How The Middle East Forces Round Pegs In To Square Holes

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Written By Saeed Maleki

During recent talks aimed at ending the terrible toll of civilian casualties in war-torn Syria, a Western diplomat asked an Arab why so much civil unrest undermines peace in the region.

The answer was succinct – the fighting has gone on for hundreds of years and is unlikely to stop now.

One of the key points that Westerners fail to understand about unrest across the Middle East is the country borders were arbitrarily drawn with a ruler without much local consultation after the Ottoman empire fell apart during the First World War.

The two main culprits are Andrew Sykes, from Britain, and Francois Georges-Picot [Opens in new window], from France.

They negotiated for their respective governments and decided straight lines drawn with rulers were the most convenient way of dividing their colonial masters’ new territories.

History drawn with a ruler

Britain grabbed Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine, while France took on Syria and Lebanon.

Unfortunately, the peoples that lived either side of the straight lines did not correspond to their new borders.

Many nomad tribes wintered on one side of the line and spent the rest of the year on the other, for instance.

Another issue is many are Shi’a Muslims and others are Sunni, but forced to live apart from their faiths.

The maps were further complicated with the formation of Israel and Jordan, denying the Palestinians their traditional homeland.

Arab nationalism

To many Muslims, the war in Syria is a holy war between different tribes and faiths. Iraqi and Iranian fighters have flocked to the cause regardless of lines on the ground. The Kurds who have a traditional home spanning the north of Syria and Iraq, spreading into Turkey also have an eye on reclaiming their lands.

These straight lines making borders are now cracking under the pressure of Arab nationalism. The flames have already coursed through Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. They are burning in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Rulers fear they will fan discontent in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Iran.

The problem now is redrawing the maps with the knowledge of the extravagant wealth in oil and gas reserves lying hidden beneath the inhospitable sands adds another layer of complexity to the problems of religion, national identity and who rules.

Those in power are loathe to give up their riches, while those who consider themselves scorned are only too willing to fight.