What drives instability in the Middle East-North African (MENA) region, besides dictators and foreign intervention, is sovereignty itself.
In particular, domestic sovereignty and Westphalian sovereignty. In order to control this regional instability, a new system needs to be created that uses cities as sovereign actors and leaves the sparsely populated areas in between to themselves.
The modern state system was created in response to the European wars of religion that erupted after the Protestant Reformation and Catholic counter revolution during the 16th and 17th centuries. Thirty years of unabated conflict destroyed empires and decimated the population of central Europe. In response, a series of treaties were initiated, culminating in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 the aim of which was to stem the anarchic atmosphere which made these wars possible. A new era dawned for international relations as the leading powers of Europe agreed that every monarch should enjoy the inviolable right to determine the religion of his nation.
More broadly, the Peace of Westphalia established the dual pillars of today's state system: (1) non-intervention in the internal affairs of countries by outside powers and (2) clearly defined and rigid borders. The system worked well for Europe because of its unique history of continued conflict along ethno-geographic lines of tension. These rules for international relations were then applied throughout the world only because no better alternative existed at the time. However, the rest of the world struggled to adopt this system, and today's civil wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa are only the latest manifestations of that struggle.
Such a system was bound to fail in the MENA region because it's population didn't share the same ethno-geographic differences typical in Europe. To wit, the Rhine river is considered to be both the traditional and modern border between the French and West Germanic populations. No such definite boundaries characterize today's MENA system of borders. Moreover, the MENA region is no by means as crowded as Europe: major cities positioned along rivers and crossroads litter the region, but the areas in between are desolate. The suburbs, hinterlands, and deserts were populated by few herders, farmers and nomads. And yet, after Great Britain and France dismantled their empires in the MENA region, the only acceptable template for national organization was the European, Westphalian system. That system requires rigid borders and puts a premium upon spreading governing authority to every corner of a country.
Which brings us to the crucial factor in this discussion. We're not actually debating whether or not cities can be used as the focal point for building new states. The city-state system of classical Greece has shown us that such a system can work beautifully. Instead, we're unknowingly starting to question whether or not the empty spaces between countries should even be governed (Kudos to Greg Brown, a PolicyMic community member for planting this seed). In other words, sparsely populated areas of deserts, mountains, tundra, etc., should just be left alone. Doing so won't create new "safe havens" for terrorists: these areas are manifest throughout the world; just go to the Congo. Terrorists need to attack cities anyways, and have to rely on the infrastructure of cities to carry out their attacks. Adopting this approach won't be a de facto abandonment of the people living in these areas: most of them don't want to be bothered anyways. Take a look at the desert nomads of Saudi Arabia or the tribes along Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). FATA is a euphemism for "No F***ing Way!".
At the very least, the cities which border these areas shouldn't be charged with governing them, but should only be expected to protect themselves from any threat emanating out of these areas. This would allow cities to focus their resources and attention upon the infrastructure for areas of dense populations, especially commercial centers. Moreover, because no entity would enjoy sovereignty over these sparsely populated "no-man's-lands," Western coalition forces would be free to target any terrorist networks hiding within these areas should they fill the void. Drone strikes, however imprecise and however horrific the collateral damage they may cause, would then be legal in the eyes of the international community.
As the title of this article suggest, this is only the first installment of a three-part series. Part two is going to detail the logistics of creating a city-state system in the MENA region. Particular attention will be paid to internal security and political representation.