Here in America it’s somewhat notable to meet up with someone who can identify all fifty of our states if presented with a national map that doesn’t have a legend. European weapons and European diseases made quick work of the native population and there are only a few areas where there is any political friction from the survivors, mostly remote places like Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
The ethnic, sectarian, and historical divisions of the Mideast are obscure and puzzling to us in general, and they remain puzzling to our policy makers. This is about expectations – the U.S. civil war was an anomaly. We had defined nation states, uniformed armies, a clear cut beginning, a fairly clean end, and while the meme has never died there hasn’t been any large scale violence since the cessation of the conflict, nearly 150 years ago. The Mideast is full and there are always tensions the likes of which we never experience here.
This being said, I am now going to put up a bunch of maps and engage in a bit of wild speculation about some things that aren’t all that likely to happen, but if they did … well … game changers.
I’ve written about the Ottoman empire enough that it has its own category here, so I won’t gum up this post with excessive maps. This is the French Syrian Mandate, created after World War I. Syria lost the Sanjak of Alexandretta, Lebanon, the Golan Heights, and it isn’t that much of a stretch to imagine the Kurds of Syria seeking freedom, which I wrote about in Funding The Syrian Insurgency.
Syrian & Iraqi Conflict Merging, Possibly Spreading and The Syrian Conflict Spreads contain grim news from credible sources, and the conflict is Spilling Into Lebanon.
Could the end result of Lesser Syria be Greater Kurdistan?
Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey all thwart the ambitions of the Kurds. But the Iraqi Kurds are in a position to tax an extractive industry, and that’s all that is needed to fuel an insurgency.
Even more touchy than oil is the subject of water. The Kurds dominate the mountainous part of eastern Turkey where both the Tigris and Euphrates originate. Control of the last onshore supergiant oil field in the world and the two largest rivers in the region? I think it is not a question of if, it’s a question of when things change for the Kurds.
Speaking of mountains …
Mount Ararat is a potent symbol for Armenian nationalists and a constant goad, visible from the capitol of Yerevan, but under control of Turkey. The Armenians do not forget the Ottoman genocide that wiped out a million of their people as ethnic Turks sought to maximize their territory in their empire’s final few years.
Here’s the Google map of the region. The red letter A marks Ararat, the circular green dot nearby is Little Ararat, and there are a lot of lines on this map. The borders of Armenia, Azerbijan, Iran, and Turkey meet just to the east of the smaller mountain, and there are other, more serious territorial problems than the missing sacred mountain.
This map should make things a bit clearer. Armenia contains the ethnic Azerbijani enclave of Nakchivan, while Azerbijan contains the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
That map might make a bit more sense if you see how Nakchivan lines up against the ethnic makeup of northwest Iran.
We have had 365 years of Westphalian sovereignty, but the nation state is on the skids. Corporations are the obvious successors when the state’s grip slips in the west, but there are many parts of the world where ethnic and tribal loyalties have never faded. Afghanistan and Somalia are countries not due to their internal cohesion, but due to the boundaries their neighbors keep with them.
Syria and Iraq are already in trouble. Turkey is feeling the heat from the conflict next door. If there is some ill advised adventure by Israel and/or the U.S. against Iran, that would leave three of four Kurdish populations in an unsupervised condition. I lack the wisdom to do more than speculate here, but if the Turks can keep it together and provide a path to European markets for Kurdish oil, what are the odds we might see a coalition type regional power form between the two parties?
And if this does come to pass, could the Armenians get their sacred mountain back as part of the redrawing of maps??