Skip to main content

When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918 after defeat in World War I, the comic opera borders of many of today's Middle Eastern countries were drawn by the British and French Foreign offices, in secret and in the supposed national interests of European colonial powers. Local matters of religion, language and tribes appeared to hold little interest for the map drawers. It's hardly any wonder that, for generations, post-colonial national borders in the Middle East have accompanied one failed state after another and conflicts time and again break out in the region, for generations, conflicts that the participants, the neighboring powers and the international community forever manage to not solve.

For a very long time, failed states have festered in Afghanistan and the Western autonomous regions of Pakistan. For a time, strong arm regimes enforced the old colonial borders in Iraq and Syria. Now, revolutionary Syria is a fractured rubble of a State and, at the same time, the area once encompassed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq, finds its national borders dissolving. New demarcations are reorienting Iraq's former territory on religious, ethnic and tribal lines. A Civil War rages there that became inevitable the moment President George Bush decided to carry out regime change against Saddam Hussein.

An opinion piece in Al Jazeera America reflects on the origins of 20th Century Middle Eastern borders and the influences now erasing them. Follow me out into the tall grass for some of the AJA piece and a bit of discussion.

In 1916 as the Great War dragged on in Europe, a British diplomat named Sykes and a French diplomat named Picot, with the support of war torn Tsarist Russia, agreed on post-war national boundaries and British and French spheres of influence for what have since been the borders of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and what was then Palestine. The Sykes-Picot Agreement remained secret until the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia took the Eastern Front out of the War. Lenin's government finally disclosed it.  

"Whoever drew that map was on drugs," an influential figure in the opposition told me, tapping on a map of modern-day Syria. "It lumped a whole lot of people with little in common together in the same country. Add to that the gunpowder of the Assad regime, and it produced a century-late explosion."
But the collapse of Syria is only part of the story. The AJA piece noted that the colonial borders of Iraq are also changing in the wake of the Big Topple.
the most important news is the birth of a new Arab state, called by Arab and regional observers the Emirate, or the Emirate of Iraq and Sham, or colloquially the Emirate of al-Jazira (the Arab heartland).

The newborn Emirate stretches from the west gates of Baghdad to the ruins of Aleppo in northwestern Syria. It is a blend of traditional and ideological elements that are struggling mightily for areas of influence within the vast landscape. Along the lower Euphrates between Ramadi and Fallujah, my sources tell me, Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are scrapping with the local tribes. In Syria, it is the jihadist Al-Nusra Front battling with the local Sunni tribes. Also in the mix are the regional minorities that fill the margins of the Emirate, such as the Kurds, the Druze, the Alawites, Ismailis, Christians and Jews.

The Emirate redraws the map by erasing the sovereign state borders created by the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 between England and France and their subsequent division of the Ottoman Empire following its defeat in World War I.

The Emirate of Iraq and Sham. Okay, I know I'm just focusing on a coincidental homophone between English and Arabic, but Sham sure seems like a great word for how Bush and Cheney and their enablers lied America into war with Iraq. Anyway, the AJA opinion piece notes that Iraq now has been effectively partitioned among Shia, Kurdish and Sunni interests. The al Malaki government's loss of Fallujah and Sunni tribal domination of Anbar Province have wrested control of that region, under an Al Qaeda banner, away from the Shia dominated, Iranian allied Nouri Al-Malaki government in Baghdad.
Along the north of the Emirate, the Kurdistan consolidation defines a buffer from the Shias of Iran. Along the south of the Emirate, the Arabian Peninsula is fracturing into tribal confederations. The Buraida tribe to the northwest of the peninsula has largely detached from Riyadh’s authority. The central tribes look to Israel and others (Egypt, Russia) for military support.

The Emirate creates surprising facts on the ground that may define the immediate and distant future.

The rising in Iraq’s Anbar province is driven by extreme hostility toward the Shia-dominated Maliki government. Back in 2007–08, during the U.S. surge of troops to increase security and stability in Iraq, the local Sunni tribes aligned with the American forces to drive the jihadists out. Now the local Sunni tribes align with the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Sham to deny the Shia Maliki any authority.

When developments in Iraq combine with the devolution of revolutionary Syria along its natural fractures, the colonial borders no longer matter. De facto realignments on the ground have finally overtaken the colonial agreements. The AJA author concludes that this renders problematical attempts at international negotiations with "Syria", one of "the nationalist ghosts of the last century." What if there is no Syria? For that matter, what if there is no Iraq?

It's tiresome to have to go out again to get the kids a new globe of the World. But the lines on the old one just don't matter any more in the Middle East as, once again,  religious and tribal realignments erase obsolete national borders originally drawn by colonial powers. For now, I suppose, it might be useful to label this region of the globe "Here there be dragons", to signify that this region continues to destabilize into a very dangerous part of the World.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  "Never Get into a Land War in Asia"... (9+ / 0-)

    equally wise would be something like:

    "Caucasian, Christian people should stay the hell out of the middle east entirely, forever. just leave them alone".

    It's a tribal thing... and centuries long blood feuds; who needs THAT headache?

    "It is essential that there should be organization of Labor. Capital organizes & therefore Labor must organize" Theodore Roosevelt

    by Superpole on Sun Jan 26, 2014 at 03:36:01 PM PST

    •  Caucasian? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Better get a new term to mean white.

      “I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter.” –Blaise Pascal

      by dskoe on Sun Jan 26, 2014 at 05:03:20 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Actually, Christians have lived in the Middle East (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      for almost two millenia. By and large, they have gotten along with the Muslims. The recent persecution of Christians and attacks on Christian enclaves is a function of the new jihadi radicalism which, in turn, is a reaction to the activities of the largely Christian imperial powers.
         Centuries long blood feuds? Not really. There have been various ethnic hostilities in the past, but the idea of permanent warring tribes that have been fighting each other for centuries? That's western propaganda. Recall that our media was selling the same story about the Balkans back in the 1990s.
         But I agree with you that the US should minimize its involvement in the Mideast. Nothing good can come of pitting various peoples and religious sects against each other.

    •  There have been people of both types (0+ / 0-)

      aka caucasian and Christian, for as long as both have existed. Iranians are not Arabs.

      And Christianity began there, and has remained ever since (in the form of the Orthodox and Uniate churches.)

      Rick Perry - the greatest scientist since Galileo!

      by Bobs Telecaster on Mon Jan 27, 2014 at 06:09:14 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Borders drawn by pompous dolts who couldnt (21+ / 0-)

    dress themselves in the morning without a butler to put on their panties, but thought themselves eminently capable of redrawing a part of the globe they knew nothing about, in between the brandy and cigars after dinner. As I recall, Lawrence  was one of a very few trying to row the boat the other way, all to no avail of course. The stupid overwhelmed the knowledgeable and capable, as usual.

  •  Kurdistan is the biggest problem (14+ / 0-)

    The Kurds revolted in almost every decade since the creation of Iraq.
      They've also been a huge problem for Turkey, and a smaller problem for Iran and Syria.

     Until the Kurds get their own country (and they have it by default in Iraq right now), the middle east will remain unstable.

    None are so hopelessly enslaved, as those who falsely believe they are free. The truth has been kept from the depth of their minds by masters who rule them with lies. -Johann von Goethe

    by gjohnsit on Sun Jan 26, 2014 at 03:54:33 PM PST

  •  It all goes to show that colonialism is evil. (6+ / 0-)

    Take a look at the borders in Africa today. Hell, take a look at state borders in the United States.

    Pope Francis: the Thumb of Christ in the eyes of the Pharisees.

    by commonmass on Sun Jan 26, 2014 at 04:01:55 PM PST

  •  The Shia vs. Sunni antagonism lies underneath... (6+ / 0-)

    ...most of the issues in Syria and Iraq. Certainly Protestant vs. Catholic confrontation lasted centuries (until recently in Northern Ireland) but the Shia vs. Sunni one has been going on for 1 1/2 millennium.

    Any possibility that they will transcend?

    Daily Kos an oasis of truth. Truth that leads to action.

    by Shockwave on Sun Jan 26, 2014 at 04:08:34 PM PST

    •  The Protestants and Catholics never did (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Shockwave, sharman, mookins

      They both ended up eclipsed by capitalism and science. It'll have to be something different in the Islamic world. I vote for environmentalism, in the loosest sense, and anti-authoritarianism.

      If knowledge is power and power corrupts, does that mean that knowledge corrupts?

      by AoT on Sun Jan 26, 2014 at 06:49:50 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  That's _a_ version of the story (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I think a different telling is possible; ecumenicalism, rather than a non-existent eclipse, might be a different way of putting it.

        Certainly, if ecumenicalism has been real (and most would argue it has), that offers real hope for the Islamic world.

        Rick Perry - the greatest scientist since Galileo!

        by Bobs Telecaster on Mon Jan 27, 2014 at 06:15:35 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Given the timeline (0+ / 0-)

          I'm going to go with my interpretation. Ecumenicalism was a response to the rise of science and capitalist technology that necessitated a unified response because of the decline in power of the various christian sects. So I suppose that I was wrong, in that Catholics and Protestants did reconcile, but they did so because they were eclipsed.

          If knowledge is power and power corrupts, does that mean that knowledge corrupts?

          by AoT on Mon Jan 27, 2014 at 06:23:04 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  The Sunni and Shia have managed not to fight each (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      other for many, many years at a time. And they still cooperate on the Haj.

  •  Was reading an old book, referencing 'Arabia' (11+ / 0-)

    Not 'Saudi Arabia' as 'Saud' is just a family name. It's like we were the 'Walton States of America' or 'Kochian America.'

    You have to wonder how long they can hold their populace down, and how long before it goes back to being just 'Arabia.'

    Bahrain seems to be on the edge as this report of protestors and police seems to be turning violent. iirc, both of these Gulf States have a very large, even majority, Shi'a population.

    Actual Democrats: the surest, quickest, route to More Democrats. And actually addressing our various emergencies.

    by Jim P on Sun Jan 26, 2014 at 04:27:24 PM PST

  •  I'm about as far from being an expert on the ME (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AoT, marsanges, benamery21, Lawrence

    as one can get, but it seems to me that the various ethnic and religious groups are pretty mixed geographically there.

    Is it really possible to construct sizable countries which are reasonably homogeneous and yet which don't look like a gerrymandered map?

    Also, how did the Ottoman Empire deal with the Shia-Sunni issue?  Or is this conflict something that has gotten escalated a lot in the past century?

    •  The traditional method has been brutality (0+ / 0-)

      This is not unique to the Middle East.  See Africa and the Balkans and Cyprus and Russia and China and India and the Philippines and Burma, etc, etc ad nauseum.  Also, one should not underestimate the realpolitik of the Great Powers of that day.  Their aim was NOT to create easily ruled and democratic homogenous states.

      Iron sharpens Iron. Normal is a dryer setting. STOP illegal immigration NOW! -- Make it LEGAL. If Corporations are People--Let's draft them.

      by benamery21 on Mon Jan 27, 2014 at 04:26:35 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  "You mean there's more than one kind of (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    rat racer, DrTerwilliker

    Muslim?" as our brain-dead War President was reportedly surprised to learn when the adoring throngs of the liberated failed to materialize.

    IIRC, Biden's plan, in the 2004 primaries, was to recognize the reality of a 3-state Iraq.  He'll probably be vindicated, in some measure, by history.

  •  It was not always this way (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dallasdunlap, protectspice

    from A Family in Baghdad:

    I want to talk about Iraq as an example of what is happening in the world nowadays. Because of foreign interferences on political and social levels, the unified strong national identity has been divided into various sub ethnic and sectarian identities. The identity was unified under the dictatorship authority of Saddam Hussein according to what is promoted after the occupation of Iraq.

    While coming from different origins, the nations learned to cope with each other and learned how to respect their existence and their right to live regardless of diverse ethnic, religious and sectarian origins. These nations learned how to live under one central identity like an umbrella protecting everyone under it. It is a one cultural and national identity that includes various colors and that is the secret behind its beauty and ability to survive for many centuries. This umbrella covered different types of religious and cultural rituals and different food, cloths, music, arts, customs and traditions. But they all remained under one unified system that is a social and cultural system connected by a unified cohesive national identity.

    The system collapses especially if the invader comes from a foreign country aiming to weaken the country and subject it under its military and political control. They start to spread discriminating ideas among community factions that lived as one unit in the past. They are addressed differently now. Power must be divided among all these factions. The wealth must be divided among all these factions as well. As a result, a new era of conflict and differences has started and leaders surfaced for each faction to participate in this conflict.

    Iraq is a failed state, as is Libya, and also Syria. I suspect that this was an acceptable outcome for the planners of regime change.

    Orwell - "Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable"

    by truong son traveler on Mon Jan 27, 2014 at 04:10:21 AM PST

  •  The breakup of all the powerful Arab and Muslim (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    states in the vicinity of Israel was a goal of the neocons. It was assumed that a collection of warring ethnic enclaves would b best for Israeli and American interests.
       What nobody seems to have considered is what happens when there is consolidation - a huge borderless area consisting of various ethnic groups which follow either Shia or Sunni Islam.
       The religious differences aren't enough to keep them fighting for long.
       Then what happens?

  •  From the Boomer Bible: (0+ / 0-)

    Chapter 10

    What with sand and other
    very important issues like
    that, the people of the near east
    decided the only thing to do was
    kill each other,
    2 As much as possible,
    3 Forever,
    4 And so they did.
    5 Some of the killing was for
    religious reasons,
    6 And some of it was for eco-
    nomic reasons,
    7 But mostly it was for irrecon-
    cilable differences,
    8 Since they were all completely
    and utterly different from each
    9 Except for their noses,
    10 And their love of sand,
    11 And their fanatical devotion
    to their religion,
    12 And their consuming desire
    to annihilate their enemies,
    13 Which were usually every-
    body else,
    14 Including the Iranians,
    15 And the Iraqis,
    16 And the Saudis,
    17 And the Syrians,
    18 And the Jordanians,
    19 And the Lebanese,
    20 And the Israelis,
    21 And the Palestinians,
    22 And the Kuwaitis,
    23 And the Turks,
    24 And a bunch of others too,
    25 Except the Indians,
    26 Who are too busy hating the
    Pakistanis to fight about sand,
    27 Ever since Mahatma Gan-
    dhi pushed the Brits out of
    28 By pretending that Indians
    were too peace-loving to hate
    29 Which is only the second or
    third joke ever pulled off in the
    middle east.

    Chapter 11

    And eventually, when the end
    of the world comes,
    2 It will probably start in the
    middle east,
    3 Where nobody ever learns,
    4 For thousands and thousands
    and thousands of years,
    5 Which is probably ok,
    6 Because when the end of the
    world comes,
    7 There will finally be peace,
    8 For billions and billions and
    billions of years,
    9 Unless God is crazy enough to
    start another creation in the mid-
    dle east,
    10 Which would exactly double
    His current total of middle east

    "The next time everyone will pay for it equally, and there won't be any more Chosen Nations, or any Others. Poor bastards all." ~The Boomer Bible

    by just another vet on Mon Jan 27, 2014 at 06:35:20 AM PST

  •  Neither does the the United States (0+ / 0-)

    We are entering the final phase of the Post-Statism period of human history. So much wealth, created and concentrated in so few hands, has created the purchasing power that has for the past several centuries been seen only in treasuries of nation-states. Combine this with an instantaneous global financial system that appears to be impervious to taxation by the existing nation-states and we see the emergence of a type of global oligarchy that bears few historical precedents. Although it is quite similar to past feudal systems it differs in that the sources of wealth are not tied to the land and land ownership. This means that the concept of nationhood has no reason to be tied to any particular piece of land either.

    These are indeed interesting times.

    Please do not be alarmed. We are about to engage... the nozzle.

    by Terrapin on Mon Jan 27, 2014 at 06:57:37 AM PST

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site