Thursday, December 31, 2015

The "New and Improved" Middle East

Updated October 2017

With the massive amount of attention paid to the Middle East and the Islamic world, particularly since September 2001, I thought it would be prudent to take a look at why this part of the world always seems to be in crisis mode and a possible solution to the region's problems.  While it was published back in 2006, a feature article in the Armed Forces Journal entitled "Blood Borders - How a better Middle East would look" written by Ralph Peters looks positively prescient in its views of how the political boundaries in the Middle East will end up looking in the future.  With the ongoing wars in both Syria and Iraq, the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Yemen getting almost no attention from the world's media and the Turkish involvement in the fight along its borders, it would not be surprising if the region would ends up with significantly changed boundaries.

As a bit of background, Ralph Peters is a retired United States Army lieutenant colonel who is widely published the mainstream media and served in military intelligence in Germany and as a Foreign Area Officer with a specialty in the Soviet Union.  After serving in the U.S. military for 22 years, he retired in 1998.

In his Blood Borders paper, he opens by noting that international borders, as we currently know them, are not always just and, as the British found out when they were the world's main superpower, dividing land masses up does not always take into account tribal and cultural differences.  Keeping in mind that the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam are about as different as night and day and to give you some idea of the complexity of the problems facing the region, here is a map showing the patchwork religious composition of the region between Turkey and Afghanistan:

In fact, some of the world's least culturally sensitive boundaries were drawn in the Middle East during and after the First World War.  The origins of these borders were the product of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, also know as the 1916 Asia Minor Agreement, was negotiated by the French and British governments and divided the Middle East as shown on this map:

Another agreement, the Treaty of Sevres which was signed by Great Britain, France and Italy in August 1920, further carved up the Ottoman Empire after the First World War as we can see on this map:

Lastly, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne established the current state of Turkey and its present day boundaries as the successor to the Ottoman Empire as shown on this map:

It is this treaty that has played a significant role in Turkey's long history of sensitivity over the Kurds who live in the eastern part of the nation.

From this brief snapshot of Middle East history, we can see how fluid political boundaries have been in the region over the last century.  If we look in more detail at Ralph Peters' analysis, particularly in terms of the recent military actions in the region, we'll see that the boundaries are likely to continue to change.

Mr. Peters' analysis focusses on the region between the Balkan Mountains and the Himalayas.  Let's look at how he would realign the region.

1.) Kurdistan: The author notes that one of the biggest political injustices in the region is the absence of an independent Kurdish state, a so-called Free Kurdistan.  This ethnic group, numbering around 36 million in 2012, live in a more-or-less contiguous region of the Middle East, straddling several nations as shown on this map:

Turkey has the largest population of Kurds, numbering around 18.1 million or 24.2 percent of Turkey's total population.  Both Iran and Iraq have over 7 million Kurds which comprise 10.3 percent of Iran's total population and 21.5 percent of Iraq's total population.  Syria has approximately 1.9 million Kurds which make up about 8.9 percent of Syria's total population.  Obviously, this group has suffered significantly over the past century and a half since they have not been granted their own homeland and have been persecuted for their interests in forming a sovereign nation.  The latest opportunity to offer political stability to the Kurds came and went after the United States defeated Saddam Hussein who took every opportunity available to him to torment the Kurds, part of the reason why the coalition instituted a no-fly zone in Iraq after the Gulf War.

2.) Iraq: Here is a map showing how Iraq is split along the Sunni (light green) and Shia (dark green) lines:

As the coalition found out during Operation Iraqi Freedom, post-Hussein Iraq is far from united.  The two main sects of Islam are mortal enemies and will do everything in their power to eliminate the other, particularly after a decade of control and abuse by the Sunni/Baathist minority in the nation (despite the fact that the Baathists were technically secular).  As a result of the Shia-Sunni split in Iraq, the nation would be ultimately be split into three parts; the aforementioned Free Kurdistan, a Sunni northern Iraq and a Shia southern Iraq.

3.) Saudi Arabia: As we know, the House of Saud dynasty controls the world's two most important Islamic sites; Medina and Mecca.  This control by the Saudis, along with their vast oil wealth, has allowed them to project their Wahhabi vision of intolerant Islam around the globe.  To reduce the Saudi control on the Islamic world, the author suggests that the creation of an Islamic Sacred State (i.e. an Islamic Vatican) would take control of the two sacred sites.  This sacred state would be ruled by a rotating council of Muslims from around the globe.  As well, to reign in the power of the Saudi royal family, Saudi Arabia would lose control of some of its coastal oil fields that would become part of the Shia state that is formed in southern Iraq. 

4.) Iran: While Iran, which practised Shia Islam, would lose some of its territory to a Unified Azerbaijan and Free Kurdistan, it would gain territory in the east where it would acquire the provinces around Herat in Afghanistan, a traditionally Shia region as shown on this map

Lastly, let's take a brief look at what the author has to say about Israel, the elephant in the Middle East room.  He notes that the greatest hope of instilling peace with Israel's neighbours would come with a return to its pre-1967 borders.  That said, he observes that it is highly unlikely that this issue will be solved in our lifetime.

Now, let's close by looking at two maps; the first shows the current political boundaries in the Middle East and the second shows the more culturally and ethnically sensitive boundaries recommended by the author of the analysis:

The long history of imposing boundaries on the Middle East by outside powers has done nothing to make the region more stable or less prone to violence.  As we've experienced over the past decade and a half, interference in the region by the world's sole superpower and its proxies have led to the creation of a political vacuum which has led directly to the deaths of millions and the displacement of millions more.  As the British learned the hard way in the early decades of the 20th century, nobody wins when a colonial power forces a political solution on the Middle East.  Let's hope that Washington and the Trump Administration pay heed to the lessons of history.  With a significant majority of Iraqis and Syrians wanting nothing to do with a redivision of their nations, while Mr. Peters' analysis is interesting and logical, it would appear that steering clear of further intervention would be the path best taken.


  1. Excellent post. Very informative. Many thanks. Africa could use a similar redrawing. How do we make these new borders happen?

  2. I think that the best hope is that the current situation makes it obvious that co-operation is needed from outside the region to make it happen. Unfortunately, the long history of outside meddling has made that nearly impossible. Just looking back at the partition of India and Pakistan in the 1940s shows us how badly things can go and how things don't get much better with time.

  3. I think over time the lines will redraw themselves if no one intervenes the fights will happen and end. Once they end new lines will have be drawn on the maps. Staying out is the best thing we can do.

  4. The great problem is the resources on and under the ground. Since there is no way these resources can also be moved with the changing borders, the current inhabitants of any specific region maybe unwilling to lose their current access to such natural stuff and the ensuing profits.... there will be war! Instead, these Moslems need to learn to live with each other and respect. Not easy! After all, Catholics and Protestants have a serious contention with each other in N Ireland; however, all non-Moslem groups in Middle East do not seem have problem living with Moslems if they are left alone to practice their religion.