In contrast to the desert that covers most of the Middle East, the Fertile Crescent has been an area that kingdoms thrived in since the dawn of history. The reason is simple: it was possible to maintain a reasonable and stable community life in this area because communities could establish an economy based on agriculture and raising herds of animals. The children of Israel in the Land of Israel, the Phoenicians in Lebanon, the Assyrians in Syria, the Sumerians, the Babylonians, and the Chaldeans in Iraq, all established kingdoms with a strong and effective central government, based on an agricultural society dwelling in permanent communities from which it was possible to collect taxes and enlist its sons into the ruler’s army. The desert, on the other hand, was not a place of kingdoms and regimes because its nomadic residents do not represent a civil and economic basis upon which it is possible to establish a permanent, central framework.
The modern era is a continuation, to a large extent, of the classic picture of the Fertile Crescent: Lebanon, Syria and Iraq were established as states that should have been frameworks for legitimate states with governmental systems based on a egalitarian and shared civil society, that would include the tribes and the many ethnic, religious, and sectarian groups that populate the area. The objective data of the area -plentiful precipitation, comfortable weather, flowing rivers and fertile ground – could have provided a comfortable life for the people of these states, if only they could have lived with each other in peace. The borders of the states were drawn by the colonial forces that ruled in the area, and these borders define their territories, the area of their sovereignty and the identity of their citizens. Protection of the borders is a prerequisite for the existence of every state in the world.
But in the past decade – and especially in the past two years – the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are continually being penetrated, undermined, dissolved, eroded and annulled. Those who are undermining the states are its neighboring states, organizations and individuals, who relate to borders of states as if there is no need to respect them. It is important to note that great sections of borders exist only on maps, while in reality, there is no fence, wall or any real barrier that would enable the state to protect its borders from invasion of evildoers and prevent their entry.
The efficacy of border protection is an effective indicator of a state’s overall condition: a state that protects its borders and prevents the entry of hostile elements is a state with the power to live and survive even if it is situated in an unfriendly environment. On the other hand, a state that does not succeed in protecting its borders from foreign and hostile elements penetrating into its territory is a state in the process of deterioration that might end in its demise. The recent events in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon fully confirm this assumption.
For the whole of the twentieth century there were factors that undermined Iraq’s borders, mainly Iran of the Shah: He supported the Kurds in the North of Iraq until 1975 and channeled weapons, equipment, fighters and money to them via the border. This undermined the integrity of Iraq, and ever since the Kurdish area was declared as a no-fly zone for the Iraqi air force in 1991, the Kurds of Iraq have lived almost totally independently. They have a parliament, government, political parties, an army, police, communications media, mass media and independent economic viability. From a practical point of view, the borders of Iraq do not include today the Kurdish area that was once the northern part of the state.
The border between Iraq and Iran has been wide open ever since the beginning of 2004, less than a year from the day when Iraq was occupied by the Western coalition led by President Bush. After the Iranians understood that the Americans did not want an additional front in Iran, they began to transfer weapons, ammunition, explosives, money and fighters into Iraq by way of the border in order to strengthen the Shi’ite militias to the detriment of the badly defeated Sunni militias, and so that the Shi’ites could successfully resist with the occupation armies and act against the influence of al Qaeda, which had established an organization called “The Islamic State of Iraq.”
Thousands of fighters from the United States and its allies were killed in Iraq with weapons and explosives that Iran smuggled into the Land of the Two Rivers. The border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia as well, served as a conduit for weapons, ammunition, money and jihadists for the Sunni organizations, chiefly al Qaeda. Only in recent years did Saudi Arabia set up a fence on the length of its border with Iraq in order to prevent the Iraqi chaos from seeping into its territory, but the fence did not prevent Saudi Arabia from transferring anything that the Sunni Jihadists could think of, into Iraq.
Turkey never respected its border with Iraq, and its forces would often cross the border into Iraqi Kurdistan to attack the bases of the “Kurdish Workers Party” (PKK), which would send its fighters into Turkey.
The border of Iraq with Syria has served for more than ten years as a two-way membrane. Between the years 2004 and 2011 the porous border served as a passage for Hizballah fighters who crossed from Lebanon into Iraq by way of Syrian territory in order to support the Shi’ites. Since March of 2011 the border has served as a passage for Shi’ites from Iraq to support the regime in Syria, but Iraqi Sunnis also cross it freely with their weapons and explosive material in order to help their Syrian brothers in their struggle against the Assad regime and indirectly against Iran, which controls Iraq.
Since 2011, fighters, weapons and equipment have also been freely transferred by the tribes of northern Jordan to their brothers in the area of Hauran in southern Syria. And until today almost a half million Syrian refugees have fled the Syrian inferno to Jordan.
The border between Syria and Lebanon has never been taken seriously on either side: smuggling of goods from Lebanon to Syria has provided livelihood for many thousands of Lebanese ever since the two states were established in the forties, and many Syrians have crossed the border illegally into Lebanon, fleeing the oppression of the regime, mainly since Hafez al Asad rose to power towards the end of 1970. Many Syrian workers have moved to Lebanon illegally via the porous borders, and in peak years the number has been estimated at a million.
Syria’s border with Turkey is not sealed either and many have crossed it unofficially over the years: Syrian and Turkish Kurds have always crossed it almost without restriction, just as the border between Iraq and Turkey has served as a passage for the Kurds on both sides. In the past two years Turkey has been sending to the Syrian rebels support and jihadists who come from Saudi Arabia, from Qatar, from North Africa and from other areas, even from Europe.
Not in vain have the rebels against Assad captured the border crossings in the early phase of the rebellion, because having control of the border crossings makes it possible for them to bring into Syria people who support them in the fighting against the regime.
Hizballah has turned smuggling into an art form: in broad daylight as well as in darkness, in the paved streets as well as the dirt roads, at official as well as unofficial border crossings from Syria to Lebanon, large amounts of missiles, light and heavy weapons and ammunition have been transferred from Iran, China and Russia, through Syria into Lebanon, and fighters from Hizballah have crossed by way of the Lebanese-Syrian border into Syria and Iran in order to train for their jihad against their Lebanese brothers as well as against Israel.
In the past two years Hizballah fighters have crossed with their weapons and equipment into Syria via the breached border, in order to help Assad. In the beginning, Hizballah snipers shot demonstrators in the streets of Dara’a from the roofs, and afterwards the Hizballah people joined in the street fighting, primarily in the streets of Homs, Hama and Damascus. The “shaheeds” of Hizballah who were killed in Syria were usually smuggled into Lebanon via the open border and were buried temporarily and secretly in the Buqa’a valley, near the border, primarily to avoid media exposure. Lately, since Hizballah’s involvement in Syria has become common knowledge, the shaheeds are brought to their families for burial.
The only border of Lebanon that looks like one is the coastline, but by any effective test this border does not exist: On the breached shores of Lebanon are tens of unofficial mooring places that have served for many years in the smuggling of goods – primarily automobiles – that are stolen in Europe to Lebanon, and are transferred by agents to the Lebanese market and other Arab states. Since 2011 these moorings, along with the port of Triploli, have served the Sunnis, as a transfer point for the smuggling of weapons and ammunition to the rebels in Syria. These weapons come mainly from Libya, from two sources: Qadhaffi’s military storehouses and surplus European and American weapons that Qatar sent to the anti-Qadhaffi rebels in 2011. On the other hand, Alawites who live in Lebanon – chiefly in the Jabal Mohsen quarter of Tripoli – cross the border between Lebanon and Syria illegally in order to support Assad.
The conclusions that can be drawn from all of the above is that the borders of the Arab states in the Fertile Crescent – Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – are increasingly losing their effectiveness, and that this phenomenon has been increasing in the past two years, since some of the Arab regimes have been under attack, but this time from within. When the borders of a state are breached, its existence as a state is undermined, and the more violated its borders become, the more its existence and its meaning are threatened.
The architecture of the fertile crescent that was bequeathed by colonialism is changing before our eyes: Iraq is breaking up, Syria is crumbling and Lebanon for some time has lost the pluralistic character that its constitution was supposed to ensure.
On the ruins of these countries new bodies arise with many and varied agendas. Some have an Islamist slant, and see the modern states as illegitimate creations that were born in the basements of colonialism, and therefore must be totally done away with. Some have a local slant – ethnic or tribal – and they are interested in establishing new frameworks based on the demographic data that colonialism tended to ignore completely.
In recent months, the battles in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have taken on an old-new hue that these states – as long as they were effective states – had relegated or marginalized, which is the religious hue, and the historical conflict between the Sunni and the Shi’a floats on the surface and becomes the name of the game, or – preferably – the name of the conflict. In Iraq, the Shi’ite government bombs the Sunni citizens using fighter jets. In Syria, the regime of Alawites, a sect that broke off from the Shi’ites and are supported by Shi’ites, bombs its Sunni citizens with jets and even uses chemical weapons against them. In Lebanon the Shi’ite group threatens to take over the whole state, and because of this threat, the state conducts itself in such a way that no one is willing to gamble on its democratic future.
The struggles along the fertile crescent have become dirty, filthy and bloody, while all of the traditional limitations increasingly collapse and man becomes an unbridled predator. The forces of the governments are not righteous, and the forces of the rebels are not pious. Both of them murder, maim, rape and cruelly violate the rights of many victims, most of whom are not involved in active fighting.
In comparison: Israel’s borders serve as an almost absolute seal against foreign invaders, with various and sundry intentions. The border with Egypt has been closed off and the number of infiltrators has become negligible. The border with Jordan is well protected by right of the joint interest of the two states. The border with Syria in the Golan Heights survives, despite the chaos in Syria, the border with Lebanon holds firm by right of Israel’s deterrence versus Hizballah, and if it weren’t for the drug smugglers, this border would be hermetically sealed. The coastal border also is protected effectively by the Israeli Navy, and only the border with the Gaza Strip serves as a point of tension because of the jihadists that have taken over the Strip.
In comparison with her neighbors, the State of Israel is an island of stability and normal life, and the borders of the state testify to this clearly and accurately. The situation in our days gives an interesting meaning to the passage from the poem in the weekly Torah portion “ha’azinu” (“listen”): “When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when He separated the sons of Adam, He set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 32:8).
Originally published at Israel and Terrorism. Translated from Hebrew by Sally Zahav.
Dr. Mordechai Kedar