Geopolitical Anomalies in the “Greater Middle East,” Part 2
(note: The introduction to this post is found in the post of April 1)
Thus far we have examined a number of geopolitical anomalies in a sizable region of the world centered on Saudi Arabia. We have not yet looked at the most serious challenge to the standard model, however, that of state collapse. Other important issues remain to be considered as well.
As mentioned in the introduction to this series, Somalia has not functioned as a coherent state since 1991. Although its internationally recognized federal government controls more territory than it did a few years ago, large areas are still under the power of the radical Islamist group al-Shabaab, while the northwest forms the de facto state of Somaliland. Other areas are essentially run by local clans or other organizations that pledge their ultimate loyalty to the federal government but in actuality have complete or almost complete autonomy. A prominent example is Puntland in the northeast, which covers a third of Somalia and contains roughly a third of its population. Puntland’s constitution reveals its geopolitically ambiguity. It states, for example, that “Puntland is an independent integral part of Somalia”; being “independent” and being an “integral part” of a given country, however, would generally be seen as mutually exclusive propositions.
For many years, Somalia was the only collapsed state in the area covered by the map. That is obviously no longer the case. The official governments of Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq have lost control of vast stretches of their official territory to rival national governments, fully autonomous regions, and Islamist militias. It is now questionable whether any of them can be reconstituted as coherent states, at least any time soon. The authority that several of these states do still possess, moreover, relies heavily on military backing from other countries. The governments of both Iraq and Syria, for example, depend on the armed clout of Iran. The United States and other countries also help prop up Iraq by launching air strikes against ISIS (alternatively, ISIL, Daesh, or Islamic State). Afghanistan is more stable and unified than the other countries highlighted on the map, and is therefore depicted in a lighter shade of red. But if the United States military were to withdraw completely, it is quite possible that it too would unravel — as indeed has previously occurred in the recent past.
One of the main reasons for the collapse or near collapse of the states depicted on this map is the rise of radical Islamist organizations, the more important of which are shown on the next map. The territories under the power of these groups change rapidly, and as a result the map should be regarded as suggestive rather than strictly factual. But the rise of these groups is highly significant, presenting a major challenge to the standard model of global geopolitics. The more extreme groups, such as ISIS, vehemently reject the very notion of the nation-state, which they view as an unholy Western creation and imposition. Although the territories under the control of Islamist armies may well be rolled back in the coming months, these organizations still have the ability to attract militants both locally and from abroad, and thus will likely continue to present an obstacle to state consolidation for many years.
Although actual battle casualties in recent years have not surprisingly been highest in Syria and Iraq, many other countries in the region have experienced a good deal of bloodshed. The map to the left shows total combat fatalities by country for 2014 alone, based on a Wikipedia table. Two states stand out here that have not featured prominently on the other maps in this series: South Sudan and Central African Republic. South Sudan would actually rank second, after Syria, if I had selected the highest estimate given for each country rather than the lowest. South Sudan is noted as the world’s newest sovereign state, having gained independence in 2011. When South Sudanese rebels were fighting against the government of Sudan for independence, they were able to maintain a degree of cohesion, but when that struggle ended the two main ethnic groups of the region, the Dinka and the Nuer, quickly fell apart. Although the fighting has more recently subsided, it is uncertain whether South Sudan will be able to construct cohesive state. Central African Republic has a much longer history of independence than South Sudan, but it also continues to have difficulty in this regard. The vicious fighting between its Muslim and Christian militias in 2014 certainly does not bode well for future stability.
Even many of the countries in this region that have not experienced extensive combat nonetheless contain active separatist movements that seek independence for the people they claim to represent, thereby challenging the legitimacy of the nation-state. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, most of the countries visible on this map are home to such separatist groups, as can be seen in the image posted here. Most of these organizations, however, are not particularly violent or effective, and many consist of little more than a few discontented persons banding together to create a website. But others have the potential to emerge as threats to the states in which they are located. Consider, for example, Ethiopia. According to the Wikipedia article, Ethiopia experienced only 218 combat fatalities in 2014, 172 in the war against Somali insurgents in the eastern Ogaden region and 46 in the struggle against Oromo rebels in the central part of the country. The same article, however, gives much higher cumulative combat fatalities in these struggles (1,300 in both cases). Another Wikipedia article states that the insurgency of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) ended in 2012, but a low-level conflict nonetheless persists, and as recently as the 1990s the organization boasted 60,000 fighters (current figures run around 5,000). Significantly, the OLF claims roughly half of Ethiopia’s territory, and its website maintains that it represents an Oromo nation some 40 million strong.
The next map in today’s post shows the ubiquity of territorial disputes in this part of the world, based on another Wikipedia table. As can be seen, relatively few countries here have no border disagreements with their neighbors. Most of these disputes are admittedly relatively minor, and thus do not interfere much with international relations. Some are also rather obscure, such as the argument between Egypt and Saudi Arabia over Tiran and Sanafir islands. According to Wikipedia, Egypt controls these islands but Saudi Arabia claims them, but the article goes on to state that “the definite sovereignty over Tiran Island is left unclear by both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, due to geostrategic reasons.” GlobalSecurity.org, however, frames the issue quite differently, stating that:
Both of the islands officially belong to Saudi Arabia but are being used by Egypt. Because of strict military regulations, it’s not possible to enter the islands.
The Multinational Force and Observers [MFO] has soldiers stationed at observation points to ensure both parties abide the treaty. The force and observers, totaling 1,900, are under the command of a Norwegian military officer. The military personnel are on loan from 11 nations.
Other border disputes in the region are far more serious. The Durand Line that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, for example, is absolutely rejected by the government of Afghanistan, which claims that it had been negotiated with the British colonialists in South Asia to separate spheres of influence rather than to fix an international boundary. This perennial border dispute plays into the tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have recently intensified. As noted in a Wikipedia article on Afghanistan–Pakistan skirmishes, “The cross-border shellings intensified in 2011 and 2012 with many reports from different occasions claiming that Pakistani missiles have hit civilian areas inside Afghanistan’s Nuristan Province, Kunar Province and Nangarhar Province.”
Additional geopolitical anomalies found in this region of the world will be explored in the final post in this series. With luck, that post will go up on April 5. We will then turn our attention to the situation in Yemen.