Until now, the post-Ottoman Middle Eastern order, fashioned by wartime exigency, imperialist ambitions, and ignorance of local identities, has survived independence, revolutions, and wars. A political map of the region sketched in 1930 looks nearly identical to one drawn in 2010. Even as the ongoing Arab revolt exposes submerged seams, Washington remains committed to defending the cartographic status quo.
In contrast, the geopolitical evolution of modern Europe has entailed the gradual emergence of nation-states out of the ashes of numerous multi-ethnic European empires. Just as the concept of self-determination eventually led to the greatest period of peace in Europe’s history, the Balkanization of the Middle East, while violent at present, could lead to a more peaceful region in the future.
The Post-Ottoman Regime
As it did in Europe, World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire radically transformed the political geography of the Middle East. Ottoman provinces became Arab kingdoms and Christian and Jewish enclaves were carved out in Lebanon and Palestine, respectively. Syria, Libya, and Palestine were names resurrected from Roman antiquity: Libya reappeared in 1934, Palestine was merely a Syrian appendage, and the French mandate marked the first time Syria had been used as the name of a state. Iraq had been a medieval caliphal province, whereas Lebanon was a mountain and Jordan a river. The new Arabic-speaking states adopted derivations of the Flag of the Arab Revolt, which had been wholly designed by British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes. The four colors of the Arab flag—black, white, green, and red—each represented the standards of different Arab dynasties—Abbasid, Umayyad, Fatimid, and Hashemite—and remain the colors of half of today’s Arab states.
Furthermore, the borders of the new states were determined not by demography, but by the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, which became the blueprint of today’s map. A large Kurdish population was divided among four states, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Shiite Arabs were similarly split, running from Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia. Alawites, a heterodox Shiite Arab sect, were subdivided, residing today along the northern Lebanese, Syria, and southwestern Turkish coasts. The Druze were distributed between what today is Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. Lebanon, supposedly a Christian redoubt, entailed large Sunni and Shiite Arab populations, as well as Alawi and Druze. At the dawn of the 21st century, minority ethnic groups ruled Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Bahrain, often repressively.
By the 1960s, Arab republics outnumbered Arab monarchies, as coups were common and kingdoms were overthrown. Attempts to merge alien states—such as Syria with Egypt and Iraq with Jordan—were short-lived and repeated failure to excise the Zionist presence marked the end of the endeavor. Arab leaders proved more interested in maintaining their own European-delivered fiefs than in abdicating their cathedra for the greater Arab cause. Through it all, neither independence nor Israel had altered the imperial map.
While the external borders remained unaltered, ethno-religious strife was evident throughout. The creation of Greater Lebanon, turning a once Christian enclave into a multi-communal state, led to decades of discontent that ultimately erupted into a full-blown ethnic civil war, killing over 100,000. In Iraq and Syria, strongmen from minority groups adopted Baathism, a secular Arab nationalist ideology, in order to centralize power and subdue ethnic differences, but to little avail. Sunni Arab uprisings against an Alawite Arab regime in Syria in the 1980s and Shiite Arab uprisings against a Sunni Arab regime in Iraq in the 1990s were squashed. The Sykes-Picot order barely flinched.
Similarly, varied efforts were made to forcefully marginalize Kurdish identity. Kurds were stripped of their Syrian citizenship in 1962 and both the Asad and Hussein regimes attempted to “Arabize” Kurdish areas by expelling local populations and supplanting them with Arabs from elsewhere. Saddam’s infamous gassing of large Kurdish populations in Halabja in 1988 and the broader al-Anfal ethnic cleansing campaign mar Kurdish history. In Turkey, Kemalism, also a secular-nationalist ideology, attempted to “Turkify” the country’s large population of Kurds, going so far as to denying their existence through the ubiquitous use of the term “Mountain Turks.” A Kurdish insurgency has blazed across southeastern Turkey for several decades, with upwards of 50,000 casualties.
Even after excising themselves from direct regional control, external powers have repeatedly intervened to caulk the cracks exposed by ethnic violence. Twice, first in 1958 and again in 1982, American forces were sent to quell ethnic violence in Lebanon. After the Gulf War, Washington imposed no-fly zones in Iraq to protect the Kurds and Shia respectively from Sunni Baathist attacks. More recently, French and U.S. forces have tried to roll back a secessionist Tuareg state in northern Mali. Meanwhile, Washington flatly opposes Kurdish moves towards independence, chastising KRG-Turkish strategic cooperation and supporting Baghdad. Whatever the outcome in Syria, U.S. and European officials agree on keeping Syria intact. No matter the volatility, Washington, Paris, and London have clung onto the post-war order that they created.
A reluctance to contemplate redrawing the map is understandable. Today’s Middle East is itself an example of poorly-executed partitions. Inviolable political borders are the defining characteristic of state sovereignty, without which the modern concept of citizenship or nationality is meaningless. Only in extraordinary circumstances and from positions of power, such as in Kosovo, do states support unilateral partitions. For example, Kosovo remains unrecognized by states that have secessionist movements of their own, such as Spain, Russia, and China. By violating the sanctity of sovereign borders, precedents become set. If Kosovars deserve self-determination, why don’t Tibetans, Catalans, or Chechens? In order to maintain global stability, states shy away from fiddling with borders, concerned that the redrawing may never end.
Looking in the Mirror
Ironically, today’s Europe, which also once consisted of multi-ethnic empires, is the result of a century of partitions, secessions, and wars of self-determination. The Ottoman Empire once ruled southeast Europe, including Greece, the Balkans, Romania, and Bulgaria. Prior to World War I, the Russian Empire roosted on eight modern European states. Norway achieved independence from Denmark and then Sweden only in 1905. Austria-Hungary was a conglomeration that has given way to six independent nation-states. Nearly a century after its creation, the dissolution of Yugoslavia—from whence comes “Balkanization”—has resulted, so far, in seven states. Meanwhile, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Belgium may look different in coming years as they grapple with Catalan, Scottish, and Flemish nationalism, respectively. Europe has become a bastion of nation-states—50 in total—and is a shining example of how squiggly borders can lead to greater peace and stability. Recent events in Ukraine only highlight this dynamic.
With few exceptions, each European state now exclusively consists of a people with a shared ethnicity, a shared language, and a shared religion. The French speak French in France; Germans speak German in Germany. In contrast, the modern Middle East houses only four such entities—Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey—and even these, as renowned Middle Eastern historian Bernard Lewis once wrote, have exceptions. “Iran” is a modern term, Arabic has no word for Arabia, and Israeli Arabs, without including those in the West Bank, comprise nearly 20% of the Jewish State’s population. Turkey’s supposed ethnic homogeneity ignores its 15-million strong Kurdish population and was achieved only following the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians and forced expulsion of 1.5 million Orthodox Greeks in the aftermath of World War I.
Previous flickers of self-determination were contemplated, but never fully realized. President Wilson’s Fourteen Points included a specific reference to self-rule for the Ottoman Empire’s non-Turkish minorities, yet was never implemented. After expelling the British-installed Hashemite ruler of Damascus in 1920, France, more aware of the ethnic mosaic than their cross-Channel collaborators, actually created five separate Levantine states based on the Ottoman vilayets: Greater Lebanon, an Alawite mountain state, a Druze mountain state, the State of Aleppo, and the State of Damascus. However, concerned that a rising Germany was making inroads into its colonies, France acquiesced to a unified Syria in 1936. Only Lebanon survived as an independent entity and, even then, had incorporated large, non-Christian areas over French objections.
Similarly, the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which ended the war between the Ottomans and the Allies, granted immediate independence to the Hijaz and Ottoman Armenia—sometimes known as “Wilsonian Armenia” after the United States drew its borders—and eventual statehood to Ottoman Kurdistan. However, these arrangements were also quickly reversed three years later after Turkish forces smashed the Western-backed Greek and Armenian armies. A renegotiated settlement, the Treaty of Lausanne, ended the dreams of Greater Kurdistan and Greater Armenia and set the boundaries of modern Turkey. Implementation of any of these paths would have dramatically altered the post-Ottoman era.
The Identity Revolution
The map of the modern Middle East is potentially on the cusp of drastic changes. A renaissance in Kurdish nationalism, as a result of the U.S.-led liberation—their word—of Iraq, threatens to dramatically redraw the boundaries in the heart of the region. The semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq issues its own visas, hoists its own flag, and speaks its own language. A recent truce is intended to end the Kurdish armed insurgency in Turkey in return for far greater official Turkish recognition of Kurdish identity. As an outcome of the Syrian conflict, Kurds have declared a provincial government in the northeast corner of Syria, which they’ve renamed “Rojava” or Western Kurdistan. Kurds now control a 400mile-wide band of territory, from the Iran-Iraq border to the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain, and are expanding their jurisdiction.
The U.S-led overthrow of the minority Sunni regime in Iraq marked an etch-a-sketch moment in the modern Middle East. Majority Shiite rule returned to Baghdad for the first time since the seventeenth century, raising the hopes of beleaguered Shiite Arab populations in Kuwait, Bahrain, and eastern Saudi Arabia. A recent Iraqi cabinet statement of support for the creation of three new provinces in western Iraq, giving Turkmen, Christians, and Sunni Arabs a greater share of the federal budget, will likely not satisfy newly dispossessed Sunnis who have demanded greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Likewise, the Syrian uprising has unleashed ethnic sectarianism that claws at the current borders. Iraqi and Lebanese Shiite fighters have poured into Syria to help preserve Alawite rule in Damascus. Ethnic cleansing in coastal Syria has entertained talk of the creation of “Alawitistan”, an Alawite enclave protected by the mountains that could eventually stretch into northern Lebanon and Turkey’s Hatay province. The trans-national Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is a key force in the Syrian rebellion and recently took over the major Sunni cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, as violence has spiraled to nearly 2007 levels. A Druze enclave could emerge in southern Syria, containing the nearly 1 million Lebanese and Syrian Druze. In the future, Iraq, Syria, and even Lebanon may only be rump states, as co-nationals seek to consolidate control across existing borders.
While these changes could take decades to play out, new entities have already made their first leaps towards independence. In 2011, South Sudan seceded along ethno-religious lines, marking the first internationally recognized change in the borders of a Middle Eastern state in nearly 80 years. Meanwhile, Ghaddafi’s downfall not only threatens to devolve power to Libya’s former city-states, but has also impacted the identities of Libya’s neighbors. In April 2012, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad declared the independence of northern Mali, setting in motion the French-led intervention to roll back the secession and restore Malian sovereignty last year. The “Arab Spring” has also roused Berber identity in Libya, Algeria, and Morocco, where a Moroccan minister spoke Amazigh, the Berber language, for the first time in parliament.
Ending support for the Sykes-Picot order is not equivalent to unilaterally redrawing the map of the Middle East from Washington. Events on the ground, such as Kurdish nationalism, Alawite retreats, or Sunni Arab brotherhood, will drive these changes. The emergence of Kurdistan or Alawitistan or the shrinking of the Maronite enclave in Lebanon could partition clashing nations and dim long-running ethno-religious violence. Like the Balkanization of Europe, cultures would still compete, but the reduced stakes could ultimately lead to a more stable and peaceful region.
Writing in 1989, historian David Fromkin compared Europe’s political evolution to that of the Muslim Middle East. The length of time may be different, “but its issue is the same: how diverse peoples are to regroup to create new political identities for themselves after the collapse of an ages-old imperial order to which they had grown accustomed. The Allies proposed a post-Ottoman design for the region in the early 1920s. The continuing question is whether the peoples of the region will accept it.” A quarter-century later, Fromkin’s question is in the process of being answered. The peoples of the region no longer accept the post-Ottoman system and their calls for self-determination echo those of European peoples of the last few centuries. Perhaps we should heed their call.
Gabriel Scheinmann is a PhD candidate at Georgetown University and an analyst at Wikistrat, Inc. An earlier version of this article appeared in The Tower Magazine.