The civil war in Syriamay well be the last act in the story of the disintegration of the Middle East as we know it. The opportunity to hold the region together and to rebuild it on a firmer foundation of tolerance, freedom and, eventually, democratic stability is slipping from our grasp.
Egypt and Iran have long, continuous histories and strong national identities. Turkey does as well, except for the matter of the Kurds, who are still largely unassimilated, mistrusted by Ankara and tempted by the hope of independent nationhood.
Every other important state is a modern construct, created by the British and the French, who drew borders like lines on the back of an envelope, often without regard for ethnic and sectarian differences. The results: A Bahrain that is 70 percent Shiite, governed by a Sunni monarch. Saudi Arabia was created with a 10 percent Shiite population in its richest provinces to the east. Iraq is 65 percent Shiite, 20 percent Sunni Arab, and a mix of Kurds and others, all ruled until 2003 by an iron-fisted Sunni dictator. Jordan’s population is almost 70 percentPalestinian. Lebanon is roughly divided among Sunnis, Shiites and Christians. And then there is Syria: a conglomerate of Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and others, ruled by the Alawite minority.
The fragile state structure of the Middle East has been held together for decades by monarchs and dictators. But as the desire for freedom has spread from Tunis to Cairo to Damascus, authoritarians have lost their grip. The danger now is that the artificial states could fly apart.