In September, U.S. author and analyst Robin Wright, writing in "The New York Times
," imagined what the map of the Middle East might look like if it were redrawn along ethnic and religious lines.
Decentralization of power in a region used to being run by heavy-handed dictators, she argued, could cause ethnic and religious groups to coalesce beyond the borders drawn up by Europe after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Recent unrest in Iraq seemed to provide a preview of Wright's theory.
Western Iraq saw a Sunni insurgency in the latter part of the last decade, and many of those same fighters joined Sunni militant groups in Syria's civil war. One of them, the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), has taken its fight back to Iraq -- though, so far at least, Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders have mostly backed the government in trying to repel the group.
Here are three maps: today's Iraq and Syria; those lands in Ottoman times; and one hypothetical future scenario.
At the turn of the 20th century, there was no Iraqi nor Syrian state -- most of the populated Middle East was still controlled by the 450-year-old Ottoman Empire. A portion of present-day Iraq and Syria were independent Islamic polities.
Defeat in World War I caused the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and a reconfiguration of the Middle East. The newly created League of Nations gave mandates to the British and the French to administer the territories and define national borders. By the late 1940s, the countries had gained their independence but kept the redrawn borders. The newly independent states soon ushered in a prolonged period of Arab nationalism and strong -- mostly secular -- centralized power.
The Sunni-dominated Ba'ath Party led Iraq from the late 1960s until Saddam Hussein was overthrown in a U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The al-Assad family, from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, has ruled Syria for the past 40 years.
The combined impact of the sectarian strife that followed the Iraq War and the brutal Syrian civil war has caused ethnic and religious identification to take on increasing importance.
Majority rule in Iraq all but guarantees a Shi'ite lock on the government, which has been reluctant to give Sunnis more than token political power. Corruption and cronyism reinforce the sectarian divide.
Our hypothetical future map -- based on Wright's thesis, Columbia University ethnographic maps
, and RFE/RL regional expertise -- imagines how these tensions might see Iraq and Syria split into four new states.
* Shi'ite state.
With the exception of a swath of Sunnis in the southeastern part of the country, Iraq's Shi'ite stronghold runs from Baghdad to the eastern border with Iran. Sunnis, mostly in the west, have been angered by the seeming outsized influence that Tehran -- the region's Shi'ite power broker -- has in the country.
* Sunni state.
A Sunni-dominated "heartland" stretches west of Baghdad and through most of Syria. In Syria, a military stalemate has prevented an outright victory by the majority Sunnis so partition (with much of the country joining with Sunnis in Iraq) might become a realistic alternative.
* Kurdish state.
Iraq's autonomous and relatively violence-free Kurdish region has made moves to untether itself economically from Baghdad (it is pursuing its own oil deal with Turkey, for instance) and has cooperated with Kurds in northeastern Syria.
* Alawite state.
Although a minority, the Alawites -- with significant Christian support -- still control much of coastal Syria. Some opposition supporters have accused the regime of President Bashar al-Assad of a concerted effort to displace Sunni populations in the west to set up a future Alawite state. The only Alawite stronghold, however, is in the northwest, with Latakia as the base. If Assad were to find himself on the defensive, his government could try to retreat to this region as a last resort.
...Or Maybe Everything Will Stay The Same
Despite the sectarian tensions, regional and world powers fear major convulsions in the Middle East and are likely to work to keep Iraq and Syria intact.
Arab identity, though now weaker than sectarianism, is also still a factor. The Shi'a in Iraq consider themselves wholly distinct from those in Iran, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis -- Shi'a and Sunnis -- died fighting against Iran in the 1980s.
It is also unlikely that the Iraqi government would willingly give up control over any of its territory. A power-sharing arrangement between Shi'ite and Sunni leaders could develop.