Stop Blaming Colonial Borders for the Middle East’s Problems

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: Middle East

Nick Danforth is a doctoral candidate in Turkish history at Georgetown University. He writes about Middle Eastern history, politics, and maps at

...The idea that better borders, drawn with careful attention to the region’s ethnic and religious diversity, would have spared the Middle East a century’s worth of violence is especially provocative at a moment when Western powers weigh the merits of intervention in the region. Unfortunately, this critique overstates how arbitrary today’s Middle East borders really are, overlooks how arbitrary every other border in the world is, implies that better borders were possible, and ignores the cynical imperial practices that actually did sow conflict in the region.

A quick tour of present-day borders reveals a few key similarities with the local Ottoman boundaries in place before the French and British arrived. The three separate provinces -- Mosul, Baghdad and Basra -- that were joined to make Iraq, for example, were often treated as a coherent economic and military area by the Ottoman government. And of course, the region’s geographic unity going back to the origins of human civilization, had long been recognized in the term “Mesopotamia.” Meanwhile, the fact that Iraq’s eastern border with Iran followed a line set by the 16th-century conquests of Suleiman the Magnificent didn’t prevent the countries from fighting a decade-long conflict over it that killed ten times more people than all the Arab-Israeli wars combined. To the West, Mount Lebanon had been carved out as a special administrative unit following religious violence there in 1860 as a compromise between Istanbul and the Great Powers. (That this region should nonetheless belong to Syria was perhaps one of the Assad regime’s least controversial positions over the years.) The only country in the area for which no ancient borders existed was Jordan -- it was formed in 1922 from some not-too-desirable bits of arid land as something for Britain’s ally, Abdullah, to be king of. Like most kings, he would have liked something bigger, and yet under his family’s rule Jordan has been spared much of the turmoil endured by its less “artificial” neighbors....

The fundamental problem was, and still is, that the world doesn’t have any authentic or natural borders, just waiting to be identified and transcribed onto a map. Europe’s “real” borders owe their current legitimacy, such as it is, to continent-wide exhaustion following several centuries of fighting.  Winston Churchill may have drawn the border between Iraq and Jordan with a pen, but he was just as central in delineating the border between France and Germany when he led the allies to victory in World War II. Determining whether Alsace and Lorraine would be French or German was never as simple as just sending a commission to find out where the French people stopped and the German people started -- rather, the territory was awarded as a prize following each of the Europe’s bloody conflicts. Similarly, no commission, no matter the good intentions, could have been expected to find the magic line that got all the Sunnis on one side, the Shiites on the other, and the oil right in the middle....

Read entire article at The Atlantic

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