a map of a future middle east.
The Middle East today consists of nations carved out by the French and British following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Under the Ottomans, local rulers operated with considerable autonomy, and their subjects lacked any sense of political cohesion or nationalism. When the French and British took over, the states they formed were parcelled out to aristocrats who supported them along sectarian lines that they thought politically useful.
The territories that became Lebanon were a patchwork of ethnic groups and tribes whose collective territory mainly served as a cultural hub and military base for the French occupation forces to exert influence on other holdings, which today comprise most of Syria. Jordan, then TransJordan, and Saudi Arabia were gifted to heads of Arab tribes in exchange for collusion with the Allied Powers against the Ottomans during World War I and later during the British mandate. Sunni and Shia populations were lumped into Iraq and run by a King Faisal installed with the aid of the British. Iran became another country following an unsuccessful attempt by the British to turn it into a protectorate during its WWI occupation. What remained of the Ottoman Empire became Turkey.
Divided and governed by corrupt rulers who largely played along with foreign interests, the Arab people began to experiment with something entirely new to their part of the world: nationalism. At the time, no word for ‘nation’ even existed. The closest approximation was a ‘millet,’ a community or village. Some Arab leaders embraced the idea to enrich themselves and strengthen their nations against external influence. Others repudiated it as a colonialist construct and instead favored an also-new idea of a pan-Arab identity. Naturally, this period was marked by many conflicts and deep cultural changes, spawning political ideologies such as sectarian nationalism, Pan-Arabism, Ba’athism, generic Arab socialism, and various strains of Islamic fundamentalism.
Caught in the middle of all this were minority ethnic groups that today remain stateless and often marginalized by their respective governments. The most prominent among them are the Kurds, currently spread about in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Other groups include the Balochs, Palestinians, Rohingya, Uighurs, etc. All of them peoples without histories of nationalism. All of them lumped into nations by imperial powers and their wealthy indigenous collaborators.
Below are two maps. The first is a map of the Middle East today. The other a map of a different Middle East, one with the nations redrawn:
The map represents a radical departure from the existing one, and its implementation would likely precipitate the deaths of millions. It first circulated publicly in 2006, around the time when Bush-era officials, amid talk of a “New Middle East,” began to realize the weight of the Iraqi albatross tethered to their necks. This map, like others, was proposed as a solution to to Middle East conflict that would correct the mistakes when borders were drawn in the 1920s.
Today, regime change objectives in Iraq, followed by plans for the same in Libya, Syria, Iran, and Turkey, have only been partially met, and the process has unleashed unabated chaos throughout the Middle East.
Granted, the map’s maker, Ralph Peters, is hardly in a position to direct national foreign policy, nor is he an established scholar on the Middle East. Still, the implications of the map are worth considering, in part because of present conflict in the Middle East but also because of how often maps like these are dredged up when new conflicts arise.
So, the question:
can it happen?
The Middle East is embroiled in conflicts that largely stem from the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent occupation. These conflicts are consistent with a possible outcome being the remaking of nations’ borders. Which borders, of course, is debatable. In the redrawn map, there are several key features that pertain to current and incipient conflicts:
- Kurdistan exists, carved out of chunks of present-day Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
- Saudi Arabia has been partitioned into three states, and parts have been moved into Yemen, Qatar, and Jordan.
- Iraq is partitioned into two states - a Sunni Arab state in the west and a Shia state in the east.
- Israel and Palestine are largely unaffected.
- Afghanistan takes much of Pakistan.
- Balochistan exists, taken largely out of Iran and Pakistan.
Underscoring all of this is that nations take over other nations’ territories. Given that all countries involved are recognized by the UN and increasingly integrated into the global economy, this alone is a bold proposition. Since World War I, there have been several changes to existing national boundaries. New nations have formed and territories have been exchanged, many internationally recognized and others controversial. Nevertheless, since 2000, the only major territorial changes in the world were the independence of South Sudan, East Timor, and Kosovo; the Russian annexation of Crimea; and the continued Israeli expansion of its settlements on to Palestinian territory. Carving out new nations is not at all unprecedented, but in recent years, conflicts that culminate in such events have been scarce. Still, there are several conflicts destabilizing the Middle East today, so analyzing each conflict is worth consideration.
The Kurds, historically (post-1920) have not had a nation-state in which they were the ethnic majority, barring a few Soviet-backed, short lived states in the 1940s. Today, they are minority groups split among many nations. Granted, there is great religious and cultural heterogeneity within ethnic Kurds, and notions of Kurdish nationalism are very new. But it remains true that the many Kurdish groups bear greater semblance to each other than to other ethnic groups in the region.
In Iraq, they function mostly autonomously. The Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein previously attempted to establish control over them, but at that time, Iraq was too militarily weakened and bankrupted by wars with Iran and Kuwait and the crippling sanctions that followed. After Saddam was deposed by the US invasion, influence of the Iraqi government over Kurdish tribes deteriorated even more. By 2008, Iraqi Kurdistan functioned more-or-less as its own state-within-a-state, and it freely negotiated oil sales with American oil companies during the occupation.
This was threatened in 2013 by the sudden onslaught of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Prior to its meteoric rise, the Kurds purchased oil captured by jihadist groups at below-market prices and then re-selling it to Turkey, but it soon found itself on the defensive as ISIS expanded its campaign across Iraq and Syria. By mid-summer, the Iraqi military had effectively collapsed, and the insurgents had won surprising victories against the Kurdish Peshmerga. At this time, with Erbil and its oil under threat, the US intervened on behalf of the Kurds. Kurdistan continues to function autonomously as it battles ISIS. It is often singled out by American politicians as the best American ally in the ISIS conflict, for which they should be bestowed ample military equipment and logistical support.
These positive developments toward Kurdish autonomy affect only Iraqi Kurds, though. The story is quite different for those in Syria and Turkey. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, bases much of his support on nationalist groups in western Turkey where the major population centers, including the capital, are. These groups have often fought with the Marxist-leaning Kurds and political groups in Eastern Turkey, at times in decidedly one-sided conflicts.
While the Turkish government vociferously repudiates ISIS and allows the US to use its military bases for flying bombing missions in Iraq and Syria, they do not fight ISIS when they threaten Kurds. During September to October in 2014, ISIS was at the peak of its expansion and threatened civilian populations along the Turkish border, such as ones in Kobane. The only resistance was from the Kurds themselves and a US bombing campaign. Turkey provided no assistance.
The policy of Turkish indifference to the Kurds has since changed. Late March 2015, Erdogan suffered the closest thing to an electoral defeat in his 12-year leadership. The HDP, the People’s Democratic Party, a left-wing and pro-Kurdish party, gained several seats in parliament, enough to break the majority of Erdogan’s AKP, the Justice and Development Party. Erdogan has since inflamed conflict with Turkish Kurds and by bombing Kurds outside the Turkish border, claiming it as part of the war on ISIS. This, coupled with several deadly ISIS-accredited terrorist attacks, boosted nationalistic support for his leadership, enough for the AKP to reclaim a parliamentary majority in snap elections in November 2015. Even now, Ergodan maintains his hardline anti-Kurdish position, even going so far as to invade Syrian territory to curtail territorial gains by Kurdish fighters that had been repelling ISIS.
Essentially, a unified Kurdistan remains a long-off dream, one that would require the partitioning of Iraq and Turkey. While autonomy in Iraq is essentially achieved, autonomy in Turkey is not. Partitioning would put the Kurds against the military and financial might of Turkey, a NATO member with active US military bases and stockpiles of US and Russian military equipment, a nation whose support has historically been vital to American and Russian (then Soviet) jockeying for hegemonic power in the Middle East. It even boasts a moderately powerful lobbying wing in the United States Congress.
The most radical change to the map is the partitioning of Saudi Arabia into separate countries and partial annexation into Yemen, Jordan, and Kuwait.
Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy led by the House of Saud, holds immense influence in the West and is a regional military power. Unlike many of its neighbors, conflict within the country has been limited, in part attributed to a powerful police force, repressive religious institutions, and immense oil wealth used to fund social programs.
Most of the current turmoil and revolutions in the Middle East have largely bypassed the country. It even avoided the Arab Spring in 2011 that toppled long-standing dictators in neighboring countries, in large part by giving out billions to its citizens and earmarking billions more in housing projects. So stable the country has been that the last notable demonstrations took place as far back as 1980.
The country is, though, currently embroiled in a massive bombing campaign in Yemen against Houthi rebels, a Shia group that seized control of the government in late 2014. Saudi Arabia, a rigidly fundamentalist state driven by a Salafist sect of Islam, is inherently inimical to any Shia hegemony in the region. When the Houthi rebels overthrew the Yemeni president, Abd Rabbuh Hadi, the Saudis responded with an immense bombing campaign aimed at removing the Houthi from power and reinstating Hadi.
Throughout the conflict, the Saudis have been at a distinct advantage. Given the continued funding and military equipment from the US, the fact that now 13 million people in a nation of 21 million lack access to basic needs for survival, and the intense poverty within Yemen that preceded the conflict, the Saudi war has been decidedly one-sided. Still, the Houthi rebels remain in power in Sana’a and continue to resist, and there have even been hazy reports of Houthi incursions into Saudi territory. Meanwhile, the Saudis have been steadily draining their cash reserves to continue to fund the military effort, a practice that has not gone without criticism within the Saudi royal family itself. Regardless, it is unlikely that the current conflict will lead to an outcome where Yemen extends its border into Saudi Arabia itself.
The other partitions spun into Kuwait, Jordan, and a new state containing Islamic sacred sites would be a surprising development. The Saudi’s are unlikely to surrender territory to its substantially weaker neighbors, and given that the king claims the title of “Protector of the Two Holy Sites,” a relinquishing of Mecca and Medina is similarly improbable. As stated before, the Saudi royal family adheres to a strict fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, one antithetical to non-Sunni sects and more permissive and secular societies. Throughout the past 40 years, Saudis have invested billions in madrasas throughout the Arab world to spread its Salafist ideology. Creating a new caretaker state would undermine those efforts.
Geopolitically, Saudi Arabia projects power through its oil reserves and large military budget. It also enjoys some immunities for international criticism thanks to its strategic location and alliance with the United States. It also can leverage its oil reserves to have substantial impacts on the global economy. It even leads the UN Human Rights Council, despite flouting human rights standards by its torturing, beheadings, and even crucifying dissidents. And should all of those resources prove insufficient, Saudi Arabia retains the power to flood the world economy with cheap oil, hurting governments whose budgets depend on oil sales and rendering competing shale-oil extraction industries unprofitable.
Simply put, anything resembling a threat to the monarchy is lacking, but even then, sudden popular uprisings are not unheard of in the Middle East. The Arab Spring and Islamic Revolution are two examples.
Within Saudi Arabia, the people have many grievances with the regime. The repression of expression, fundamentalism, blatant corruption, and aged kings are all unpopular, possibly even within the royal family itself. The population, much like those of other Arab nations, is very young and expanding rapidly, and coupled with depletion of available water, could easily sow the seeds of future protests.
Another problem is the government’s almost complete dependence on oil. Oil currently accounts for 90% of exports and almost half of the GDP, an enormous problem in the long term due to depletion of oil reserves and another in the short term due to the current global oil glut. The glut itself is partially fueled by Saudi political gamble, one that can potentially backfire. The Saudis are currently flooding world markets with cheap oil, forcing other oil-producing nations to ramp up production to meet budget shortfalls which, in turn, further depresses oil prices. Over 2015, oil prices dropped from $100 to less than $30 per barrel, and to make up for their own budget shortfalls, the Saudis tapped into currency reserves. Coupled with the current military adventure and the potential for blowback in years to come, the Saudi regime could very well find itself in deep financial trouble.
Another factor worth considering is the substantial Shia minority in Saudi Arabia. Notably, this minority is concentrated in the most oil-rich section of the country. The Saudis, while they ideologically treat Shi’ism as a perversion of true Islam, provide limited political representation for Shia leaders, provided they renounce any ties with foreign Shia organizations. The Shia in Saudi Arabia remain largely a repressed and restive minority within the country. Two recent protests, one relating to the official response to a stampede in Mecca and another over the execution of a prominent Shia cleric, have soured relations, but no armed rebellion has started is likely to take place. And even if a revolution were to start, Middle Eastern countries who ally themselves with the West are often forgiven for using extreme violence to put them down.
All things considered, these problems can all be addressed without a revolution, war, or international action that partitions Saudi Arabia among several states. Saudi Arabia could replace its current foreign policy that supports Sunni-led Islamic terrorism, invest in renewable technologies that provide electricity and potable water, and end the Yemeni conflict. While there is no evidence that the King Salman is actively pursuing those ideas, they are worth keeping in mind.
Simply put, this facet of the modified map is less a prediction of the future as it is a fantasy.
Iraq, following the 2003 US-led invasion, has partitioned along sectarian lines. The Shia majority, concentrated in the southern and eastern parts of the country, had been determinedly repressed under the Sunni-led Ba’athist regime. When Saddam Hussein was deposed and the Ba’ath party removed from power, the Shia majority took power via Sunni-boycotted elections. The new government, led by Nouri al-Maliki, then began purging Sunni leaders and military commanders. This, coupled with continual sectarian violence, repression by coalition forces during the US occupation, terrorist attacks by an emboldened Al Qaeda in Iraq, and a policy of de-Ba’athification, created an environment where the only means for Sunni political representation was strength of arms. In the decade since the invasion, insurgents gained experience fighting American and Iraqi forces, and former Saddam-era generals and commanders coalesced into a network of terrorist organizations that would eventually form the backbone of a new terrorist organization - ISIS.
ISIS primarily operates within eastern Syria and western Iraq, taking advantage of the limited resistance of the embattled Syrian regime and the overall weakness of the Iraqi government, to establish an independent zone that roughly corresponds to the area designated as a new Sunni-Arab state in the map. However, though ISIS controls vast area, that area is mostly desert, and while their military victories have been impressive, the regional governments, namely those powerful enough to mount vigorous opposition to them, are disinterested in fighting them.
Israel, for example, does not engage ISIS. In its view, to paraphrase its former US ambassador, if there be two evils in the Middle East, a Sunni evil and a Shia evil, it would prefer the Sunni evil to prevail. As such, it expends most of its resources combating Iranian, and by proxy Syrian, hegemony in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has also made no substantive effort in fighting ISIS, though it recently announced a 34-nation Muslim coalition that, to date, has not been mobilized. Similarly, neither Turkey, Jordan, the UAE, Qatar, Egypt, or Bahrain have mobilized an anti-ISIS force apart from domestic raids or cursory air strikes against known strongholds. All these states are involved in the effort to unseat the Assad regime in Syria, and though they publicly condemn ISIS, they are loath to undermine one of the more effective anti-Assad forces.
To date, most of the anti-ISIS force comes from Syrian, American, and most notably Russian bombing campaigns coupled with Syrian, Lebanese, and Iranian ground forces. The American campaign thus far has proven unsuccessful in uprooting ISIS, and the Syrian regime and its Russian benefactors are more occupied with al-Nusra and other Army of Conquest-affiliated jihadist groups fighting closer to Damascus and other major population centers. Thus, ISIS has been able to hold onto territory via the indifference of surrounding nations. Should that change, their successes will likely be reversed. After all, ISIS itself opposes the existence of every other nation in the Middle East, and it is reviled worldwide. Within the territory it controls, ISIS rules with fear, not popularity. Medieval punishments, a reestablished slave trade, drug trade, and a return to gold dinars as currency has left the people under their control impoverished and resentful. Locals, for the most part, also resent their fundamentalism and the heavy presence of foreign fighters, though the same people are also wary of the brutality of the Shia-led Iraqi government.
All in all, ISIS claims to be a new state, a state that coincides on the map to the Sunni state, but its grasp on power is tenuous. Too many nations oppose it, and it has no diplomatic protection from unilateral and unlimited attacks from any nation. Its longevity will be linked to the duration and intensity of the Sunni-Shia conflicts mediated largely between Iran and Saudi Arabia and also linked to the resolution of the Syrian civil war. The longer both last, the more distracted neighboring powers will be, and the more likely ISIS can survive.
Iran is a unique nation in the Middle East given its long-standing antipathy towards the West and Israel and its theocratic government. Ever since deposing Shah Pahlavi in the 1980 Islamic Revolution, Iran has been mired in many Middle Eastern conflicts, either directly or by proxy. In its 35-year history, it has been repeatedly threatened with violence by the United States, Israel, and to some extent Saudi Arabia and its proxies, and from 1980-88, it was embroiled in a war with a US and Israel-backed Sunni government in Iraq. Meanwhile, it supports Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria, the new Shia-led Iraqi government, and generally opposes Sunni-led governments, Saudi Arabia in particular. On top of that, Iran has dealt with a decade of economic sanctions instigated by the United States over allegations of a Iranian nuclear weapons program.
In the map, Iran both gains and loses territory. Western parts are partitioned off into an Arab Shia state, a new Kurdistan, and Azerbaijan. In the east, Iran loses territory along its Pakistani border, forming part of an unprecedented Balochistan, and it gains part of western Afghanistan.
Given recent events, such as the thawing of US-Iranian relations through the 2015 nuclear agreement, lifting of economic sanctions, and intense interest of the flagging European and Chinese economies in expanding to newly-opened Iranian markets, the Iranian is on an path of increased geopolitical power in the Middle East. It also retains its ability to sponsor foreign governments and its economic and military relationship with Russia. Assuming continued improvements in Iranian economic and political power, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which Iran loses much of its territory to non-existent states. Its current notable conflicts do not raise that possibility, for the only Iranian enemies do not share a border. It cordial, even friendly, relations with Shia neighbors in the west, Kurds in the northwest, and Afghanistan in the east make it highly unlikely that Iran with gain or lose territory by force.
The only other means for territorial cessation or gain is for it to be voluntary, but the likelihood of that so remote that it is not worth considering.
Afghanistan, following the 2001 attacks in the United States, has been subjected to a large invasion and occupation by a US-dominated coalition. The coalition overthrew the Taliban government and replaced it with a new government under Hamid Karzai, and it poured billions in aid to the country to stabilize the government and build new infrastructure. Despite this, the country is plagued by chronic instability and government corruption. Districts throughout the country are contested by the Taliban if not under their control, and the government and coalition soldiers have had immense problems dealing with combatant networks crossing into Pakistan, where government control is minimal and the terrain is difficult to secure.
The border is an artifice created by the British, a demarcation between the land it conquered and the land it could not. It bisects Pashtun tribal territory, territory that historically been part of the same governing, or at least cultural, body. Demographically, the people in that area are predominantly conservative Muslims, many of whom opposed and even fought the Soviet-backed Marxist government in the 1970s. At that time, they received considerable US and Pakistani military support, and though that alliance has since deteriorated, the fighters retain their military experience and their ability to coordinate guerilla attacks across borders. The Haqqani network, based in Pakistan and founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, is a notable example.
The border compels governments on both sides to act to preserve their sanctity. In effect, this allows groups to cross borders freely while government efforts are stymied by the necessity to seek approval from the other nation, lest they be attacked as invaders. The redrawn border moves the Afghan border south, allowing the Afghan government to fully administer the entirety of tribal regions. This could plausibly help in current efforts to stabilize the government and expand its authority, but it is plagued by the problem of redefining the border at Pakistan’s expense. It is likely that the insurgency against the government will continue and that Afghan society will remain fragmented and poor, but it is incredibly unlikely that will move the border between it an another internationally-recognized nation and UN member. It’s also unlikely that Afghanistan, given its current woes, would ever want to compound its troubles by adding governance of more nominally-governed regions to its list of unmet responsibilities.
Also, Pakistan, an ever-expanding nuclear power, has many nuclear facilities, including missile production systems, around and to the west of Islamabad, and the modified map moves the Afghan-Pakistani border so that it many facilities will fall on the Afghan side. Moving the border would require partial dismantling of Pakistan’s nuclear program and decommissioning of several military facilities, unless the world accepts adding Afghanistan to the list of nations with nuclear weapons.
Pakistan is also in a rather precarious position, one that has much to do with the US invasion of Afghanistan, drone policy, and the porosity of its border along its loosely-administered tribal regions. Despite its weaknesses, the government has a substantial and powerful military, the latent threat of its nuclear arsenal, and the support of the US military. The updated map presents a radically reduced Pakistan, with territory in the north ceded to Afghanistan and the Baloch province in the west carved out as part of a new Balochistan. All of present-day Pakistan left intact are the Punjab and Sindh provinces. While it is easy to envision Pakistan losing control over various geographical regions due to warfare and sectarian conflict - that is the state of Pakistan today. It is difficult, however, to imagine it losing them permanently to an internationally-recognized government.
Regarding the northwest conflict, the government has over the past decade undertaken a policy of deferring border attacks to the United States. The policy was intended to reduce Pakistani losses by relying on American drones, deflect popular backlash by associating the Americans with destruction, and intimidating opposition with the prospect of drones being used against them. It ended up having the opposite effect. The Taliban began insurgency against the government, carrying out multitudes of bombings against civilians in Pakistani cities while using the American presence and drone policy as a recruiting tool. Civilian casualties from American drones intensified popular opposition to the United States and, by extension, the Pakistani government that supported them.
Over the past decade, Pakistan has been marred with frequent terrorist attacks and other setbacks. Last year, the government altered its policy following a series of deadly civilian bombings to directly use military force against insurgents, which has had some success in curtailing the frequency and severity of terrorist attacks.
At the same time, Pakistan has dealt with continued appeals for increased Baloch autonomy. The Balochs are situated in the arid southwest of the country and constitute a large ethnic minority. Citing economic oppression and tribal identity, they have mounted insurgencies several times over the past 60 years, all unsuccessful. To date, Baloch liberation armies are attempting another conflict, but it has thus far failed to make any progress against the vastly more powerful and wealthy Pakistani military.
Pakistan has certainly made several unsuccessful attempts at suppressing restive populations, such as the Bangladeshi liberation war, and lost territory as a result. But this one isn’t likely to be one of them.
Now, we arrive at the answer to the question posed above: “Can it happen?”
There aren’t many insights to be drawn from the map. It doesn’t really mean anything, so there’s no reason to dredge it up whenever a new conflict in the Middle East breaks out.