Redefining Middle Eastern Borders: What’s the Best Option?

Current battles raging in Northern Iraq and Syria have put politicians and experts on the defensive, vowing to secure the stability and integrity of these countries. In Iraq, Prime Minister al Maliki has put together a coalition of Shias to fight The Islamic State, and the US has followed suit by sending troops to safeguard the country. But what if there’s a different approach that we ought to be taking? What if what we’re witnessing is simply the natural break up of post-colonial states?

To understand how the Middle East was divided we must first take a trip back to 1916, when Mark Sykes of England and Francois Georges-Picot of France got together to devise a new map for the region. Each had specific interests to control within the area, and an agreement was hammered out which split the territory in two. With backing from their respective governments, a gently sloping line was drawn from central Iraq (near Kirkuk) to Haifa in Israel.

The French took control of the northern sphere and the British the southern half. Arbitrary borders were devised, and slowly the Middle East began to take shape into a region we now recognize today.

Blue indicates French control, Red British control, and Green is Russian control. (Image credit: Wikipedia.)

During the creation of these borders, numerous experts have noted that tribal lines, religious sects and ethnic affiliations were ignored in favor of colonialist interests such as shipping routes and supply lines. Even further, many of the borders we now see today were created with the hopes of keeping Arab states weak, divided and dependent on western influence.

So when we look at the infighting within the current Middle East we must keep in mind we are seeing a forced union of people that, if given the chance, might have chosen to go their separate ways. Dictators, such as Saddam Hussein and Bashar al Assad, did a good job strong-arming factions together under the threat of communal violence. However, it’s become clear that as soon as these leaders lose their grasp, past divisions and sectarian violence take very little time to emerge.

These imposed borders became a rallying cry for The Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS or ISIL). They cite the Sykes-Picot agreement, and ask why the region would respect foreign imposed borders that neither benefited nor represent their needs. Many Arabs, regardless of their personal feelings towards The Islamic State, couldn’t help but agree. Why were these arbitrary borders still in place?

Now it looks like Syria and Iraq are beginning to break apart. One group that has already carved out their own land, Iraqi Kurdistan, already existed for years. They’ve established their own trade regulations, security forces and have managed to remain relatively stable in comparison to the rest of the country–but would Iraq be willing to make room for a factional Sunni leadership?

So far, the Shia majority al Maliki government in Iraq does not seem inclined to do so. They view a breakup of Syria and Iraq as a disaster for their current government. Yet it’s also important to remember how beholden the Iraqi government currently is to the United States, who often views shifting borders as unnerving, unpredictable and unnecessary.

It started with Sykes-Picot, but as Roula Khalaf at the Financial Times points out, blaming that agreement entirely would be a mistake. Destabilizing forces, such as the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq also helped spark the backlash we’re seeing today. According to Khalaf, solely blaming Sykes-Picot takes responsibility away from the current crisis, sweeping America’s culpability under the rug. She also contends that most residents in the region aren’t necessarily vying for secession but for state control and inclusive representation.

However, others argue that inclusive representation isn’t possible because of the various religious and ethnic factions within those borders. For instance, brutal repression of minority groups has been commonplace in numerous Arab States. From Bahrain to Syria, state-sponsored marginalization can have devastating consequences, with much of the infighting during the Arab Spring linked to ethnic and religious divisions.

Security experts, though, remain hesitant on the idea of a new Middle East, carved out of ethnic allegiances and rivalries. There is little doubt that infighting will occur and no doubt that hundreds will die. But, if we look at the past few decades, our presence and commitment to colonialist relics has cost millions of lives, with very little gained in terms of regional stability.

Plenty of borders have shifted in our life time, from the creation of South Sudan to the breakup of Yugoslavia. This is a natural part of changing regional politics and it would be prudent for the West to relinquish control of the process, thus allowing affected populations, for the first time in nearly a century, to dictate the boundaries and sovereignty of their own homelands.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


JL A.2 years ago

If they hadn't been drawn by outsiders after WWI, the problems might never have happened--let the people who live there negotiate them themselves.

Janis K.
Janis K.2 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Deborah W.
Deborah W.2 years ago

If we are to remain self-contained from Israel and that entire part of the world, why did Obama funnel cash to a former PLO operative's anti-Israel foundation (post by Jim Hoff on Wed. 4/9/08 @ 7:18 pm?.

Because "Allies of Palestinians see a friend in Obama" (post of 4/10/08 by Peter Wallsten, Los Angeles Times staff writer). Has clearly chosen sides.

Reagan had him nailed in the first 5 minutes of REAGAN WARNED US ABOUT OBAMA (post uploaded on 5/22/11 by Calvin King) over 40 years ago. See how dead-on his predictions have now turned into reality

Panchali Yapa
Panchali Yapa2 years ago

Thank you

Jonathan Y.
Jonathan Y.2 years ago

'Complex' cont'd...more

'The West' not to be involved. For one thing, Europe and the Mideast are immediate neighbors sharing cultural and historical ties going back thousands of years. Turkey is a NATO member and a pending EU member; Europe HAS to be involved. The U.S. has been a critical supporter of Egypt and Israel for over a century. Egypt is the keystone of the Middle East since it is the most ancient and culturally respected nation in the Arab World. The U.S. has supported Egyptian independence for over 100 years, before Israel existed. In 1956 Pres. Eisenhower backed up their claim to the Suez Canal against the wishes of our European Allies. We HAVE to be involved, no-one else has the leverage and credibility. In 1947 the U.S. voted to recognize Israel before any other nation in the U.N. General Assembly. We are involved in the Middle East forever, like it or not, in order to prevent it exploding into some latter-day Armageddon. Not to be involved would be insane.

Worst of all would be to do what the U.S. did during the Rwandan Genocide: Nothing.

Jonathan Y.
Jonathan Y.2 years ago

'Complex' cont'd: in an equally arbitrary way. Looking at the above map, one might just as easily say Green could be a new Armenia, Blue a new Kurdistan, pink Sunni, and Red Shia and you would have it about right in regards to tribal boundaries. However, Turkey and Iran would fight to the death rather than relinquish those territories; that has been their state policy for over a century. Preserving the status quo ante isn't the answer either: You can't just put the genie of the Arab Spring back in its bottle. The thing to do is exert maximum pressure to get people to exchange words and ideas instead of bullets and rockets, to get sustainable solutions with reasonable borders that will last with a minimum of bloodshed. Sometimes all the choices are bad - you choose the one that seems to have the least casualties, as the U.S. is trying to do in Iraq. We broke it so we should at least try and help to fix it.

We were involved up to the eyeballs in the breakup of Yugoslavia, at the request of the victims and of the United Nations. Who knows, U.N. and U.S. intervention might even have saved a few lives, or at least prevented some instances of known genocide - it was rampant during that time. Read: Yugoslavia, Death of a Nation.

I agree that the local people and tribes of the Mideast have to be front and center, for a change, in determining their own future. But we have to do all in our power to facilitate that process. It's impossible for 'the West

Jonathan Y.
Jonathan Y.2 years ago

It's a very complex problem, and there is no question of 'the West' or the Security Council or the UN or Turkey or Iran or any of the nations and neighbors involved 'relinquishing control' of this process - look what happened in the Balkans, both in Yugoslavia and WWI - millions died. You don't just let things spiral out of control: Look what's happening in Syria - the death toll is approaching a million.

What if we did that with Ukraine? Or Israel and Gaza? The casualties could be enormous. The answer to such things is courageous and muscular diplomacy, which is what we are doing in those cases as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan, to try to stanch the loss of life and prevent something much worse from happening.

Modern diplomacy and leadership are the art of managing human firestorms and the debacles of revolution, like the one in Egypt which is following the French Revolutionary model unfortunately, complete with its own reign of terror. Real leadership requires us to modify or discourage these kinds of dehumanizing trends - even if it seems very difficult, because the alternatives are inconceivable.

We and our partners, friends and allies, and yes sometimes even our rivals and 'frenemies,' have to work together very hard to make sure events DON'T spiral out of control into regional or global conflict. Not to do so is irresponsible and unforgivable.

Yes the colonial borders were self-serving and in many cases downright stupid. It doesn't mean they can be

Paola Ballanti
Paola Ballanti2 years ago


Deborah W.
Deborah W.2 years ago

IF we are to remain self-contained from Israel and that entire part of the world, why did Obama funnel cash to a former PLO operative's anti-Israel foundation (post by Jim Hoff on Wed. 4/9/08 @ 7:18 pm?.

Because "Allies of Palestinians see a friend in Obama" (post of 4/10/08 by Peter Wallsten, Los Angeles Times staff writer). Has clearly chosen sides.

Reagan had him nailed in the first 5 minutes of REAGAN WARNED US ABOUT OBAMA (post uploaded on 5/22/11 by Calvin King) over 40 years ago. See how dead-on his predictions have now turned into reality.