Mideast Violence: Don’t Blame the Brits for Bad Borders

by Nick Danforth

World leaders gathered at the U.N. General Assembly last weekend in New York to debate the proper division of the former British Mandate of Palestine. Looking at this intractable problem over the years, many claim that in addition to Christianity and cricket, the British Empire was also responsible for inflicting half a century of Mideast violence on the world. People as diverse as Vice President Joe Biden and comedian Jon Stewart have accused the British of drawing illogical and arbitrary borders that created the unstable foundations on which generations of regional conflict were built.

This accusation fails not because the borders were particularly good ones, but because it implies that there were better ones available. It suggests that if only the Brits—along with the French in their supporting role as quarrelsome imperial sidekick—had been more careful and tried really hard and maybe brushed away some more of the sand, they could have found authentic, logical borders that left everyone content. In fact, as those who have tried it know, drawing borders is messy business.

When the British and French took control of the Middle East after World War I, the region had been part of the Ottoman Empire for almost four centuries. Provincial boundaries had divided the region through a loose correspondence to the distribution of religious and ethnic groups within the region. These provinces, largely organized around cities such as Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo, and Mosul, were too small and too economically interdependent to become independent states. Therefore, transforming the Ottoman Empire’s remains into economically viable, ethnically coherent modern nation states required some form of reorganization.

Even if Britain and France had undertaken this reorganization with the best of intentions, which they did not, how they could have done better is unclear. In Iraq, for example, any attempt to use Ottoman provisional boundaries to create smaller independent states would have run into many of the same problems that would accompany a division of Iraq today. A predominantly Kurdish state built around the old Ottoman province of Mosul would almost inevitability have become ensnared in the ongoing conflict between the Republic of Turkey and its own Kurdish minority. Similarly, a small Shiite state based on the Ottoman province of Basra would have proved a constant temptation of Iran, and a state based around the central province of Baghdad would have hated to sit back and watch its neighbors grow rich off oil deposits that it lacked.

What if the British and French had instead endorsed the logic of pan-Arabism and created one large Arab state encompassing the whole region? Such a state would still find difficulty with its Christian, Kurdish, and Shiite minorities. And with Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia all claiming preeminence in the Arab world, the question of leadership would have been contentious. Had such a state failed—like the short-lived United Arab Republic—its division would have posed the same problem discussed above. At best, creating more countries would have just meant more borders to fight over while creating fewer large countries would have turned regular wars into civil ones. And those who think things might have gone smoother if the Europeans had just left the region’s inhabitants to reorganize themselves should consider the fate of the Balkans. There, indigenous leaders took the initiative to draw their own borders , and the fighting lasted up through the 1990s.

The fundamental problem is that no “authentic” or “natural” borders exist waiting to be identified and transcribed onto a map. Straight lines always appear suspicious, but the only reason Europe’s squigglier borders appear more natural is because Europeans fought over them for the past millenium. 

Winston Churchill may have drawn the border between Iraq and Jordan with a pen, but he also drew the border between France and Germany over the course of two world wars and millions of casualties. 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. 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. In fact, the bloodiest war in recent Mideast history, with as many as ten times more casualties than all of the Arab-Israeli wars put together, was the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, fought over a border that had remained largely unchanged since the 16th century conquests of Suleiman the Magnificent.

Britain and France (and America) deserve some of the blame for this war for other reasons, but their borders were innocent. Saddam Hussein, for his part, went on to invade Kuwait after claiming the British had unjustly separated the territory from Iraq in 1899. Immediately after, he brutally suppressed a Kurdish rebellion in defense of the equally high-handed British decision to attach Kirkuk (and its oil fields) to Iraq.

Today, it is the extremists on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict who are endorsing the region’s colonial borders. Israelis eager to annex the West Bank and Palestinians eager to destroy Israel both seek to make their state have the same boundaries with the 1922 British Palestine border.  The 1947 U.N. partition plan’s borders, drawn by an international committee based on economics and demography, go largely unmentioned while reasonable people on both sides look to the 1967 borders, which owe their existence to the 1948 war, as the basis of a lasting two-state solution. Too often, denouncing one set of borders as arbitrary serves little more than a pretext for suggesting another, equally arbitrary arrangement. A better conclusion might be that borders work not because they are the rights ones, but because people living on both sides decide that they should.


Nick Danforth is a doctoral student in history at Georgetown University. 

[Photo courtesy of Magh]

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