By: Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.

The importance of tackling this issue is highlighted by the uprisings, revolutions and protests taking place in the region, which has been caught in a state of instability and confusion over the future of the countries there.

Some old regimes still stand and others were toppled, and there are some concerns over the sectarian and ethnic implications of the process of change.

Meanwhile, the attempts of Israel and some Western powers are clear, as they seek to take advantage of the instability to push events for the benefit of their interests, including the fragmentation of the region on the basis of sectarian and ethnic lines.

The Americans, who invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003, knew full well that their claims about the regime there possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) or harboring terrorism were false. But it wasn’t enough to explain the invasion as some analysts purported, by saying that the US wanted to control the oil wells in Iraq as the primary goal of the occupation. Indeed, the Iraqi regime had no qualms about selling oil in the international market at reasonable prices, within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) framework.

This is while the US government, in the early years of the invasion of Iraq, had to spend an average of two billion dollars a week (about one hundred billion per year). Therefore, it was necessary to examine whether there were other undeclared agendas for the war, especially in light of the insistence of the Americans to dismantle Iraqi state institutions and dissolve the Iraqi army, while explicitly or implicitly encouraging sectarian and ethnic behavior. Under US occupation, Iraq witnessed the biggest bloody sectarian conflict in its modern history.

Perhaps the “success” of the Americans, to one degree or another, in perpetuating sectarian- and ethnic-centered dynamics (Shia – Sunni – Kurds) in Iraq, has opened the appetite of some to follow the same path in the rest of the Arab region, which is witnessing revolutions and uprisings.

The hopes of this success were boosted with the secession of South Sudan, and with the separatist movements in Darfur.

The Israeli side is invested completely in maintaining this state of fragmentation and division, and seeks to achieve further fragmentation in the region along sectarian and ethnic lines. This would render Israel, which was built on a Jewish ethnic-religious basis, a normal entity among the other sectarian- and ethnic-based entities it seeks to create in the region – be they Sunni, Shi‘a, Christian, Druze or Alawite.

Zionist officials have shown a keen interest in the question of minorities in the Arab world, claiming that the borders drafted for the region following the First World War were not fair and had wronged sectarian and ethnic minorities.  Indeed, since before the establishment of the state of Israel, there was a Zionist interest in schemes for fragmentation and partitioning. For instance, Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky called for the creation of sectarian and ethnic statelets around the Zionist entity, which the latter would dominate.

Since the late thirties, the Zionist movement established contacts with some minorities in Lebanon and Iraq, urging them to rebel and secede.

Yoram Nimrod, Uri Lubrani (former ambassador to Turkey and Iran), Mordechai Ben-Porat and Shoshana Arbeli each contacted Kurds in Iraq, while Eliyahu Sasson and Isser Harel (Mossad chief) contacted minorities in Syria and Lebanon.

Ben-Gurion, the prime minister of Israel from May 1948 until January 1954, and then from November 1955 until June 1963, saw ethnic and sectarian divisions in the Arab countries as an opportunity to amplify disputes, until they become deep crises that are difficult to resolve or contain. Ben-Gurion requested a plan to be developed in this direction which would later be known as the Peripheral Strategy. The plan was undertaken by Reuven Shiloah, Israeli foreign ministry advisor, and was based on developing ties between Israel and non-Arab nations surrounding the Arab countries, such as Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia, to act as a source of pressure and threats against the Arab countries, and maintain a state of conflict with them.

This strategy was developed further and focused on forging ties with minorities and encouraging them to secede. In an interview with the Israeli daily Maariv on 18/12/1981, a few months before the invasion he led against Lebanon, then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon said that the conditions were favorable for the fragmentation of the Arab states and the extension of Israeli dominance in the region.

Sharon spoke about the potential conflict between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds in Iraq, between Sunnis and Alawites in Syria and between rival sects in Lebanon, and also between Palestinians and Bedouins in the east of Jordan, between Sunnis and Shiites in the Eastern Province in Saudi Arabia, and between Muslims and Copts in Egypt. He even spoke about conflict between the Muslim north and the animist-Christian south in Sudan, and between Arabs and Berbers in the Maghreb region.

In this vein, there was a study with dangerous implications drafted by Oded Yinon, an Israeli foreign ministry strategist, titled “A Strategy for Israel in the Nineteen Eighties,” which focused on partitioning and weakening the Arab world. For his part, Zionist thinker Yehezkel Dror spoke in the book “A Grand Strategy for Israel,” about undermining and fragmenting Arab states, and instigating wars and conflicts among them, while destabilizing Arab societies from within by supporting non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities.

Another prominent intellectual who called for the break-up of the Arab world was the famous Jewish Zionist historian Bernard Lewis, who has had a significant impact on neo-conservative ideology, and former US President George W. Bush himself.

Retired US officer and author Ralph Peters built on Lewis’s ideas, and called for the partitioning of the Middle East in his article “Blood Borders,” published in the US Armed Forces Journal in June 2006. Peters reckoned that the “most arbitrary and distorted borders in the world are in Africa and the Middle East,” which were drawn by “self-interested Europeans.” He wrote, “Yet, for all the injustices the borders re-imagined here leave unaddressed, without such major boundary revisions, we shall never see a more peaceful Middle East.”

He then added, “We are dealing with colossal, man-made deformities,” and urged that “if the borders of the greater Middle East cannot be amended to reflect the natural ties of blood and faith

[i.e., ethnicity and sect], we may take it as an article of faith that a portion of the bloodshed in the region will continue to be our own [Americans].”

Of course, Peters failed to speak about the dangerous deformities created by the West, particularly Britain and the United States, by planting Israel in the heart of the Arab and Islamic region.

Interestingly, Peters spoke crudely about partitioning Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and proposed a state for Shia Arabs in southern Iraq which extends to include al-Ihsaa and which would be in control of the oil fields in eastern Saudi Arabia (without including Kuwait), and also extends to include areas southwest of Iran bordering the Gulf, especially Ahwaz.

He also proposed a state for Sunni Arabs in central Iraq and another for the Kurds in northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, eastern Turkey and northwestern Iran. Furthermore, he proposed for the Hijaz to secede from Saudi Arabia, and for Jordan to expand to take parts of northern Saudi Arabia, while Yemen expands north at the expense of southwest Saudi Arabia.

Shortly before the triumph of the revolution in Tunisia, Indian-American political expert Parag Khanna wrote on 13/1/2011 an article in Foreign Policy, one of the most prestigious American and international journals. Khanna claimed, “Within a few decades, we could easily have 300 states in the world.” He wrote, “The coming partitions must be performed with a combination of scalpel and ax, soft and hard power. Above all, the world must recognize that these partitions are inevitable.”

In another article co-authored by Khanna and Frank Jacobs and published in the New York Times on 22/9/2012, the writers proposed partitioning Syria into four states; “separate states for the Druze and the Alawites, and city-states for Damascus and Aleppo.” They also proposed a Kurdish state in northern Iraq, and reshuffling the borders of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, through the creation of Pashtunistan, Baluchistan and the Greater Azerbaijan.

The well-known Israeli writer Aluf Benn, the editor-in-chief for Haaretz Newspaper, wrote a long article in his newspaper on 15/3/2011 at the beginning of the Arab uprisings. The title he chose was “Caution: Middle East under Construction.”

Benn wrote that the maps that were drawn for the region a hundred years ago are now being redrawn, allowing new countries to emerge like South Sudan, Kurdistan, Palestine and perhaps even Cyrenaica in eastern Libya, and a reconstructed Southern Yemen. He also said that states may even separate from the United Arab Emirates, with the possibility of “a split in Saudi Arabia between ‘the state of the holy sites’ in the Hejaz and the petroleum powers in the east.”  According to Benn, Syria may be divided into small Sunni, Alawite and Druze states. Benn said that “the basis for these divisions will be implementation of the principle of self-definition of nations and tribes, which until now unwillingly and without any alternative have been wrapped up together in the same national package with their foes.”

Benn added that the “more states there are in the region in the future, the easier it will be for Israel to maneuver among them.”

The editor-in-chief for Haaretz said the reshuffling of the borders began with America’s invasion of Iraq, and continued with the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza Strip, and with the partitioning of Sudan. He also said that other countries like Jordan and Oman may disintegrate. He noted that the “West, like Israel, prefers a fragmented and squabbling Middle East and is fighting on several fronts against pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism.”

Therefore, he added, it is expected that “the West will not try to thwart the process of fission in the countries of the region, but rather will contribute to it.” At the end of his article, Benn concluded, “A smart Israeli policy, which correctly identifies the opportunities inherent in the emergence of new states and knows how to take advantage of these opportunities, will be able to leverage the inevitable process to reinforce Israel’s power and influence in the region.”

It is not inevitable that the Arab region will respond to Israeli and Western schemes and desires. Nevertheless, it is important for the Arab masses rebelling and their leaders to take notice of the schemes being hatched against them, and the sectarian and ethnic traps being set in their path, so that they may deal with these prudently and firmly.

This is particularly important as the revolutionary situation and the shifts taking place usually weaken central governments, and put countries in transitional phases that some parties may take advantage of to achieve narrow sectarian or ethnic gains.

The space is short in this article to address the prospects for the success of the schemes for fragmentation, and the possibility of countering them. We shall therefore address these issues in the next article.

Read the second article: Confronting the Projects of Sectarian and Ethnic Fragmentation

The Arabic version of this article appeared on Al on 27/1/2013.