Since 2011, civil wars and state failure have wracked the Arab world, underlying the misalignment between national identity and political borders. In Break all the Borders: Separatism and the Reshaping of the Middle East
(Oxford University Press, 2019), Ariel I. Ahram
examines the separatist movements that aimed to remake those borders and create new independent states. With detailed studies of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the federalists in eastern Libya, the southern resistance in Yemen, and Kurdish nationalist parties, Ahram explains how separatists captured territory and handled the tasks of rebel governance, including managing oil exports, electricity grids, and irrigation networks. Ahram emphasizes that the separatism arose not just as an opportunistic response to state collapse. Rather, separatists drew inspiration from the legacy of Woodrow Wilson and ideal of self-determination. They sought to reinstate political autonomy that had been lost during the early and mid-twentieth century. Speaking to the international community, separatists promised a more just and stable world order. In Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Libya, they served as key allies against radical Islamic groups. Yet their hopes for international recognition have gone unfulfilled. Separatism is symptomatic of the contradictions in sovereignty and statehood in the Arab world. Finding ways to integrate, instead of eliminate, separatist movements may be critical for rebuilding regional order.
Beth Windisch is a national security practitioner. You can tweet her @bethwindisch