Wednesday, September 10, 2014

In a world of shifting borders, where should we draw the line?

Given that I spend a good deal of time thinking about the history and present state of the Middle East, perhaps it shouldn't be too surprising that borders and boundaries have been on my mind a lot lately. After all, this is a part of the world which has survived the cartographic ambitions of the Romans, the Ottomans, and various European powers. While this periodic reconfiguration of national boundaries is not unique to the Middle East, it has played a powerful role in shaping the societies which inhabit, share, and often fight over, this land.

In the 20th century rampaging armies made a mess of Europe twice, and the period following the end of World War II saw the fracturing of empires and the emergence of newly independent nation states. Such actions are not consigned to the past, though, with various groups and states attempting to redraw the world map even as I write this. Their motivations are myriad, running from religious fanaticism to resurgent nationalism.

Perhaps the most peaceful of these movements can be found in Scotland, where voters will have the opportunity to vote tomorrow whether to leave the United Kingdom, ending roughly 300 years of union, or remain closely joined to their neighbor to the south. What the exact arrangement will look like if the Scots do decide to leave England is unclear, but if Scotland does vote to separate, there are a number of thorny challenges to consider, including economic and military consequences. Indeed, difficult days may lie ahead for Scotland and England, but at least in this particular case those on either side of the issue are going to decide the fate of this union through the political process.

In other parts of the world, things aren't quite so peaceful.

Far to the east of the United Kingdom, Russia has been making its own attempts at global reorganization, declaring itself the protector of Russian-speaking people wherever they reside, and using this pretext to launch a land grab in Eastern Europe. The first victim of this aggression was Crimea and then Moscow turned its gaze toward the Ukraine, supporting pro-Russian separatist groups in the eastern part of the country while maintaining the fiction that they were not also sending Russian soldiers to take part in hostilities. In addition to the lives claimed among combatants, and civilians on the ground who were caught in the crossfire, this conflict also claimed the lives of 298 people aboard Malaysian Airlines flight 17, who were unlucky enough to be over Ukrainian airspace when inept Pro-Russian militants were at the controls of a surface-to-air missile system.

Perhaps the most troubling attempt to redraw borders is happening in parts of Iraq and Syria, where ISIS or the "Islamic State," has pursued a violent path of religiously-inspired political hegemony. I have written before on this blog of the threat that ISIS poses to religious and ethnic minorities, as well as the danger it is likely to become to the West, with their blatant disregard for human life and distorted view of religion and reality. There is no question that this threat is real and persistent; it cannot be ignored. This terrorist organization threatens to undermine the territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq in the short term, and in the long-term they may even gain a foothold in Jordan. Many experts have identified the primary danger in such an outcome as the fact that it would provide ISIS and allied terrorist organizations a safe place in which to train and plan for attacks across. The fear is that it would be Afghanistan, post-Soviet withdrawal, all over again.

I think there is another danger as well, one maybe not as obvious but potentially just as damaging to the  people who live there:  Left to fester on its own, such a state would surely become a magnet for similarly-minded zealots, empowering this terror-based political entity to emerge  as a regional power, seeking political legitimacy from neighbors to weak or scared to oppose its leadership. This is truly the worst case scenario, but it's one worth considering.

Tonight the world may get the first clear picture of how the United States and its allies plan to confront the threat of ISIS, when President Obama makes a national address on television.  In the days to follow we are  likely to see how ISIS responds to what is likely to be a massive show of military force aimed at disrupting and destroying its crimes across the region.

While the outcome is uncertain, one thing we can count on is that as ISIS attempts to redraw the borders of the Middle East there is no chance that they would ever follow the example of Scotland and engage in a legitimate political process, or even that of Russia which may be susceptible to international sanctions. While Scotland represents a step forward in terms of a bloodless effort to gain independence and Russia represents something of the last century with its resort to proxy armies and "advisers," ISIS represents something else entirely, a draconian, malevolent force which gives no quarter to anyone.  Through their actions ISIS has told us loud and clear that they want to establish their own nation, now it is up to the rest of the world to tell them that there is no room in our modern world for what they represent.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

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