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Almost three years after the Arab Spring began its region-wide sweep – ostensibly in search of democratic change – scant attention has been paid to one of its most dangerous consequences: the fraying of borders.

Weapons, militias, foreign Special Forces, smugglers, gangs and crooks now regularly traverse borders from the Levant to the Maghreb to the Persian Gulf. And these territorial infractions across Yemen, Libya, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and other states will inhibit prospects for “democracy” more than any single development in the region.

The logic? Very simply, this: If you don’t have territorial integrity, you don’t have a “state.” If you don’t have a state, you cannot build institutions. If you don’t have institutions, you will never have representative government.

The foreign geniuses who thought they could invade and “regime-change” their way to “democracy” with first Iraq and Afghanistan, then Libya and Syria, forgot the foundational elements of a nation-state – namely, sovereignty and territorial integrity. When you cross a border uninvited and undermine a central government, you rip at the seams of the state itself.

And so we call them “failed states” sometimes, pretending that these entities still retain some semblance of statehood for which parliaments and constitutions and armies can legitimately be assembled.

I chuckle at the attempts of Lebanese politicians to cobble together a new government while gunmen traipse across their borders, unimpeded, just a few miles away. I roll my eyes at the “elected” and “selected” Syrian external opposition – disembodied pashas who don’t have a square-inch of land to call their own. And I cringe when “experts” reference democratic underpinnings in Libya, Tunisia and Iraq, where central authority is as evasive as border security.

“But you have no state,” I want to say.

It is an as-yet unframed idea, yet the clever Arab Street seems to sense this where others don’t – hence the dramatic recent rise in fortunes of national armies, possibly the only functioning institutions in many of these wobbly states, and the only entity that can safeguard borders.

Egypt gets it. Syria gets it. Iraq cannot, nor can Yemen, Libya or Lebanon – they don’t have strong centralized armies or authorities that can credibly work toward shutting down borders and re-establishing security. When Egyptian General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ejected an elected government, he understood that lawlessness in the Sinai and calls for Jihad in Syria, Libya and elsewhere would erode the Egyptian state. When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called for reinforcement to fight the tide of foreign fighters flooding Syria’s borders, this was a rallying call for Russia, Hezbollah and Iran to protect their own borders.

Dictators? Tyrants? Maybe, maybe not. But also perhaps the last buffers against the destruction of the nation-state.

Porous borders will delegitimize any central authority over time. And the lack of sovereignty will in turn breed the kind of lawlessness that further erodes territorial integrity.

Yes, “statelessness” is the biggest threat to “democracy” in the Middle East today.

A Threat to the Global Order

Writing about military interventions in general, and in Syria in particular, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pointed out last year: “In the absence of a clearly articulated strategic concept, a world order that erodes borders and merges international and civil wars can never catch its breath.”

Kissinger was, in effect, questioning whether the endless stream of US interventions under the guise of “humanitarian” or democracy-promoting militarism, was not fundamentally eroding the world order established in 17th century Europe by the Treaty of Westphalia.

The Westphalian system – which sought to inhibit warring European armies from imposing their religious beliefs on each other – was the precursor to the establishment of the nation-state, which Kissinger calls “the basic unit of international order.”

The nation-state, in turn, is predicated on two commonly acknowledged qualities: sovereignty and territorial integrity.

But a quick glance at the Middle East today will show the precarious position of the nation-state in this region:

Sovereignty, which is essentially the recognition of “authority” over a geographic area, is being expediently dismissed by regional and international foes in a very dangerous way. Foreign demands that “Assad must go” or “Qaddafi must leave” or “Ahmadinejad is illegitimate” are quick sovereignty-busters – leadership changes must only manifest through an internal process via consensus, whether it is at the ballot box or through domestic dissent of the majority.

Territorial Integrity was once viewed as an integral principle of international relations whereby states would not impose border changes by force or subversion, but today the concept of “humanitarian intervention” under the banner of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has fundamentally challenged this tenet of the nation-state system.

As things stand now, if you can convincingly demonize a foe, you can bulldoze through sovereignty and territorial integrity under cover of R2P with nary a concern for undermining international law.

But each time this happens, we destroy another foundational brick propping up our global system. And it won’t be long before Massachusetts decides it has nothing in common with Texas, and Wales tells England to take a hike.

The US National Intelligence Council (NIC) published its forecast on global trends earlier this year and warned of the scenario of a “Nonstate World” in which governments relinquish much of their responsibilities to self-governed enclaves. That scenario is already playing out in the Middle East, and unless we move to preserve the current system of statehood, it will fast become the new world order.

Sabotage, Jihadists

While foreign military invasions are a sure-fire democracy-buster, just as insidious is the subversion of governments and populations via propaganda, sabotage, assassinations and “dirty tricks.”

Take, for instance, Iran. The Islamic Republic should technically be able to enjoy a flourishing democracy, given that it vigorously controls its borders and has a strong, elected, central government. But the country cannot stretch its wings because of the daily barrage of information warfare, cyber warfare and foreign-backed dirty tricks focused on undermining the central authority, its various institutions, and its armed forces.

The Arab uprisings, however, brought with them a whole new set of challenges. Sudden instability arose across the region with the rapid removal of long-term governing authorities – inviting aggressive competing interests seeking to establish their own power bases. Weapons flowed across borders and jihadists began an ideological trek that has now breached the security of all states involved in uprisings.

Salafist extremist groups, which reject the nation-state system, were natural entrants into the fray. They thrive where there is chaos; they gravitate toward security vacuums. These are the very environments and conditions in which extremists can usurp authority, lay down Sharia law and erect their “Caliphates.”

And they leap from local to transnational jihadi networks in an instant. Ideologically extremist fighters from Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Chechnya and dozens of other nations make their way toward the “fight” and the new “base” in Qalamoun or Sinai or Anbar – wherever the call for Jihad beckons.

We are in a tough place in the Middle East today. Between Western-GCC-Turkish-backed regime-change operations and the jihadist lava pouring over our borders, the nation-state is eroding before our very eyes.

Democracy? Forget it.

Give me a strong army that will shoot down armed men crossing over my border. Give me a national leader who will show no mercy in facing down car-bombings, assassinations, sabotage. Give me a statesman who will respect your religion but blow you into your “janna” if you try to snuff out mine.

Yes, I want governance based on consensus, rule of law and justice. But give me safe borders, first.

This article was first published by Al Akhbar English on October 31, 2013. It can be read here in Farsi and here in Arabic too.

Follow the author on Twitter, Facebook, The Huffington Post and Al Akhbar English

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