Eyad Abu Shakra

Raisi-Macron … A New Version of Sykes-Picot?!

Somehow, one may say that few regional and international powers did not “contribute” to the formation of the new Lebanese cabinet. However, this cabinet is nothing more than a “crisis management team”. Its task is to deal with a problem whose solution would be an inseparable part of the much larger regional “format” being prepared for the Middle East, against a background of great changes.

Still, some may advice against pessimism and encourage optimism instead, as Lebanon is now out of the tunnel, after a stalemate that lasted for more than a full year. Others may cite the pragmatic maxim that it is “far better to light a candle than curse darkness”; in the belief that the formation of the new cabinet would - at least - alleviate the suffering of the Lebanese people at the hands of their politicians, slow down emigration, and contain the collapse of the economy and the freefall of a faulty political system.

Then come those who would argue that the whole world is going through structural problems made worse by other crises. These crises include pandemics, global warming and threats to traditional industries by new technologies, in addition to a weakened belief in the “nation state” in the face of rising racism as a reaction against globalization, immigration, refugees and freedom of travel. Moreover, there is also the emergence of new world powers, with different political cultures on the global scene; seriously challenging the US and western Europe.

All the above is true, but also true is that a realistic reading of events spares the observer the slippery slopes of day-dreaming optimism and reassured ignorance. Thus, there is nothing wrong in linking current events with previous experiments and experiences, and dealing with them as they really are, not as we wish them to be.

To begin with, it is not a secret anymore that the regional order that drew the political borders in the Near East is dead and buried. This means that we need to view what is going on without emotions or idealism.

The notion of Arabism, which we have been familiar with, has been evolving through decades. Initially, it evolved from an undisputed identity for the common man, to a nationalistic ideology countering Turkic nationalism that emerged during the latter years of the Ottoman Empire, at the expense of the all-encompassing pan-Islamism.

At least Sunni Muslim Arabs had accepted Ottoman rule under a non-Arab caliph, as long as the state treated all Muslim peoples equitably. But the situation began to change inside the vast empire during the 19th century with the rise of nationalism in Europe, as well as the Ottoman state itself.

It was inevitable that the tide of “Turkification” in the heart of the state would provoke an opposite nationalistic reaction. In fact, this is exactly what happened, with European encouragement, if not sponsorship, of the alternative Arab nationalism. This happened not out of love and admiration for the Arabs, but rather for the need of weakening the Ottoman enemy.

Following the defeat of the Ottomans in WWI, the European powers refused to deal with the Arabs as one nation with common interests, embarking instead on partitioning the Near East based on European interests. Names and means, even circumstances, priorities and alliances may have now changed, but the element of “core interest” in politics never does.

As we recall, after WWI, the two pillars that defined the new identities of the emerging political entities - created from the collapsed former Ottoman provinces and regions - were the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration. Later, other maps were being redrawn, including those of Egypt and the Sudan and the entities of the Arabian Peninsula, until the end of the British and French mandates during and after WWII. As painful as it may be to many, we must admit that a number of these entities have changed politically, demographically, culturally and economically.

Before their re-founding, some of these entities were prominent regional hubs, despite not being “independent” states with recognized borders and “national” identities for the majority of their inhabitants. Others, were created based on strategic considerations and temporary equations and deals. What is tragic today that there seem to be no differences between these two sets of entities, as de facto partition and collapse of common identities and loyalties sweep the region.

For decades, most of us, as Arabs, have stubbornly rejected both the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration. For decades too, leaderships were born, political parties formed, slogans spread and wars fought just to bring down the “dividing” borders; but as some have rightly suggested, we have been gradually sliding from partition to disintegration.

Indeed, the irony is that these borders, which the Arabs have failed to bring down, are now being bulldozed by their regional foes. These foes’ greed and ambitions, as well as the support they enjoy from the global powers, are proving much stronger than our weaknesses, divisions, bad planning and lack of understanding of world politics.

The post-2003 Iraq is now a totally “other Iraq”, governed by different political, demographic and ideological considerations; and as US troops prepare to leave, the country is approaching the stage of being semi-sovereign and semi-independent, under expanding Iranian intelligence and structural penetration of the Iraqi state institution.

Today, Iranian penetration is not limited to Iraq. In Syria, Lebanon and parts of Palestine, too, Tehran’s influence enjoys the “benefit of the doubt” from European government, that see nothing in Iran but a beneficial trade and security partner.

As an arena, Syria looks more “colorful” in terms in the apportioned areas of foreign influence and intersecting influences. Within the internal Syrian fractures, Iran’s ambitions remarkably coexsist with Russia’s; while both players accommodate interests of others, namely, American, Israeli and Turkish geopolitical interests. This case of coexistence at the expense of Syria and people, is best reflected in the openly or tacitly agreed “corridors” and “zones of influence”.

Finally comes Lebanon. Here, regional and international communications have finally succeeded in removing the so-called “obstacles” that had prevented the formation of a new government to take over from Hassan Diab’s cabinet - which had resigned in August 2020.

Judging from the names of people said to have contributed to the “agreement”, one would deduce that we are talking of a “regional deal” the details and conditions of which are beyond the control of the Lebanese people.

Without recalcitrance or cynicism, such an agreement proves that Lebanon is now under a Franco-Iranian trusteeship, with American, Israeli and Russian blessings. This has been achieved, as all concerned wait for the final details of the JCPOA deal in Vienna, which may well include agreeing the ceiling of Tehran’s influence throughout the Near East and beyond.