Is a remake of the Middle East map possible?by Hajrudin Somun*
A new political, social and ideological map of the Middle East is already arising following the broad popular movements pushing to change the deeply fortified authoritarian rule in that region.
Speaking less metaphorically, however, is it possible that the real Middle East geopolitical map, formed after World War I, can be reshaped as a result of the current uprisings?
I doubt I am alone in considering that question in such terms. There are some more or less recent facts, designs, intentions and assumptions that give me good reason to doubt that the present Middle East borders will remain the same in this century as they had been shaped in the previous one.
Even for those who have crossed them so often, and almost on foot like myself, many of the Middle East’s borders looked artificial. The new maps were discussed and drawn in London and Paris as the Ottoman Empire was loosing its Arab lands one by one. When it finally collapsed, they were formally approved through international agreements and enforced on the terrain. New regional frontiers were, in fact, the result of old British and French colonial interests, reinforced by newly discovered oil fields. It is always worth recalling how vast and fertile lands around the rivers Jordan, Tigris and Euphrates, together with people living there, were to be ruled by the Arab Hashemite family as a reward for their cooperation in the war against the Turks. One brother was inaugurated as the emir of Transjordan in Amman and another one as the Iraqi king in Baghdad, which he had never even seen before.
It is well known how quickly Great Britain and France cut in pieces their interests in the Near East, which is today more commonly called the Middle East. They divided it into their own mandates, or to use a more polite term, colonies, and left for a later time an issue that has left its mark on almost a century of not only regional but international politics. It was Britain who was given the mandate over Palestine. It was still too early to realize the Balfour Declaration of 1917, with which the British government promised to do the best for the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
Remnants of the Lausanne Treaty
As one of remnants from the Ottoman era left unsolved by the Lausanne Treaty, the problem of Mosul province, with its large Turcoman community, was forced to wait until 1926 for a solution, when it became part of Iraq, then under British control. Turks insisted that Mosul should be included in the successfully established Republic of Turkey, and it is believed that President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was even ready to fight for it, but he later chose a rather diplomatic way. Elsewhere on the Turkish-Arab frontier, the former Ottoman sanjak of Alexandretta, part of the French mandate of Syria, had been disputed for a decade longer than Mosul. When the majority of its Turkish population proclaimed the independent Hatay State and voted to join Turkey in 1938 it became part of the Turkish state, known today as Hatay. Syrians and other Arabs still call it Iskenderun. It is hoped that Syrians, with the recent developments in the Arab world, will finally forget the ambitions of the Arab nationalistic Baath party that ruled Syria and Iraq for decades for the return of that Turkish province. I still remember what former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, recently exempted from the death penalty by President Jalal Talabani, said in response to my question about the huge map of the Arab world on the wall in his underground office -- its was the first days of the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-1988. I specifically pointed my finger at the Iranian Khuzestan and Turkish Hatay provinces that were on the map, and he said, “Yes, of course, all these are Arab lands.”
The map of the Middle East has not been significantly changed after World War II, except in one, but one very particular, case. Jews finally realized the promise given by the Balfour Declaration and established their “national home” in the Biblical lands of Palestine. Israel declared independence in 1948, in good part owing to Arab weakness and disunity. In spite of not being internationally recognized, Israel still considers legitimate the borders that it extended in the third Arab-Israeli conflict, in 1967, and made narrower by peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan after the fourth war with Arabs in 1973. In the meantime, from the Arab world emerged a man that thought he was destined to become a historic leader by occupying foreign territories. It was Saddam Hussein, who invaded the whole of Kuwait and parts of Iran, but failed to extend the frontiers of his own country, Iraq.
Thus, I have been crossing the Middle East’s artificial borders, always keeping in mind a conclusion by Paris’ Le Monde diplomatique that European powers left a lot of “unfinished work” after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In another manner but with similar intentions, the Balkan borders were drawn before and after World War I. Besides the Ottoman Empire, there was another empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that was falling into ruins. Two Balkan wars introduced the term “Balkanization” into diplomatic terminology. However, I became fully aware of the real meaning of finishing “unfinished work” only during the new Balkan wars, those in the 1990s. Seven new countries emerged from only one, the former Yugoslavia.
Looking at two maps
However, there are two maps that have caused me to more carefully consider arguments that similar processes might occur in the Middle East as well. Both are from reliable sources and not too secret strategic designs by Western powers, led by the US. The designer of the first map was Bernard Lewis. A former British war agent, he later became one of the most celebrated experts on Islamic and Arab history and civilization. However, he greatly harmed the perception and image of Islam in the Western world by glorifying, in Webster Griffin Tarpley’s words, the “most backward and self-destructive tendencies in one and a half millennia of Moslem history.” In the area covered by Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Cold War theory the “Arc of Crisis” -- stretching from Afghanistan to Turkey and Saudi Arabia -- that would be exposed to fragmentation, Lewis developed his own ideas on “the Lebanonization,” or “Balkanization,” of the Middle East after the collapse of communism in his article “Rethinking the Middle East” in 1992. Those ideas were materialized a few years later in a “Lewis map” that started to circulate in the US and NATO strategic and intelligence offices, particularly after the American invasion of Iraq. The country would be broken into three smaller states: a Kurdish one in the north, Sunni in the middle and Shiite in the south. To make a greater Kurdistan, Turkey and Iran would lose a good part of their territories. Iran would come out more badly than Turkey, because it would be reduced to a renewed Persia, giving its south to an “Arabistan” and the north to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.
Afghanistan should be divided as well. If Iran would lose the most, according to that map, Israel would win the most. Following the Biblical promises to Moses, it would get the whole Sinai Peninsula and as far as the north of Lebanon. Palestine is nowhere, of course.
Another hypothetical map of a reshaped Middle East appeared for first time 2006, in the US Armed Forces Journal, together with an article by retired Col. Ralph Peters. He continued in Lewis’s steps, but made a more detailed redrawing of regional borders.
He also broke up Iraq, the plan that had been already advocated by the US Council on Foreign Relations and recently deceased diplomat Richard Holbrooke. He favors Iran more, but still tears off its provinces inhabited by Baluchis, Arabs, Kurds and Azeris. Saudis are given a part of territories in Jordan and Yemen. Contrary to Lewis, he did not expand Israel, but reduced it to its pre-1967 borders. The status of the West Bank and Gaza he left undetermined. Col. Peters considers his map “perhaps draconian,” but an “unavoidable pain” that the Middle East peoples have to endure. It is not an official map, as Turkey protested the inclusion of a good part of its southeast territories in a supposed Kurdistan. It has been used, and probably is still being used as study material in American military institutions and the NATO Defense College.
I am not aware if Israel objected to that map, but its government and conservative circles certainly do not like it. The circulation of a map that returns Israel to its pre-1967 borders could by itself indicate new thinking in the US about the ultimate solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. That thinking finally found an echo last week. May 19, 2011, will be recalled often from now on: Barack Obama was the first US president who dared to say that the borders prevailing prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War should be the basis for a final Middle East deal. The ongoing uprisings in the Arab world certainly have contributed to such a speedy shift in the US’s policy towards Israel. Revolutionary protests against authoritarian rulers have already provoked inter-Palestinian reconciliation and could bring official recognition of Palestine at the next UN General Assembly session. What is even more necessary is more resolute American pressure on Israel to accept the new base for negotiations on the “two-state” formula and to accept new realities around its borders. Otherwise, they might be changed by other means.
Remaking the maps of the Middle East drawn almost a century ago, similar to making a new version of an old silent film, would not be easy. Most of the above-mentioned hypotheses might never be realized, and concerning Lewis’s hypothesis in particular, new wars would be waged. Thus, even these ruminations of mine might look like a game for fans of geographical maps. However, who knows? Perhaps the people had similar feelings when, almost a century ago, a parcel containing the Balfour Declaration arrived in the Middle East.
*Hajrudin Somun is the former ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Turkey and a lecturer of the history of diplomacy at Philip Noel-Baker International University in Sarajevo.
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