support free peoples in Iran seeking to change the regime and obtain essential human rights and a normalised relationship with the West”.

Since Syria and Iran are apparently the same country on certain regional maps, all the more reason to break them up. 

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work , released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in theLondon Review of Books blog Salon The Baffler Al Akhbar English and many other publications. 

Follow her on Twitter: @MariaBelen_Fdez

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