Small World: Sitting around the peace table

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

The Middle East is a mess. We can all agree on that. But who’s to blame? Some will say fanatical religious leaders; others will castigate selfish special interests. Still others will point at the politicians, generals and security experts who wield such authority.

For a change, let’s try to pin blame on the humble, best-intentioned (by their own lights) cartographers, men who drew lines on maps — lines in the sand in the Middle East. The Sykes-Picot map after World War I divided up the defunct Ottoman Empire for the benefit of the British and French (and a few selected Middle Easterners who willingly cooperated.)

Are those lines permanent — engraved in the living stone like the tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai? Can they be corrected — erased, moved a few miles — just as most working constitutions can be amended?

Although seemingly an historic relic, an international conference might be just the answer. That’s how things were settled after the Napoleonic wars, later in Berlin when frictions became intense in Europe and Africa and, most pertinent for our purposes, at Versailles after World War I.

I cannot claim to be the first to put forward this suggestion for dealing with our present mess. Columnist David Ignatius, writing recently, said, “History tells us that the only way to restabilize this region is to gather the essential players around a table and begin framing a new security architecture.”

“Initially,” Ignatius wrote, “such an action plan could probably do no more than establish cease fire lines, aid refugees and empower Sunni moderates against the toxic power of the al-Qaeda offshoot known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).” Any of those “minor” achievements would be heartily welcomed by the people concerned. The big stuff of reworking history would appear miraculous — if accomplished.

Let us dream a bit about what might be realized.

The first puzzle — after the not-always routine tasks of choosing the venue and fashioning the shape of the table — would be to select the participants. Chief would be stability-seeking powers who would devise the changes to be wrought; others would be the victims or beneficiaries who would be wrought upon.

The organizers/deciders would be the big five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, and maybe a few neutrals with clout (Brazil, India, South Africa, Indonesia). Then, we should throw in those states that have ancient, unquestioned boundaries. Iran and Egypt would get in on that ticket.

Finally, seated at the table would also be those nations which might or might not survive intact: Syria and Iraq and, if we’re serious, Lebanon and Israel. They are all invented states with boundaries drawn by others. Time to adjust those lines so that they conform to current realities of sects, faiths, and ethnicities. Plainly, Iraq would be on the block and likely divided in three parts — Shia in the south, Sunnis in the northwest, Kurds in the northeast with Baghdad as a shared, open city.

A chunk of Syria might be carved off to enlarge the new Kurdish state and Syrian Sunnis would join fellows across the Iraq border. The Kurdish areas of Turkey and Iran should also be added but fat chance of that. Lebanon might well disappear into union with the remaining rump of Syria. An effort would be required to assure that the new states have the resources to support themselves. That means oil for the ex-Iraqi bits or, for Syria-Lebanon, commerce. Aid would be ladled out which would mean Saudi Arabia and rich friends would be warmly invited to sit at the head table.

If Kurds are to be dealt with, can Palestinians be ignored? Or their disputed border with Israel? An international conference might be just the means of resolving the two-state border and Jerusalem problems, which have baffled the parties and outsiders. Perhaps there would also be a role for Jordan — folding it into a new Palestinian state.

And don’t forget Libya, which awkwardly exists the way Italy shaped it in 1911.

There. I’ll bet you didn’t think a conference could resolve all these Middle East problems. What about states or groups that deny the jurisdiction or the powers of the conference? They would be excluded and subject to containment. That would take care of ISIS and others who insist their “rights” rank above those of the world community.

Anyway, it was a way to spend an afternoon in the hammock.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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