Fighting across the Middle East threatens to reshape the region and redraw borders along religious lines — rolling back history by almost a century.

borders
Allied victors partitioned the Ottoman Empire, including much of the Middle East, after World War One. Here Allied delegates attend a conference in Italy, April 1920.
(Public domain)

By Rashad Mammadov

Once again, diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict have stalled. Only two days after opening in Geneva, talks between the government, rebel forces and both sides’ international backers were suspended last week until the end of February.

The rebels and the United States blamed President Bashar al-Assad for launching a major offensive, backed by Russian air forces, to recapture Syrian’s second city, Aleppo.

The setback was a reminder that the Middle East has historically been the world’s most unstable region. But history might provide a solution.

Nation states did not start to emerge in the Middle East until the end of World War One. The conflict brought an end to the 600-year-old Ottoman empire, and the victors decided to divide its former lands into spheres of interest.

Under a League of Nations’ mandate, France was supposed to take control of southeastern Turkey with its predominantly Kurdish population, all of modern Syria, modern Lebanon and the northern parts of what is now Iraq.

Central and southern Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, parts of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait belonged to a British mandate. Other parts of the region fell under joint French-British administration.

Faith has always been stronger than ethnic ties.

The divisions were essentially confessional and tribal. In the region that gave birth to all three major monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — faith has always been a stronger force, both for unity and division, than ethnic ties.

Five confessional states were envisaged:

Treaty of Sèvres proposed the partition of the Ottoman Empire, 1920 (Public Domain)
The Treaty of Sèvres proposed the partition of the Ottoman Empire, 1920
(Public Domain)
  • Greater Syria – a Sunni-Muslim nation covering the interior of today’s Syria and northern Iraq
  • Greater Lebanon – modern Lebanon and the Syrian coastal region, with a population of Shia, Alawite and Christian Arabs
  • Iraq – the predominantly Shia regions of central and southern modern Iraq
  • Jordan and Palestine – both Sunni

The process was also meant to lead to a united Kurdish state, almost all of it under French mandate.

The new states were promised to the Arabs who had supported the allies during the war and rebelled against the Ottomans. Conflicts between Shia and Sunni, Turks and Kurds, Christians and Muslims would be minimized.

Turkey became a strong player.

But these plans were adjusted after a nationalistic movement led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk emerged from the ruins of the Ottoman empire and seized the territory of modern Turkey including the strategic Bosphorus.

Turkey became a much stronger player than France and Britain had hoped, and they had to be content with what was left. Britain, with interests in Iraqi oil, was willing to get involved in the region, but France shifted its focus to the problems of post-war Europe.

The Arabs did not get what they had been promised, and Iraq and Transjordan (modern Jordan) became the only new states under British protectorate.

Jordan, built on the principle of the confessional unity of its predominantly Sunni population, was the only stable state in the region for decades.

Iraq, however, included lands of Sunnis, Shias and Kurds and experienced one rebellion after another. The only relatively stable period in its history was under Saddam Hussein, but the price was the bloody suppression of any kind of opposition.

The only working model is faith-based state separation.

France retained control over Syria and Lebanon, supporting Alawite and Christian minorities. Neither country has seen much peace, either before or after gaining independence, respectively, in 1945 and 1943.

The history of the Middle East shows that the only working model for the region is faith-based state separation.

Borders have been changed de facto in recent conflicts. Sooner or later, for the sake of stability, global powers will have to think about legitimizing them.

Kurdish military forces have established an autonomous region in northern Iraq and now fight their own wars and gain victories under their own flags. The government in Baghdad controls only central and southern Iraq. The only multi-ethnic and multi-cultural areas in the region are Lebanon and Alawite-controlled parts of Syria. Palestine has become a much more complicated issue since the creation of Israel in 1948.

Hasn’t the Middle East come to resemble the mandate territories of the League of Nations?


Rashad Mammadov

Rashad Mammadov is a PhD candidate at Indiana University’s Media School, with a research focus on political communication. He holds a master’s degrees in journalism and mass communication. He worked as a reporter and editor for almost a decade in newspapers and magazines covering international politics and media economics.

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