TCN, Episode 8 – Electricity and Corruption

India’s Prime Minister, Modi, came here not too long ago and was hugely popular.  That has changed now the high caste owned media allied with the high caste politicians is blaming India for the blockade.

Modi was popular because he kept getting out of his car to talk with ordinary Nepalis.  Politicians don’t do that.  He was popular, too, because he said India would make big investments in Nepal to stimulate its economy.  He said that was in India’s best interest as well as Nepal’s.  Increased trade between them would be good for everyone.

In particular, he promised massive investment in hydro power generation.  India would buy some of the electricity.  Much of it would be for Nepalis.

An engineer friend of Nagendra’s who works for the electricity company told him why that will never happen.  A new higher capacity distribution network would be necessary.

It would also, by the way, be good to upgrade the “last mile” part of the grid that looks like this, but that could wait.

Electricity Pole

The higher capacity transmission lines would need new towers.  Each of them would need a small parcel of land and buying that land is why the network can’t be built.  Payoffs for every parcel to leaders of the three major political parties and each local party would make the venture cost-prohibitive.

Can’t the legal system be used to overcome such corruption?  I hoped the new Constitution would restructure the judiciary to be independent.  I should have known better.  If the judiciary was not controlled by the politicians, they would risk prosecution for corruption.

Democracy is impossible in a society like this.  Everyone knows the politicians’ promises are empty.  The culture overall, not just in the political sphere, is to tell you what you want to hear so you will be happy.  You will not be happy when it doesn’t happen, but you never really counted on the promise, anyway.

The security guard for the bank beside Nagendra’s shop who is Tamang like Doma’s family explained how he voted in the last election.   The Congress Party promised 3,000 rupees for his vote.  He was going to vote for them, but then the Maoist Party promised 5,000.  Neither of them would do what they promised if elected so he went with the higher price.

Kathmandu was a paradise when Nagendra moved here in 1980.  He got his drinking water from the Bagmati River.  The result of ongoing failure of government?  It is now a sewer.

Bagmati River Kathmandu

Kathmandu’s population is now over a million yet fully 95% of its waste water is untreated and is dumped directly into rivers.  Garbage collection is an equally sorry story.  Much of it is disposed of haphazardly along the river banks.  That also ends up in the water.

This afternoon the three kids and I will cross the bridge where that picture was taken and move back to Doma’s mom’s rooms.  She doesn’t like to but maybe she will have to cook with wood on the roof.  Doma’s aunt enjoys doing that and wants us to stay but we’ve been burdening her long enough.

Beyond the Media Hype: Palestine


Why is it harder to “understand” Palestine than Lebanon or other Middle East states?  Because Palestine lacks the conceptual framework of statehood.  It does not even exist on this map of Middle Eastern states that aims to illustrate the incoherence of our current alliances.

The map’s precise borders suggest stability, too.  Although Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen are sunk in civil war, they seem to be unified like currently stable Egypt, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

Middle East Alliances

Previous posts in this series have begun to illuminate the deep conflict between long-powerful Iran and recently-wealthy Saudi Arabia, why Yemen has become a proxy in their rivalry, and how Jordan, Lebanon and Syria became independent states.  Now we can explore why Palestine did not become one and start to think holistically about what is driving Middle Eastern conflicts.

The region between Egypt, Syria and Arabia known for thousands of years as Palestine was among the world’s first settled agricultural communities.  It is a crossroads for commerce, cultures and religions, the place where Judaism and Christianity were born.  Controlled over the centuries from Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, Turkey, Britain and more, its boundaries changed constantly.

Today’s Palestine is part of what was Greater Syria under Turkey’s Ottoman Empire.  That Syria was the entire region from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates and the Arabian Desert to southern Turkey’s Taurus Mountains.  When the Ottomans got control by conquering Egypt in 1517, they subdivided it into administrative districts, some of which correspond to today’s states.

When the Ottoman Empire fell at the end of WW1, the League of Nations granted Britain and France Mandates over the region.  Those Mandates placed former German and Turkish colonies under the “tutelage” of Britain and France “until such time as they are able to stand alone.”

Note:  If that sounds patronizing, it is worth noting that it is what we are currently trying to do in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Having secretly agreed during WW1 how they would divide it between them, Britain and France established states in their mandated territories.  That was when Lebanon and Syria became separate nations.  Britain divided its territory into Palestine and Transjordan, which later became Jordan.

Palestine and Transjordan Map

Europe’s concept of nation states had come to the Arab world late in the 19th century.  It gave rise everywhere to a growing rejection of colonialism and in Greater Syria to the theory of a pluralistic Syrian nationality that supported multiple religions: Sunni and Shia, Christian and Jewish.

The idea of an independent Palestine within Greater Syria arose when Britain established Mandatory Palestine with a modern nation-state boundary.  The desire for that independence greatly increased as a result of fast growing Zionist immigration into what is now Israel.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) founded in 1964 to liberate Palestine by armed struggle was secularist then like Greater Syria even though about 90% of Palestinians are Sunni.

Islam only became significant in Palestinian politics with the 1980s rise of the Hamas offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood founded in Egypt in 1928 as a religious, political, and social movement.

But let’s take a step back.  How did Ottoman Greater Syria become home to diverse people and religions, and what is the specific history of today’s Palestinian State?

The Roman Empire began converting to Christianity when it was reunified by emperor Constantine.  His mother brought Christianity to Jerusalem in 326 and Palestine grew to become a center of Christianity.  Although Greater Syria was conquered by Muslims in 636, the majority of its population remained Christian until the late 12th century.

Persecution of Christians began growing in the late 10th century during a long series of wars between Egyptian, Central Asian and Persian Empires and Europe’s Crusaders.  Then the decline of the eastern remainder of the Roman Empire in the early 13th century dramatically cut Christian influence throughout the region.

In the early 20th century, Zionist settlers began buying land in what is now Israel and evicting Palestinian peasants.  At the same time, support began growing in Britain for the establishment there of a Jewish homeland.

Jewish Owned Land in Palestine 1945

Muslim-Christian Associations formed throughout the area in opposition and became a national group that agitated for an independent Palestine.  Protests grew as mass Jewish immigration continued.  The protests developed into a 1936-1939 mass uprising.

After WW2 in 1947, the UN proposed the partition of Britain’s Mandatory Palestine into an Arab state, a Jewish state and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem.

Palestinian leaders along with those of Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Greece, Cuba and India rejected any such plan of partition saying it violated the UN charter’s principle that people have the right to decide their own destiny.

Although Palestinian and Arab leaders now accept the partition in broad terms as a fait accompli, they continue to consider it unfair.

Jews owned 7% of Mandatory Palestine but were given 56% of it.  The area under Jewish control contained 45% of the Palestinian population.  Much of the Arab land was unfit for agriculture.

The Negev desert given to the Jewish state was also sparsely populated and unsuitable for agriculture but that area was a “vital land bridge protecting British interests from the Suez Canal to Iraq.”

Note:  To understand Palestinians’ reaction, imagine the UN establishing Native American homelands corresponding to where they lived before Columbus and returning 56% of the USA to them.

American Indians Map Census BureauPre-Columbian USA Culture MapCivil war broke out.  It became an inter-state war when Israel declared independence in May 1948.  Forces from Egypt, Jordan Syria and Iraq joined the Palestinians but Israel ended up with both its UN-recommended territory and almost 60% of the proposed Arab state.

Jordan took the rest of the West Bank and Egypt the Gaza Strip.  No Palestinian state was created.

During ten months of battles, around 700,000 Palestinians, 60% of all those in Mandatory Palestine in 1947, fled or were driven out.  In the following three years, about the same number of Jews immigrated to Israel, 110% of those in Mandatory Palestine in 1947.

Note:  Again to put numbers in perspective, imagine 193 million Americans (60% of of 321M) being driven out in less than a year and replaced in the next three years by the same number of Muslim immigrants (who we imagine already make up 15% of our population).

UN_Palestine_Partition_Versions_1947

What happened next?  In 1967 Israel captured the rest of the former British Mandate of Palestine, taking the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt.

In 1973 Syria tried but failed to regain the Golan heights and Egyptian military forces invaded with some success.

Following the case fire, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and Egypt became the first Arab country to recognize Israel.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1980.

In 1987, a new Palestinian uprising began.  The following year Chairman of the PLO Yasser Arafat declared Palestine’s independence.

In 1993, Israel and the PLO agreed to the creation of a Palestinian National Authority (PNA) as the interim self-government body to administer 39% of the West Bank under the PNA’s Fatah faction and the Gaza Strip under its Hamas wing.  Further negotiations were to take place but did not.

Israel continued to occupy 61% of the West Bank.

Palestine and Israel Map Now

In 2000, another uprising began.  That came to an end following the death of Yasser Arafat and Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza strip.  Israel retained control of the Gaza Strip air space and coast.

In 2011, the President of the Palestinian Authority and Chairman of the PLO submitted Palestine’s application for membership in the UN.

In 2012, the UN granted de facto recognition of the sovereign state of Palestine.  Canada, Israel and the USA voted against the upgrade.  President Obama said “genuine peace can only be realised between Israelis and Palestinians themselves … it is Israelis and Palestinians – not us – who must reach an agreement on the issues that divide them.”

The State of Palestine can now join treaties and specialized UN agencies, pursue legal rights over its territorial waters and air space, and bring “crimes against humanity” and war-crimes charges to the International Criminal Court.

Palestine UN Votes

What may be the future for Palestinians, and what is indicated for our foreign policy?

A state with the territory of Mandatory Palestine could have become self-supporting.  One made up of the land-locked West Bank and the separate Gaza Strip can not.

Jordan’s first king may have been right–a state whose territory included the West Bank as well as today’s Jordan could have been good for Palestinians.

A non-viable but internationally recognized State of Palestine may be a necessary stepping stone for Palestinians and Israelis to make peace but a different arrangement of territories in that region is inevitable.

History shows the absurdity of our belief that the borders of existing nation states just need to be accepted and democratic elections established, then all will be well.  Borders make administration possible.  Believing people on the other side of the border are intrinsically different breeds fear and makes peace impossible.

Beyond the Media Hype: Lebanon

Lebanon’s location bordering Syria made it a trading hub between the Mediterranean and Arab worlds and resulted in it becoming the most religiously diverse country in the Middle East.  Its mountains isolated religious and ethnic groups from each other.

Lebanon Simple Map

Lebanon is north-south alternating strips of lowland and highland–a coastal plain, a mountain range, a central plateau, then more mountains.  Its shoreline is regular, rocky and has no deep harbor.   The Beqaa Valley between the mountain ranges is the main agricultural area but fruit and vegetables grow well on the very narrow maritime plain.

Lebanon Topography

The CIA estimates the population to be 40% Christian, 27% Shia, 27% Sunni, and 5% quasi-Shia Druze.  The Lebanese Information Center estimates 34% Christians while Statistics Lebanon estimates 46% Christian.  The 34% to 46% range for Christians is matched by a 27% to 40% range for Shia.

There are several Christian groups.  Maronite Catholics make up 21% of the overall population, Greek Orthodox 8%, Greek Catholic 5%, Protestant 1% and 6% other denominations.  When the last census was taken in 1932, Christians were 53% of the total.  It was about the same in 1956 but more Christians than Muslims have emigrated since then and the Muslim population has a higher birth rate.

Lebanon has over thousands of years been part of many empires.  It became an orthodox Christian center under the Romans.  They persecuted an ascetic Christian tradition established near Mount Lebanon in the late 4th century by a hermit named Maron.  Most of Lebanon was ruled as a Christian Crusader State from 1109 to 1289.

Most eastern Mediterranean Christian communities swore allegiance to the head of Eastern Christianity in Constantinople, but the Maronites aligned with the Pope in Rome, which led to centuries of support from France and Italy even after Lebanon became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1516.

In 1842, fighting between Maronites and the Druze led to the Mount Lebanon area being separated into a Christian district in the north and a Druze one in the south, both of which reported to the governor of the Sidon district in Beirut.  France got the northern district separated entirely from Muslim Syria in 1861 to protect Mount Lebanon’s 80% Christian population

Lebanon Religion Map

In 1920, after the Ottoman Empire fell, the League of Nations gave Syria and Lebanon to France, and Palestine and Iraq to Britain.  France was welcomed by Christians around Mount Lebanon and vehemently rejected by Muslims in Syria.  It took until 1923 for France to gain full control.

France added Tripoli, north of which is primarily Sunni, to the former Ottoman district of Mount Lebanon, along with Sidon, south of which is chiefly Shia, and the Bekaa Valley, which has a mix of Muslims, Christians and Druze, and established it in 1926 as the democratic republic of Lebanon.

A political system was established that shares power based on religious communities.  There is an unwritten agreement that the president will be Maronite Christian, the speaker of the parliament Shia, the prime minister Sunni and the Deputy Speaker of Parliament and the Deputy Prime Minister Greek Orthodox.  The Shia have considered themselves marginalized ever since.  They as well as the Maronites were persecuted by the Ottomans.

Lebanon Detail Map

When France’s puppet government during WW2 allowed Germans through Syria to attack British forces in Iraq, Britain invaded Syria and Lebanon.  France then said Lebanon would become independent with France’s ongoing support.  But when the newly elected Lebanese government abolished France’s mandate in 1943, France imprisoned them.  France was then forced by international pressure to recognize Lebanon as fully independent.  France withdrew its troops in 1946.

In 1958, Muslim demands for reunification with Syria led to the brink of civil war and US military intervention when Muslims wanted Lebanon to join the newly formed Egyptian-Syrian United Arab Republic.  Tension with Egypt had been growing since 1956 when Lebanon’s Christian president did not break with Israel and the Western powers that attacked Egypt to regain control of the Suez Canal.

Internal tensions continued to grow.  In 1975, civil war broke out between a Christian coalition and an alliance of Druze and Muslims with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).  Syria sent troops, allegedly for peace-keeping, that remained in Lebanon until 2005, long after the end of the war.

The PLO leaders had set up new headquarters in Beirut after they lost the 1970-71 civil war with the Sunni monarchy for control of Jordan.  The PLO was founded in 1964 in Jordan where Palestinian refugees from Israel had become the majority population.

Thousands of Palestinian fighters fled to Lebanon after the Syrian civil war, preceded by refugees from Israel and followed by more from Jordan.  There are 450,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon now, primarily in the south.

In 1978, Israel invaded southern Lebanon to push PLO forces away from the border.

In 1982, PLO attacks led to a second Israeli invasion through Shia southern Lebanon and a siege of Shia Beirut.  The militant Shia political party Hezbollah came into being in the next few years to expel Israel forever and end Shia marginalization.

Lebanon_sectors_map

The civil war ended in 1990 with an agreement to disband all non-governmental Lebanese militias and deploy the Lebanese army on the border with Israel.  But Syria’s Shia government, which controlled Lebanon then, with fundamentalist Shia Iran’s support, allowed Hezbollah to continue fighting a guerrilla war against Israel and the South Lebanon Army in Shia areas occupied by Israel until 2000.    Many see Hezbollah as a proxy of Syria and Iran.

Hezbollah has continued fighting with reduced intensity since then to liberate Shebaa Farms in the Golan Heights, territory occupied by Israel since 1967.  The UN considers Shebaa Farms Syrian territory.  Both Syria and Lebanon consider it part of Lebanon.  UN resolutions in any case require Israel to withdraw from all occupied territories.

In 2005, a former Prime Minister who worked to end Syrian dominance of Lebanon was assassinated, for which some accused Syria, others Israel.  Demonstrators supported by the West demanded the end of what some consider military occupation by Syria and its undue influence on Lebanon’s government.  A 1991 treaty made Syria responsible for Lebanon’s protection.

In 2006, Hezbollah launched rocket attacks and raids into Israel.  They responded by invading southern Lebanon, and with airstrikes throughout the country that destroyed bridges, ports, power stations, water and sewage treatment plants, schools, hospitals and homes.

Lebanon locations bombed 2006

The latest threat to Lebanon’s stability is the Syrian civil war.  Of Lebanon’s total 5,883,600 population, 450,000 are Palestinian refugees and 1,200,000 are recent Syrian refugees.  Refugees make up almost 30% of the population and 20% are very recent arrivals.

Diverse populations are not easily governed even in a democracy.

Most nations in the Middle East are autocracies–Sunni in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Shia in Iran and Syria, first Sunni now Shia in Iraq.  Lebanon is a parliamentary democratic republic a quarter or more of whose population is either Christian, Shia or Sunni citizens, or refugees from Palestine, Jordan and Syria, most them Sunni.  That’s a formidable challenge.

And Lebanon’s government was dominated by Syria from 1975 to 2005, while southern Lebanon still is dominated by PLO and Hezbollah forces, which makes it a battle ground with Israel in the quest for a Palestinian nation state.

Lebanon’s future is inextricably tied with Syria, which is in turmoil, Palestine which does not exist as a nation state, and Israel.  It seems to have been a mistake to have established Lebanon as an independent nation state and/or not to establish Palestine as one at the same time.

Beyond the Media Hype: Kuwait

Kuwait is just smaller than New Jersey.  Its key geographic feature is Kuwait Bay, a sheltered harbor with almost half the country’s 120 miles of coast on the Persian Gulf.  It has a well accepted 155 mile border with Saudi Arabia and a 150 mile contested one with Iraq.

Less than 1% of Kuwait is arable land and 90% of the population lives around the Kuwait Bay.    Kuwaitis make up only around 30% of the 4.1M population, which also includes 1.1M Arab expatriates and 1.4M Asian expatriates.  Most of Kuwait’s citizens are Muslim, an estimated 60%–70% Sunnis and 30%–40% Shias.

Kuwait Physical Map

Kuwait’s strategically located deep water port has since ancient times been important for trade.  It was colonized by Greece, fell to the Persian Sassanid Empire, then to a Muslim Caliphate in 636 AD, to a kingdom in Iraq and in 1521 to the Portuguese.  Then Arabs moved in from Saudi Arabia and took control.

The king who established Kuwait’s dynasty declared allegiance in 1752 to the Ottoman governor of Iraq.   Kuwait was then nominally governed from Basra in southern Iraq.  In practice, it was largely autonomous.  It took over much of the trade that passed through Basra when that city was attacked by Iran from 1775-79 and quickly became the primary center for shipping between Arabia, Iraq, Syria, East Africa and India.  Ships made in Kuwait carried most of the area’s trade from the late eighteenth through the nineteenth century.

Kuwait’s borders were defined in 1913 when Britain made an agreement that it was part of the Ottoman Empire.  It encompassed all land within about 110 miles from the capital.  Britain confirmed that definition in 1922 when it controlled Iraq.  Limiting Iraq’s access to the Persian Gulf to about 35 miles of swampy coastline made it almost impossible for Iraq to become a naval power.

Iraq gained independence from Britain in 1932.  In 1938 it asserted a claim to rule Kuwait, and although it formally recognized the existing border in 1963, it continued to press for control over Bubiyan and Warbah islands through the 1960s and ’70s.

In August 1990, Iraq invaded and claimed all of Kuwait.  The UN restored its independence the following year and a UN commission reconfirmed the border, but Iraq did not accept the result.

803213.ai

Kuwait’s economy was devastated in the first half of the 20th century by a British trade blockade when Kuwait supported the Ottoman Empire in WW1, then by a Saudi Arabian trade blockade from 1923-37 whose aim was to annex Kuwait, and also by the Great Depression which drastically cut European demand for goods shipped via Kuwait from India and Africa.

Kuwait’s king in 1896 was assassinated and replaced by his half-brother.  When his brother’s former allies got Ottoman backing he asked Britain for naval support.  They agreed, seeing it as an opportunity to counter German influence in the region.  In 1899 Kuwait pledged never to cede territory without Britain’s consent, which gave Britain control of Kuwait’s foreign policy and security.

Kuwait  was saved by British forces when it was invaded by Saudi Arabia in 1919-20.  Britain redefined its border with Saudi Arabia after that at a conference where Kuwait had no representative.  Although Saudi Arabia got more than half Kuwait’s former territory, they continued their economic blockade and intermittent raiding.

Kuwait’s large oil reserves were discovered in 1937 but exploration was delayed by WW2.  When oil exports began in 1951, most Kuwaitis were still impoverished.  A major program of public works was begun almost immediately and by 1952, Kuwait was the largest exporter of oil in the Persian Gulf region.  That attracted many foreign workers, especially from Palestine, Egypt and India.

The royal family’s rule had been relatively limited up until WW2 but oil revenues eliminated their financial dependency on merchants who had always been Kuwait’s primary source of income.  Oil now accounts for nearly half of GDP and 94% of export revenues and government income.

Kuwait Oilfields Map

Kuwait gained independence from Britain in 1961 and became the first Gulf country to establish a constitution and parliament.  It embraced Western liberal attitudes and most Kuwaiti women did not wear the hijab in the 1960s and ’70s.  It consistently ranks as having the freest media in the Arab world, outranking Israel since 2009, and is the only Gulf state ranked even “partly free.”  Its legal system is mostly secular with separate family law for Sunni, Shia and non-Muslim residents.

Kuwait supported Iraq in its 1980-88 war with Iran but refused to write off the $65B of loans it had made.  Then came economic rivalry after Kuwait increased oil production by 40%, and in 1990, Iraq claimed Kuwait was stealing oil by slant drilling into its Rumaila field near the border.  Iraq attempted to annex Kuwait later that year.

Before the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Kuwait was the Gulf’s only pro-Soviet state.  Its relationship with the US had been strained ever since independence in 1961 and it refused to allow USA military bases in 1987.  But now, since Iraq’s 1990 invasion, the US has 10,000 soldiers based in Kuwait.

I knew nothing about Iraq or Kuwait at the time of that invasion.  I supported the US-led response to what I accepted as a war of aggression.  Now I’m not sure what I think.

Kuwait does not have the geography of a state.  It is tiny and lacks natural borders.  Its borders were defined arbitrarily by Britain.   Until Britain gained control, it was governed from Iraq.  Iraq’s desire for it as a deep water port on the Persian Gulf makes sense.  But Kuwait’s government has been pretty good for its citizens, enormously better than Iraq’s, or Saudi Arabia’s.

Beyond the Media Hype: Jordan

Jordan, Israel and Palestine coexist warily in what Christians, Jews and Muslims call the Holy Land.  Jordan is east of the Jordan River with Syria in the north, Iraq in the north-east and Saudi Arabia in the south.   It was populated mainly by tribal Arabs when its borders were set.    They are outnumbered now by Palestinians who fled since Israel’s establishment at the end of WW2.

Most of Jordan is plateau and most of that is desert rising gradually in the west to villages in the Jordanian Highlands.  Further west, the highlands descend into the north-south rift valley down which the River Jordan flows through the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea to the Red Sea.   Only about 2% of Jordan’s land is arable, half of it permanently cropped.  There is no oil, insufficient water, few resources of any kind that humans value.

Jordan Topography

Jordan is landlocked except where the Gulf of Aqaba gives it access to the Red Sea.  Aqaba was a major Ottoman port connected to Damascus and Medina by the Hejaz railroad.  The WW1 Battle of Aqaba was key to ending the Ottoman Empire’s 500 year long rule of Arab lands.

Gulf of Aqaba

Jordan’s population is around 8 million, about half of whom are Palestinian refugees or their descendants.  It was 400,000 in 1948, about half of them nomadic, but when 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled that year from what became Israel, many went to Jordan, and many more came later.

Since the 2003 war in Iraq, a million refugees have also arrived from there, and, since 2012, more than half a million refugees from Syria.

About 92% of Jordan’s population is Sunni.  About 6% is Christian (the CIA says 2%), down from 30% in 1950 primarily because of Muslim immigration.  Well educated Christian Arabs dominate business.  A 1987 study showed half of Jordan’s leading business families to be Christian.

Since most of Jordan is desert, the population is highly concentrated in the northwest.

Jordan Population Map

When Britain gained control of Jordan and Iraq at the end of WW1 it appointed sons of Hussein bin Ali as their rulers.  Britain had promised Hussein rule of all Arab lands in return for leading the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire.  Faisal ibn Hussein became ruler of Iraq and his brother Abdullah ibn Hussein ruler of Jordan.

Abdullah I established his government in 1921.  Britain granted nominal independence in 1928 but kept a military presence, control of foreign affairs and some financial control.  At the end of WW2, although the US wanted Israel to be established first, Britain granted Jordan full independence.  US President Truman recognized the independence of Jordan and Israel on the same day in 1949 considering them twin emergent states, one for refugee Jews, the other for Palestinian Arabs displaced as a result.

Jordan Relief Map

Abdullah I had represented Mecca in the Ottoman legislature from 1909 to 1914 but allied with Britain during WW1 and played a key role in the Arab revolt.  He ruled as an autocrat.

Recognizing the inadequacy of resources within Jordan’s borders, Abdullah hoped to reestablish and rule Greater Syria, the Ottoman district made up of present day Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan.  He invaded Palestine with other Arab states in 1948, occupied the West Bank and formally annexed it in 1950.  Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Syria then demanded Jordan’s expulsion from the Arab League but were blocked by Yemen and Iraq.  Abdullah was never trusted again by other Arab or Jewish leaders.  He was assassinated in 1951 by a Palestinian who feared he would make peace with Israel.

Abdullah I was succeeded by his son Talal who had to abdicate the following year because of mental illness.  His son Hussein who was educated in Egypt and England then ruled until his death in 1999.

King Hussein recognized that while the borders Britain had set for Jordan with Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia could not be eliminated as his grandfather had hoped, they might with negotiation be improved.  In 1965, he was able to make a deal with Saudi Arabia that gave Jordan an additional 11 miles of coastline on the Gulf of Aqaba to expand its port facilities.  The great problem was Jordan’s border with Palestine.

From 1950, near the end of Abdullah’s reign, Jordan administered the Palestinian West Bank.  Then Israel invaded and seized it in the 1967 Six Day War.  What should Hussein do?  He continued to claim the West Bank until 1988 despite its occupation by Israel.  He relinquished it to the Palestinians then, and signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994.   Jordan is still only the second Arab nation to do so.  Egypt was the first in 1979.

Over the course of his long reign (1953-99) , Hussein kept negotiating for peace and managed to establish a relatively solid footing for Jordan despite competing pressures from great powers and massive immigration from Palestine, but his strongly pro-Western policy meant that he was never entirely trusted by other Arab leaders.

Hussein made less progress on Jordan’s economy, which is among the smallest in the Middle East.  Because there is so little fertile land, agriculture accounts for only 3% of GDP.  Phosphate mining and other industry is around 30%.  Trade, finance and other services make up the balance.  Jordan depends largely on foreign aid, of which the US is the main provider, and the government employs at least a third and perhaps more than half of all workers.

Jordan Land Use Map

Hussein was succeeded by his son, Abdullah II, who was educated both in England and the US and who served in the British army as well as both Jordan’s army and air force.  He has focused on religious coexistence, Israeli-Palestinian peace as well as building a powerful Jordanian military, and especially on Jordan’s economy.

Abdullah II  worked for several years to get agreement on a project that was first proposed in the late 1960s as part of peacemaking between Israel and Jordan.  The Red Sea–Dead Sea Canal will provide desalinated drinking water to Israel, Jordan and Palestine, replenish the Dead Sea whose surface area has shrunk 30% in the last 20 years because nine tenths of the Jordan River’s flow is diverted for crops and drinking, and generate electricity.  In late 2013 the three nations reached agreement to go ahead with the project.

Jordan Red Sea Dead Sea Map

What Abdullah II has not done is make Jordan’s government more democratic.  It is a constitutional monarchy in which the king is Head of State, Commander-in-Chief, and appoints the Prime Minister, Cabinet and regional governors and 75 members of the Senate.  The House of Representatives and other Senators are elected but elections have been seriously rigged.  A new law in 2012 prohibits parties based on religion.  That led the Muslim Brotherhood and others to boycott voting.

Although its military is strongly supported by the US, UK and France, Jordan is also a founding member of the Arab League whose goal is to “draw closer the relations between member States and co-ordinate collaboration between them, to safeguard their independence and sovereignty” and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation whose goal is to “safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony.”  Jordan is also an active member of the UN and provides the third highest participation in its peacekeeping missions, and is in the European Union’s program to bring the EU and its neighbors closer.

Jordan’s ruling dynasty has good international relations and is well accepted by Jordanians despite autocratic rule, massive immigration of refugees, an economy that is not self-sufficient, and high unemployment especially among young adults.

Because Jordan’s population is so heterogeneous, it is not a nation in the sense of a potentially genocidal homeland.  It is very much a state, however, even though it has no natural borders with Syria, Iraq or Saudi Arabia.  They accept the ones drawn by colonial powers almost a century ago.  It does have a natural border with Israel and Palestine, the Jordan River, that is now accepted by all parties although the status of Palestine itself remains unresolved.

There is much to be learned from Jordan’s history of governance.

Imperial Conspiracy and the Islamic State

The leader of the self-declared Islamic State vows they “will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy,” utterly destroying “borders that were drawn by malicious hands in lands of Islam.”  It’s important to understand that “conspiracy.”

When the Ottoman Empire joined Germany in WW1, Britain conquered Palestine because it needed a route to move large forces fast from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf to defend its interests in India.  Britain then made a secret pact with France and Russia, the Sykes–Picot Agreement, about how they would divvy up the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces at war’s end.

Britain got present day Israel, Palestine, Jordan and southern Iraq.  France got south-eastern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and northern Iraq (Britain later managed to get northern Iraq, too, when oil was discovered there).  But for the Revolution that overthrew its Tsar, Russia would have gotten Armenia and north-eastern Turkey.

This schematic of the original 1916 agreement shows the area Russia would have occupied in green, the area France would occupy in dark blue and the area it would control administratively in light blue, the area Britain would occupy in dark red and what it would administer in light red.  The purple areas were to be international zones.

Sykes Picot Schematic

The agreement was endorsed by Hussein bin Ali, the leader of Hejaz, who, in return for leading an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, was promised a post-war Arab empire from Egypt to Persia excepting only Britain’s possession of Kuwait, Aden and the Syrian coast.  Britain considered Hussein the Arabs’ leader because Hejaz incorporated Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.

Hussein declared himself King at war’s end.  Then in 1924 he declared himself Caliph, political and religious successor to the prophet Muhammad and leader of the entire Muslim community.  His arch-rival, ibn Saud, attacked and defeated his forces and unified what is now Saudi Arabia.

Hejaz Map

The area defined as an international zone in the Sykes-Picot Agreement that is now Israel and Palestine was defined that way because Britain’s Prime Minister had declared himself “very keen to see a Jewish state established in Palestine.”  Israel would, it was thought, be too small to defend itself so it would need the international community’s protection.

Promises were made separately and in secret to Arab and Jewish leaders during the war that were mutually contradictory.  One or the other had to be abandoned.

In 1917, Lord Balfour wrote a Declaration that Britain and its allies were committed to establish Israel.  Then in 1918, Britain and France pledged to “assist in the establishment of indigenous Governments and administrations in Syria and Mesopotamia by setting up national governments [chosen by] the indigenous populations.”

Perhaps Arab leaders could have accepted a homeland for Jews who wanted to “come home” but “national governments chosen by the indigenous populations” negated the unified Arab homeland they had been promised.

This is why, speaking in Iraq, ISIL’s leader said: “We have now trespassed the borders that were drawn by the malicious hands in lands of Islam in order to limit our movements and confine us inside them.  And we are working, Allah permitting, to eliminate them (borders).  And this blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy.”

The Sykes-Picot Agreement did not clearly define the territory that would become Israel.  How big should it be?  What lands should it encompass?  The Old Testament had placed Israel’s tribes on both sides of the River Jordan, with the Manesseh tribe occupying not just the present day West Bank but also the East Bank, which is the fertile part of present day Jordan.  The Agreement was also less than clear about the eastern border of Palestine.

Israel 12 Tribes Map

In 1919, Chaim Weizmann, who later became President of the World Zionist Organization, made an agreement with a son of the King of Hejaz.  It defined a Jewish homeland in Palestine and an Arab nation that would include most of the Middle East.  That set Israel’s border within present day Jordan but the agreement was short-lived and would never have been acceptable to most Arab leaders.

Israel Faisal-Weizmann Map

In the end the League of Nations agreed in 1922 to a British Mandate for Palestine supplemented by a Transjordan Memorandum.  Transjordan was the site of most battles during the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule.  The Mandate system was to provide government for the former Ottoman Empire territories in the Middle East “until such time as they are able to stand alone.”

The British protectorate of Palestine was to include a national home for the Jewish people while Transjordan was to be an Emirate governed semi-autonomously by Hussein bin Ali’s Hashemite dynasty, which was also to rule Iraq.

Palestine and Transjordan Map

All these agreements, self-serving and/or well-intentioned, were based on ideas more than reality.

The best way to understand the reality is in terms of the Fertile Crescent, the relatively moist and fertile land where some of the earliest human civilizations flourished (the Crescent can also be defined to include Egypt.)  Writing, glass, the wheel and irrigation all originated in this crescent.

Fertile Crescent Map

The idea of nation states with borders to keep “us” safe and “others” out, the framework for the WW1 colonial powers and us now, is very recent.  Empires in and around the Fertile Crescent rose and fell centered on areas of agricultural surplus.

Settled farmers, seasonally relocating herders, and wide ranging tribal folks changed their allegiance easily to the extent they felt any at all to their distant rulers.  Religion was important as an inspiration for individuals — for rulers, it was a lever of power.

Entities we think of now as Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey did not exist for most of history or had different definitions.  Cultures long preexisted nation states and they have far more powerful impact on possible futures.

Beyond the Media Hype: Kurdistan

The Kurds are not a nation and are without a state.  Ethnically Iranian and mostly Sunni Muslim, they live among mountains where Europe and Asia meet south of the Caucasus.

kurdish areas map

About half the 28 million Kurds live within Turkey’s borders, 6 million in Iran, 5 to 6 million in Iraq, and close to 2 million in Syria.  They form about 18% of Turkey’s population, 10% of Iran’s, 15%-20% of Iraq’s and 10% of Syria’s.

Where Kurds live is a battleground at the ever-changing border of great empires based in Turkey, Russia and Iran/Persia.

Ottoman forces that threatened Persia in the 1530s were deterred with a scorched earth campaign in which Kurdish settlements of every size were laid waste, crops were destroyed, resistors were massacred, and all others were relocated.  Destruction of the Kurdish area continued into the 1600s.

Over the centuries and as the fortunes of the great empires changed, Kurds fought sometimes alongside Ottoman forces, sometimes with Iran, sometimes among themselves, and most often against domination by any foreign power.  They remained a tribal people with principalities in present-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Kurdish States 1835

The Ottoman Empire’s 1829–1879 centralization campaign had little impact on those Kurdish principalities.  Although flickers of Kurdish nationalism sprang up toward the end of the 19th century, the Kurds never united.

Turkey’s Kurds tried to establish autonomy in 1880.  The central government welcomed it at first, hoping to counter a potential Armenian state under Russia.  But they suppressed the uprising when they recognized that Kurds and Armenians, the first state in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion, had always co-existed quite well.

Unlike Kurds in Turkey who consider themselves different from the majority, Iran’s Kurds did not.  They were treated as part of Iran’s Islamic majority, unlike Armenian Christians or Jews.  The central government was concerned about Ottoman invasion, Britain’s advance from India and Russia’s from the north , not differences among fellow-Muslims.  While the majority of Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Syria are Sunni, they are about evenly split in Iran between Sunni, Shia, and Sufi.

Iran Map 1900

Kurdish nationalism began to grow in Turkey at the beginning of the 20th century because of Ottoman oppression of minorities and WW1’s devastation.  Much of the Kurdish area was laid waste by advancing and retreating troop forces and the Ottoman government drove out an estimated 700,000 Kurds, almost half of whom perished.  They also killed or drove into the Syrian desert a million or more Armenians between 1915 and 1916.

After WW1, Turkey’s Kurds became subject to aggressively enforced secular rule.  Kurds to the south fell under France in newly established Syria and under Britain in newly established Iraq.

To protect its new colonial possession, Britain advocated independent and allied Kurdish and Armenian states as a buffer against Turkey and Russia.  That idea died when Greece and Italy invaded Turkey and its Kurds joined the battle against the Christian invaders.

In 1920, Britain, France and Italy agreed to establish “a scheme of local autonomy for the predominately Kurdish areas” but Turkey’s government was strong enough by the following year to block it.  Then Britain abandoned the idea of a “quasi-autonomous” independent Kurdistan in Iraq in case the French established one in Syria.

Britain next encouraged Turkey’s Kurds to rebel but they stopped that when France ceded its lands north of Syria, which gave the Turkish government a base from which they could easily invade Iraq.   In 1923, Britain signed a treaty with Turkey that made no mention of Kurds.

Kurdish Areas Map 2

But Britain treated Kurds in Iraq well, giving Arabs and Kurds equal rights, Kurdish and Arabic languages equal legal status and dividing the country into Arab and Kurdish regions with separate administrative policies and practices.

When Iraq gained independence, however, the central government set up a unified state dominated by Sunni Arabs that suppressed Kurdish rights, militarized Kurdish regions, and destroyed Kurdish villages, especially where oil was found.  There has been pretty much constant strife in Kurdish Iraq ever since.

Kurdistan Map

Suppression of Iraqi Kurds increased further under Saddam Hussein.   During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, half a million Kurds were sent to detention camps in southern and eastern Iraq, villages were razed and Kurdish towns were attacked with chemical weapons.

After withdrawing its forces in 1991, Iraq’s government imposed an economic blockade on Kurdistan which the UN embargo on Iraq made worse by halting Kurdish trade with other nations.

But Iraqi Kurdistan had achieved de facto independence.

And Kurdistan is now a somewhat functional democracy.  Turkey is becoming its closest ally, major oil companies have made deals with it, and a pipeline to Turkey with a capacity of a million barrels a day is due to come online within a couple of years.

Turkey is also potentially a supporter of a self-governing Kurdish state in Syria.

Kurds only ever wanted to be free from oppression.  Turkey’s Sunni Kurds got on well enough with Christian Armenians, and Iran’s mix of Sunni, Shia and Sufi Kurds were treated as equals by Persia’s Shia rulers, so Kurds can coexist.  They have, however, been greatly abused, violently suppressed by Ottoman Turkey’s Sunni rulers, driven out by Iran in a scorched earth campaign, massacred by Iraq’s Sunni regime, and more.

Their latest battle is against an ever-shifting set of gangs, the worst of which, ISIS, is employing extreme terror to institute what they say will be global religious rule.  Their objectives certainly include temporal power…

What should we do?  Is the solution a nation state whose territory includes all Kurdish areas now in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria?  Should we work to establish that Greater Kurdistan?  And should we then supply it with weaponry to defeat any future threat?

Given what nation states have done in the past, that does not look to be the best idea.  A better approach will emerge when this research is complete.

Beyond the Media Hype: Turkey

Turkey, bordered by water on three sides and high mountains in the east, has lowland only on the coast.  About one sixth of its land can support agriculture, another sixth grazing.  Mountain ridges form a belt just south of the Black Sea.  A ridge in the south borders a central massif in the west and joins the northern mountains in the east.  Narrow straits in the east give Turkey control of the only outlet from the Black Sea.

Turkey Topo

Control of the Turkish Straits is valuable because they provide Russia’s only year-round ocean access.  Its navy is based on the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine.  The Straits also offer the only maritime trade route for Romania, Ukraine, Georgia and their neighbors.  International treaties govern what warships can use the Straits and Turkey’s rights to control the passage.

Black Sea Map

Turkey is where Silk Road routes linked Asian and European traders.  Trade for Chinese silk that began in the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) expanded enormously enabling Islamic Empires to become the world’s greatest economic power in the 7th-13th centuries when their trade network covered much of Asia, Africa and Europe.  Cultures carried via the Silk Road helped shape the civilizations of China, India, Iran, Arabia and Europe.

Silk Road Map

Turks from Mongolia, Kazakhstan and other ‘stans began moving west long ago.  Some settled along the way.  Others went on to Anatolia, today’s Turkey, to establish what became the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922).  Many of them continued to live as nomads or moved seasonally between upland and plain in eastern Anatolia but three quarters of the population now is urban.  Almost a fifth of Turkey’s population are Kurds, an ethnic Iranian people, in eastern Anatolia.

The head of state  of the Ottoman Empire was also its religious leader.  Administrative, economic and political systems were guided by Islam, but non-Muslims had substantial religious freedom under the “millet” system that protected Christians in Zoroastrian Iran a thousand years earlier and was retained after the Islamic conquest.  Christians flourished under that system and sent missionaries via the Silk Road even to China and India.

The headman of a millet collected and distributed taxes and set laws for his people based on religion.  All Christians, for example, throughout the Empire were part of the Christian millet.  There was no citizenship based on location within the Empire, nor any ethnic separation.  People of every ethnic background in a millet had the same rights and privileges.  The law of the injured party’s millet was applied to crimes by those from a different millet.

The Ottoman Empire peaked in the 16th and 17th centuries after advancing northwest through Greece and Ukraine and southeast into Iran, and gaining control of the Mediterranean and of trade with east Asia via the Indian ocean.  It lost territory piecemeal in the 18th and 19th centuries then, faced with losses on every side, allied with Germany in WW1.  The Empire was utterly destroyed and Turkey was occupied  by the victors.  They were driven out in 1922 and Turkey became independent the next year.

Ottoman Empire Map

 

The new government was led by Mustafa Kemel Atatürk who replaced Islamic law with a secular civil code, gave women full political rights, and gave Turkey its alphabet along with many other reforms.  Ataturk means “Father of the Turks”.  He is the one who gave Turks their identity, and he remains a strong force even though he died in 1938.

Ataturk established many political freedoms although his was the only political party.  His successor established multi-party elections at the end of WW2, in which Turkey was neutral.  When the Soviet Union tried in 1947 to establish bases in the straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, the US guaranteed to defend Turkey and Greece militarily.

True multi-party democracy began in 1950 but it was interrupted by military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980.  Turkey’s military leaders saw themselves as responsible for protecting Ataturk’s secular state by replacing governments when necessary as a short term corrective.

The 1950-60 government had relaxed Ataturk’s restrictions on Islam.  Then, after short-lived economic growth, it took on huge debt that led to high inflation and dissent that it tried to quell with censorship.  The military took over and executed the Prime Minister.  Unstable civilian governments resumed in 1961, with another coup in 1971.  Violent clashes between ultra-nationalists and communists led to another military coup in 1980 and imposition of martial law throughout the country.

A one-party civilian government supervised closely by the military was established in 1983 and the economy boomed.  Kurdish separatists began an insurrection in 1984 which the government first tried to counter with local paramilitary militias.  In 1987, they placed the entire southeast under emergency legislation that stayed in force until 2002.  Political instability returned in the 1990s.  In 1997, the military forced the Prime Minister to resign, deeming his religious policies a threat to Turkey’s secular nature.

The next government reformed the economy, established human rights laws and began positioning Turkey for membership in the European Union, then the economy faltered again.  Another new government formed in 2002 under Recep Tayyip Erdogan has remained in power.  It arrested military leaders in 2008 and 2010, accusing them of plotting to overthrow the government.

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP — Ak means “light” ) is oppressive, corrupt and may be aiming to reestablish an Islamic state.  A 2013 corruption scandal that led to arrests of his close allies provoked riots across the country.  Erdoğan claimed an attempted coup and blocked Twitter and YouTube when he was incriminated in a recording released on the Internet.  Media censorship, electoral fraud, and general disregard for law have branded him in many eyes as a dictator.  Western media are mostly supportive.

The challenges for Turkey are to establish a government that does not depend on military approval and is responsive to civil rights demands from all parts of society, especially Kurds in the east who feel closer to their fellows in Iraq and Iran.  Erdogan’s strategy is the usual strongman approach.  Turkey may not in fact have a better future without its secular military leaders.

Turkey’s relative advantage is that its geographic borders do make it a natural nation state unlike Iraq, Syria and others to its south whose territory was defined in the 19th and early 20th centuries by colonial powers with a ruler.

But what is a nation state?  State implies territory and nation implies culture, so a nation state implies a territory with a common culture.  Several states in this series of posts are multi-ethnic and/or multi-cultural.  They do not have the common culture that makes for a natural nation state and unlike the Ottoman Empire, they have no system to accommodate diversity.

The nation state idea arose from Romantic Age fantasies about racial heritage in early 19th century Europe.  States were replacing dynastic monarchies whose territory had often changed with the marriage of a king’s daughter.  Many states came to embrace ideas about the unique and superior nature of the people within their “traditional” borders.  The concept evolved in the 20th century into the idea of a fatherland, and that led to genocide in some nation states along with a world war over territory.

A different concept of nationalism arose in the second half of the 19th century as the Ottoman Empire declined.  Europe’s great nations were thriving as nation states, why not Arab nations, too?  In the early 20th century when much of the Arab world fell  to Europe’s colonial empires, the idea grew stronger.  All Arabs wanted the colonial powers gone — many wanted to replace their form of rule with a federation of Arab governments.

Arab World Map

When Arab independence came, mostly during or after WW2 and often with a ruler chosen by their imperial master, Egypt, Syria and Iraq made an abortive federation agreement, and there were other attempts, but local priorities and the drive for power always prevailed.

In fact, independent Turkey would never have allied closely with its Arab neighbors whether or not they united, nor would Turkey ally closely with Iran, and neither would Iran with the Arab world.  There’s simply too little history of good self-government, or willingness to trust.

Unsurprisingly, most post-Ottoman states have been stable only under a dictator whose military power subdued ethnic and religious rivalry within an arbitrarily defined territory.

So, how does the future look for Turkey and its neighbors?  Turkey and Iran have good potential as nation states.  Recently independent Kurdistan may have, too, but it has no natural borders.  Syria and Iraq are on the brink of fragmentation.  The Islamic State has no territorial or ethnic history, but its leaders may be sufficiently brutal to thrive for a time.

It is hard for Westerners to see a good future for the people of this area because we can no longer imagine any system of government other than nation states.  We think dynastic monarchies in the Middle East just need to become secular democratic republics like ours.  But the Ottoman millet system, for example, worked better than most nation states.

Hamilton argued in Federalist Paper 25 that power-seeking leaders of US states would make war on each other if they had military capability.  These nation states are doing exactly that.  We should stop arming them to escalate battles we do not understand.

We must also recognize that centuries of abuse by Europe’s colonial powers and now our own wars in Iraq and elsewhere have bred deep and inevitable mistrust of whatever help we may offer.

Beyond the Media Hype: Iraq

A stony plain west of the Euphrates inhabited by a few pastoral bedouins covers almost two-fifths of Iraq, which overall is about the size of California.  Rolling upland between the upper Tigris and Euphrates is also largely desert.  Highlands in the northeast provide Kurds with some grazing and cultivation but three quarters of all Iraqis live on an alluvial plain from north of Baghdad to the Persian Gulf through marshland from where the Tigris and Euphrates meet.    Crops are increasingly limited south of Baghdad by salinity from river-born and windblown sand.

Iraq Topography

Three-quarters of Iraqis are Arabs, most others are Kurds.  Most sources say two thirds of Iraqis are Shia, one third Sunni.  But some claim there’s a Sunni majority.  Kurds (17% of the population) are mainly secular Sunnis as are most Turkmen (around 5%).  What is disputed is how many Iraqi Arabs are Shia or Sunni.

Christianity was brought to Iraq in the first century by the Apostle Thomas and Christians were in 1950 as much as 10% of the population.  Many have fled and there are fewer than 1% now.  The majority of Jews also fled after riots in 1967 when Israel captured Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

The forces at work in Iraq now have deep roots in the past.  Centuries of battles between Persian and Eastern Roman empires that exhausted both paved the way for the Arab-Muslim conquest and the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate to be established in Baghdad in the 8th century.  It soon dominated the Middle East, North Africa and Spain, and Baghdad became the leading city of the entire Arab and Muslim world.  It was for five centuries Islam’s center of learning.

Umayyad Califate

That glorious age came to an end in 1257 when Genghiz Khan’s Mongols swept in from the far northeast and sacked Baghdad.  Sunnis had dominated throughout the Abbassid caliphate but Shia were able to convert others when it fell and more importantly, Sufi mystical Islam became popular in Iran, preparing the way for a subsequent Shia regime.   In the mid 1300s, the Black Death halted recovery in Iraq and throughout the Middle East where fully a third of the population died (45-50% in Europe).   Then in 1401, another Mongol warlord came, sacked Baghdad again and massacred the Assyrian Christians in northern Iraq.

The Shia Safavid Empire that arose next in Iran began with a battle in 1499 led by their first ruler when he was twelve.  He captured Tabriz two years later, declared independence from the Ottoman Empire (see below) and held most of present-day Iran by 1510.  He set up a well administered theocracy that brought a nomadic society under control and financed an army that soon conquered much of Iraq, Turkey, the Caucasus, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Iran Safavid Empire 2

The Safavid Empire ruled for more than two centuries, and enforced conversion to Shia under penalty of death.

The Ottoman Empire had been expanding in stages from the early 1300s.  Their siege of Constantinople in 1453 brought the Byzantine Empire to an end and left them in control of trade with the Far East.  They took Iraq from the Safavids in 1533.

Ottoman Empire

Iraq remained a battle zone between the Sunni Ottoman and Shia Iranian empires from then until the Ottoman Empire finally fell at the end of WW1.

The result of those centuries of turbulence is a Sunni population where Iraq borders Turkey, Kurds in the northeast, and a Shia population where Iraq borders Iran in the south.

Iraq Ethic and Religious Groups

The British got control of Iraq when the Ottoman Empire fell and established a Sunni government with a king from French Syria.  Iraq gained independence in 1932.  In 1941, Britain invaded to protect oil supplies following a military coup and reestablished the monarchy.  There was another military coup in 1958, and that regime was overthrown by the Ba’ath Party in 1968.

The Iraqi Ba’ath Party formed in 1951/2 was Arab Nationalist, socialist, and primarily Shia but it slowly became Sunni and dominated by the military.  When General Saddam Hussein gained control in 1979, he welcomed the fall of Iran’s Shah, but Ayatollah Khomeini, wanting the Islamic Revolution to spread, armed Shiite and Kurdish rebels in Iraq, so in 1980 Iraq declared war.  After some initial success, its forces were driven out in 1982 and for the next six years, Iran was on the offensive.  The war ended in stalemate with half a million to 1.5 million dead.

The US had broken with Iran when the Shah fell and supported Iraq in the 1980-1988 war, but when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, US-led forces quickly drove them out.  The Iraq/Kuwait border had been fixed by the British in 1913 and accepted at first by independent Iraq but it was disputed since the 1960s.  In 2003, claiming  that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the US reversed course and led an invasion.  Saddam Hussein’s government  was replaced by a Shia-led one that excluded many former officials and disbanded the mainly Sunni army, then chaos and intense violence ensued between Sunnis and Shias.

US leaders assumed a Shia government would be pro-American because Saddam Hussein had oppressed Iraq’s Shias.  Instead, it cautiously allied with Shia Iran, which the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel saw as a great threat.  VP Cheney warned of “a nuclear-armed Iran, astride the world’s supply of oil, able to affect adversely the global economy, prepared to use terrorist organizations and/or their nuclear weapons to threaten their neighbors and others around the world.”  Jordan’s King Abdullah warned of an Iranian-led imaginary crescent that would stretch from Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait through Iran to Syria and Lebanon.

sunni shia middle east

Those fears were fanciful.   There is much more in common between Sunni and Shia Iraqis than between Iraqi and Iranian Shia.  Iraq’s Shias are chiefly Arab while only 2% of Iranians are Arab, the majority being Persian (60%+) while those in the north are mostly of Turkish heritage (20%+) and Kurds (10%).  The conflict between Sunni and Shia in Iraq is chiefly about the right to rule.  It results from the Shias’ long suppression by Sunni governments in Baghdad.

Now Iraq’s leader since last September is trying to build trust with the Kurds and Sunnis who were alienated by his divisive Shia predecessor.  His view of Iran and Iraq’s strategic imperatives is clear.  He says he will “take any assistance, even from Iran” against the Islamic State that, in the aftermath of our destruction, now controls large parts of Iraq.  Iran began providing direct military aid to Iraq in mid-2014 and an Iranian General now appears to be commanding both Iraqi and Iranian forces against the Islamic State.

Iraq Military Situation

So…  Our government at this time finds itself supporting Iraq’s Shia government, increasingly less committed to overthrowing the Shia regime in Syria as its Sunni Arab allies want, and seeking to end its estrangement from Iran.

Confusing as that is, it is good to stop escalating bloodshed by arming adversaries whose allegiances keep changing.  I will explore what to do about the Islamic State in a future post.

The chaos in Iraq now is very far from new.   Its future will continue to be determined by its position between powerful rivals, and whether it can establish an effective government for all Iraqis.

Beyond the Media Hype: Syria

Centuries of violence underlie the civil war that has so far killed over a hundred thousand Syrians, driven out two million refugees, and displaced six and a half million internally, and it is just part of a war where we and other powers are fighting for our own conflicting aims.

Syria is where agriculture and cattle breeding began in Mesopotamia around 10,000 BC.  It has been under empires of Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Turkey.  It was held a thousand years ago by French, English, Italian and German Crusaders.  After WW1 when Iraq was taken by the British, it fell under France.  Britain later offered not to establish a Jewish state in Palestine in return for hegemony over a Greater Syrian state but France retained control until 1946.  Independent Syria made a chaotic start and was stable for only forty years.

Mesopotamia and Syria

Syria’s population includes Arabs, Greeks, Kurds, Turks and others.  Roughly three quarters of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, including Kurds who make up 9% of the overall population.  Shia Alawites (12%) and Christians (10%) make up the rest along with small numbers of Druze and others.

Although Sunni Arabs are by far the majority, Syria is ruled by Shia Alawites from the narrow coastal region that is separated by a mountain range from a semiarid steppe zone that covers three-quarters of the country and which is bisected by the Euphrates valley where cereals and cotton thrive.  The east is desert.  In the extreme northeast there is oil and natural gas.

Syria Topography

Newly independent Syria had military coups, twenty different cabinets and four constitutions in its first decade.  Martial law was in place for more than half a century after Israeli, British and French forces invaded Egypt in 1956 to regain the Suez Canal.  Syria signed a pact with the USSR when they were forced to withdraw then united with socialist pan-Arab Egypt from 1958-61.  The Arab Republic of Syria came into being in 1963 in a Ba’ath Party coup emulating one just before that in Iraq.

The Ba’ath Party was established in 1947 by a Christian, a Sunni Muslim and an Alawite Shia Muslim, anti-imperialists who aimed to replace religion with socialism and social reform.

In 1966 traditional Ba’athists were overthrown by Alawite army leaders.  In 1970, air force leader Hafez al-Assad seized control and ruled Syria as a strongman until his death in 2000.  He was succeeded by the present ruler, his son Bashar al-Assad.

In 1967 Syria lost half the Golan Heights when Israel also captured Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. After losing more of the Golan Heights in 1973 when Syria and Egypt invaded Israel, Syria entered Lebanon in 1976 and remained there until 2005 supporting proxies like Hezbollah to prevent Israel from taking southern Lebanon.  Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982.

Yom Kippur War map

Syria’s current Ba’athist Alawite regime is based in what was an Alawite State when Syria was ruled by France.  Under the Ottomans, the head of each ethno-religious group — Arab Shia, Arab Sunni, Greek Christian, Assyrian Christian, etc —  administered the laws of his community.  France defined Lebanon’s borders to put Sunni Muslims under Christians who were allied with France, and divided Syria into the State of Damascus at the heartland of the Sunni Arab majority, the State of Aleppo at the trading center of Kurds, Arab Christians, Armenians, and others who felt closer to Baghdad than Damascus, and the Druze and Alawite States where people are “sort of” Shia.

Alawites celebrate many Christian festivals, use bread and wine in their ceremonies, and believe they originated as divine light but were cast out of heaven for disobedience and must expiate their sin over many lifetimes.  Their God has three emanations that manifest in human form, most recently as father of the Shia faith, Ali, the prophet Muhammed and Salman the Persian who was born into a Zoroastrian priestly family, converted to Christianity, heard of the coming of another prophet and found Muhammed.  Salman was the first Persian convert to Islam and the first translator of the Quran.

For political reasons, the Alawites have been recognized as true Shias by Iran’s supreme leader.

French Mandate Syria and Lebanon

The US view of Syria has changed greatly since the civil war began in 2011.  In the early years of our War on Terror we were quite approving.  The Dept of State’s 2006 International Religious Freedom Report noted that Syria’s Government “suppresses extremist forms of Islam [and] made affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood punishable by death [in] 1980.”

We thought Bashar al-Assad was, like his father, keeping his people under firm control: “The generally amicable relationship among religious groups in society contributed to religious freedom; however, there were occasional reports of minor tensions between religious groups mainly attributable to economic rivalries rather than religious affiliation.”

Syria

But when Saudi Arabia recognized the Syrian National Coalition formed in Qatar in 2012 as “the legitimate representative” of the Syrian people and France and Turkey declared it the “only representative of the Syrian people” our State Dept issued a press release saying: “We look forward to supporting the National Coalition as it charts a course toward the end of Assad’s bloody rule and the start of the peaceful, just, democratic future that all the people of Syria deserve.”

The State Dept’s 2013 Human Rights Reports: Syria said: “Syria is a republic ruled by the authoritarian regime of President Bashar Asad … The Asad regime continued to use indiscriminate and deadly force to quell protests and conducted air and ground-based military assaults on cities, residential areas, and civilian infrastructures, including schools and hospitals throughout the country.”

Our media said nothing about the issues, just demonized Bashar al-Assad, the same playbook they used for Nicaragua’s Ortega, Panama’s Noriega and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

The State Dept report continued: “on August 21, the regime used sarin gas and artillery to target […] suburbs of Damascus, and killed over 1,000 persons.”  President Obama asked Congress to approve the use of military force “to deter, disrupt, prevent and degrade the potential for future uses of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.”

But just as there was no evidence for the “weapons of mass destruction” President Bush used to justify invading Iraq, there is no evidence that al-Assad’s regime was responsible for the sarin gas atrocity or has any weapons of mass destruction.

We did supply sarin gas that Saddam Hussein used on Iraq’s Kurds, but the gas used in Syria was not weapons-grade.  It appears to have been used by rebels who hoped to provoke us into helping them topple al-Assad’s government.

Now, four years into the civil war, Syria looks much as it did under the French Mandate except that the government still at this time controls a large part of what was the State of Damascus as well as the Alawite and Druze States.  Most of what was the State of Aleppo is now controlled by the Islamic State while the northeast is held by Rojavan forces.

Syrian Civil War

The Rojavan, aka Western Kurdistan, manifesto says: “The democratic confederalism of Kurdistan is not a State system, it is the democratic system of a people without a State… It takes its power from the people.”  Kurds want Kurdistan to include parts of Turkey, Iraq and Iran, too.  Kurds following Ottoman policy in the early 20th century massacred Christians throughout that area and were rewarded with their land.  More than half Syria’s poor are of Kurdish origin.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which controls territory in Iraq as well as Syria began operating under a different name in Jordan in 1999.  When we invaded Iraq in 2003 they attacked our forces, made suicide attacks on civilan targets and beheaded hostages.  They pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004 with the intent: “to free Iraq’s Sunnis from Shia and foreign oppression, and to further the name of Allah and restore Islam to glory.”  Early in 2014 al-Queda disavowed loose-cannon ISIL.

The al-Nusra Front is an al-Queda branch formed in Syria and Lebanon in 2012 that aims to overthrow the al-Assad government and replace it with a fundamentalist Sunni state.  They are focused on that alone and have warned against Western intervention.  ISIL announced its merger with al-Nusra in mid-2013 but fighting broke out between them a year later.

ISIL now controls much of Syria and Iraq while Syrian and Iraqi Kurds dominate the northeast.

Military Situation Iraq Syria

I will delve deeper into Iraq, Kurdistan and the Islamic State which in mid-2014 claimed religious, political and military authority over all Muslims worldwide.

So… our air strikes are now leading the battle against the Islamic State, but we destroyed Saddam Hussein’s secular Ba’athist regime in Iraq and say we will also end Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria, which clears the path toward a fundamentalist Sunni regime like the Islamic State.

Does what we’re doing make sense?  Our military can destroy, but will we like what comes next?

This 1993 article by Robert Kaplan is excellent.