All We Need is — War?

President Obama’s $583B final military budget is being sold on the premise that we are in a “new strategic era” challenged by Russia, China, North Korea, “Iran’s malign influence” and Islamic State terrorism.

We will therefore increase our military spending in Europe from $789M to $3.4B with “more rotational US forces,” “pre-positioned” weaponry and “infrastructure improvements” in response to “Russian aggression” in Ukraine and Syria, and our $71B research budget will establish “arsenal planes” to overwhelm air defenses, swarming micro-drones to be deployed from high-altitude aircraft, and much, much more.  We will also spend $40B over five years to enhance our submarine fleet.

What?  We are the ones who provoked “Russian aggression in Ukraine”, we are deeply complicit in the Syrian nightmare and we are fighting alongside “malign Iran” against the Islamic State.

Quadrupling our forces near Russia’s borders will restart the Cold War.  Western military power has not been so close to Russia since Germany’s 1941 invasion that left 10 or 20 million Russians dead.  Russia must avert any risk of that happening again.  What will they do?  Move forces near their borders.  And presumably increase spending on nuclear arms to match our plan to spend $1,000B+ on them over the next three decades.

So why are we doing all this?  Because restarting the Cold War, perpetuating violence in the Middle East and fomenting it in the Far East will continue to grow the weapons market.

International Transfers of Major Weapons

And why are “we the people” willing to spend so much to counter threats whose reality we do not question?  Because the mainstream media swamps us in fear, politicians keep telling us to be afraid, and the economy of local communities like mine depends on military spending.

How much do we spend?  Our fiscal year 2015 federal budget totaled $3.8T or $12,000 per person.  Social Security and Medicare, which are funded by dedicated taxes, are each around 23% of the total.  Around 29% or $1.11T is for “discretionary” programs that are authorized by Congress each year.

New military spending of $598B accounted for 54% of the discretionary 2015 programs, a further $160B of the overall budget was for veterans benefits, half or more of the  $229B in payments on debt resulted from wars on Iraq and Afghanistan whose cost we borrowed, and it is estimated there is another $50B+ of covert action and surveillance spending hidden in other areas.

That’s almost $1T of military spending or $3,100+ per person every year.

discretionary spending 2015

I’m not saying we should eliminate military spending — we should spend less.  We would spend much less if we thought realistically about the threats we’re told necessitate this year’s spending.

We’ve been led to believe something very odd.  The Dalai Lama puts it well:  “Since armies are legal, we feel that war is acceptable; in general, nobody feels that war is criminal …  In fact, we have been brainwashed.  War is … tragedy and suffering.”  He continues:  “although I am deeply opposed to war … it is often necessary to take a strong stand to counter unjust aggression.”

How much less would you spend on our military, and how would you use those savings to make the world happier?

The State of Our Warfare Industry

Wars used to be fought for control of land, resources and people.  Some went on a long time, but they all ended.  Now, however, war is for the USA an industry.  Its goal is not peace and stability, but ever-growing war and instability.

Media bloviating about protecting the homeland, supporting allies, and spreading democracy is a well functioning distraction.  Industry leaders are expected to deliver growth, so warfare industry leaders are promoting terror.

Over the past decade the Middle East warfare market has been well penetrated to become a base for expansion throughout the area encircled by the “Functioning Core”:

Air_and_Space_MajGenMcDew [Compatibility Mode]

The GlobalFirePower project, which tracks defense spending around the world and shows our spending ($577B) to be four times higher than our closest competitor, China, and almost ten times higher than our former arch-rival, Russia, headlines its website: “Going to war is never a decision to be taken lightly, especially when considering the overall cost of such ventures.”

So how did it happen that we no longer consider the cost of wars, and why is it that we no longer decide whether to undertake them, only where we will make wars?

As these Federal Budget charts illustrate, we categorize military spending ($598B) as “discretionary” unlike Social Security and Medicare which are funded via dedicated taxes.  Discretionary means not mandatory, but no politician proposing big cuts in military spending is electable.

I’ve written before about Our Sacrosanct Jobs Program (“One man spoke of the mass unemployment of the 1930s and said that if we could attain full employment by killing Germans, we could have full employment by building houses, schools and hospitals”) and I’ve written about our arms export industry whose collapsing market after the Cold War was rejuvenated by President Bush’s War on Terror.

International Transfers of Major Weapons

It was only in President Eisenhower’s 1961 Farewell Address, when he would never again seek election, that he warned:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.  The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Two years later, in 1963, President Kennedy tried again.  Condemning the demonization of Soviet leaders, he warned against the Pax Americana we still seek to enforce today:

“What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war … I am talking about genuine peace – the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living … let us not be blind to our differences – but let us direct attention to our common interests and to means by which those differences can be resolved.”

President Kennedy was soon assassinated, his successor, President Johnson, led us into the Vietnam nightmare, in the next decades we greatly increased our military spending while fighting only small wars, and then President Bush hoodwinked us into a War on Terror that can by definition never end.

Now, when President Obama endorses spending $1,000B+ over the next three decades to enhance our ability to fight nuclear war using weapons with more flexible targeting and a range of yields even down to that of large conventional weapons, Ike is not among Obama’s potential successors.

Ike, Trump and Cruz

Let’s take stock.  How is Pax Americana going?

Late last month Iraqi forces retook the provincial capital, Ramadi, from the Islamic State.  That was possible primarily due to US airstrikes which, as a side-effect, destroyed over 80% of the city.  Victories like that destroy peoples’ means of existence.

As I wrote here when I began researching the Middle East:  “We have come to believe it is not only right but good to send our children to kill, and we revel in the destruction our media presents.”

Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Mali are already failing or failed states, we will drop another 23,000 bombs on them and others this year, and our drones will go on creating “collateral damage” there, in Pakistan and beyond.

Back when I was a Senior Vice President of a large global enterprise, I sometimes imagined my colleagues’ decisions that would have bad results to be stupid.  They were not.  I was the stupid one, not recognizing those results were desired.  Now, our warfare industry leaders and I want different results.

The War on Terror will continue to grow our market.  The state of our warfare industry is strong.

Islam in the USA

Around 200,000 Africans had been brought to the US, some of them Muslims, when 55 delegates gathered at the 1787 Constitutional Convention.  Among them, 51 were Christian.  Some said Islam threatens Christianity, but those in favor of religious liberty prevailed.

John Adams had written a decade earlier in Thoughts on Government that Muhammad was a “sober inquirer after truth” along with Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, and others, and as President in 1797 he declared that the US has no “enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen (Muslims).”

But Islam was not much thought about after that until the late 19th century since most owners made slaves attend Christian churches.  It was only when immigrants began arriving from the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent that Muslims began to be noticeable.  Now the pace has greatly accelerated — two in five Muslim immigrants have come since 1990.

Around 3.3 million or 1% of the US population is Muslim today.  About 40% are white, 30% African-American and 30% Asian.   About half the native-born US Muslims are African-American, many of them converts, and 16% belong to what used to be the Nation of Islam aka the Black Muslims.

Muslim American Demographics

The first US mosque was founded in 1915, the first built specifically as a mosque in 1934.   Of 2,000+ mosques in the U.S. now, almost 90% were founded in the last three decades.  Around 400 are associated with The American Society of Muslims, the successor to the Nation of Islam.

During the first half of the 20th century, a small number of African Americans had established groups based on Islamic teachings.  Then in 1930 the Nation of Islam (NOI) was created.  Christianity, its founder declared, was the white man’s religion, forced on African Americans during the slave experience.  He said Islam was their identity.

The message resonated even though most slaves had come from West Central Africa where there were relatively few Muslims.  Slavery had been outlawed since 1865 but seventy years later in the 1930s, African Americans were still oppressed.  It felt long past time to bring that to an end.

In the 1950s Malcolm X, whose house was burned by Ku Klux Klan terrorists when he was a child, became the charismatic face of the NOI advocating complete separation of blacks and whites.

That Islam was brought to the US by relatively recent immigrants and embraced by black separatists colors our attitudes today.  And there is a much longer and broader history that labels Westerners and Muslims in each others eyes.

Pew Research studied traits each sees in the other in a cross-section of Western and Middle East and Asian Muslim nations.  No surprise; Westerners and Muslims see each other as violent and fanatical.

Westerners consider Muslims to be above all fanatical and lacking respect for women.  Muslims consider Westerners to be above all selfish and not generous.

Muslims also see Westerners as violent, greedy, immoral, arrogant, fanatical, neither honest nor tolerant, and not very respectful of women.

But perhaps surprisingly, although Westerners see Muslims as violent and intolerant, they also see them as honest, quite generous, and not selfish, immoral or greedy.

Muslim vs Western Perceived Characteristics

The perception Muslims have of Westerners was formed centuries ago in the Crusades, confirmed by Britain and France’s more recent colonial domination, and compounded by US-led regime change and warfare in the Middle East now as well as Islamophobia whipped up by our politicians and media.

Westerners and Muslims have a long history of prejudice and violence toward each other, but that can change.  It is encouraging that, along with the negatives, Pew Research found Westerners attributing positive traits to Muslims, especially in Europe where there are many more Muslims .

The more we interact the more accepting of differences most of us will become and the safer we all will be.

Let’s Stop Being Terrorized

A year ago we were exhorted to close our borders against Ebola.  Some State Governors went ahead and did so, taking action, they said, when President Obama would not.

Then a friend posted this appalling and spurious image.  What we should really fear, she thought, is Islam.  One in three conservative Republicans already believed President Obama to be a Muslim.

Although fear trumps facts, that particular lie did not have legs.  Islam does not allow such behavior and Ayatollah Khomeini, who died a quarter of a century ago, is not the “current leader of Iran.”

Fear is a helpful survival instinct — we’re safer taking automatic fight-or-flight action with intellect engaging only later.  But there’s a downside.  Because it closes our mind, instilling fear is a powerful way to control us.

Knowing that, politicians are now instilling fear of a much more potent terror, ISIS.  They say it is the true face of a religion that commands its followers to kill all others.  And some Americans think they know exactly what to do about that nightmare.

Mainstream media eagerly participates in the fear-mongering.  Ten days after the recent San Bernardino massacre, the New York Times claimed one of the attackers had years ago publicly committed to terrorism.

The allegation is false, said FBI Director Comey, and the Times provided no evidence, but presidential candidates claimed it as a catastrophic Obama administration failure.

Voters want someone to blame for their struggles, politicians want us to have an enemy because they will get more power if we are fearful, and mainstream media amplifies our fears so we will consume more.  Our emotions are being manipulated.  We are being misdirected.

As I wrote a year ago, while we cannot eliminate infectious disease, a health care system that encourages all with symptoms to get treatment right away would minimize the spread of disease.

And while San Bernardino was horrific and likely was inspired by ISIS publicity, the odds of being killed by terrorists in America are extremely small. Depending on how you define them, there have been 40 mass shootings since 9/11/2001 but only a few were terrorist attacks.

Mass Shootings Map

We cannot anticipate all future mass shootings or other kinds of massacres.  We could not have anticipated Timothy McVeigh killing 168 people with a homemade bomb in Oklahama City twenty years ago, or the drivers who mass murder pedestrians.

We could eliminate many mass shootings, however, including San Bernardino and the massacre in my home town, by removing assault weapons and semi-automatic handguns with high-capacity magazines from our society.

And we could go further.  We could start eliminating the future equivalent of this year’s 355 shootings  in which four or more were injured or killed, and this year’s 33,000 individual deaths and 80,000 hospitalizations from gunshots.

Police work will not end hatred of blacks, Muslims, our government, fellow workers, shooters’ families or others, desire for fame, other people’s money or ending one’s own life, or just plain foolishness.

But we could start eliminating the easy way to kill by removing not only assault weapons and semi-automatic handguns with high-capacity magazines from our society, but all hand guns.  We could even restrict rifles and shotguns.

I do not expect our society will make that choice.  I expect our freedom to own a wide range of weapons will continue to outweigh its costs.  We will choose to continue having mass shootings.

Perhaps we will get a universal health care system one day because our present approach costs far too much.  But our freedom to own guns does not seem something about which we can make conscious choices.

Beset by all these nightmares and more, is there anything we can do as individuals?  As this wise Christian leader wrote when we faced immediate nuclear extinction, we can pull ourselves together and meet our fate doing sensible and human things.

Let’s stop being terrorized by politicians and media people.  Let’s summon the courage to live in the happily generous American way.

Things we do out of fearfulness with which we’ve been infected frustrate and sadden people like this Muslim family that we would not allow to come on holiday and enrage those in other countries like our own “Overpasses for America” people.  That rage is why some want to kill us.

So let’s each of us do the deeply human thing.  Let’s learn how to help each other overcome fear.

Beyond the Media Hype: Egypt

Egypt is on the Mediterranean and Red Seas with the Suez canal connecting the two.  It borders Libya in the west, the Gaza Strip and Israel in the east and Sudan in the south.  It is about the size of Texas plus New Mexico.

Most of Egypt is desert, about two thirds of it part of the sandy and extremely harsh Libyan desert.   A more mountainous desert extends from the Nile Valley to the Red Sea.  The Sinai Peninsula east of that is also desert.  The only agricultural land is in the Nile Valley and Nile Delta.

Egypt Detail Map

The Nile runs about 500 miles to its delta from the Aswan Dam near the Sudan border.  The dam was built in the 1960s to control flooding, provide irrigation and generate electricity.  The annual Nile floods used to wash away crops in high-water years and failed to support them in low-water ones.

The great majority of Egypt’s 88 million people, over half of whom are under 20 years old and 91% of whom are ethnic Egyptians, live near the banks of the Nile, about half of them in urban areas, mostly Cairo, Alexandria and other major Nile Delta cities.  The entire Nile Valley and Nile Delta account for about 5.5% of Egypt’s land, and since much of that delta is marshland, 98% of the population lives on only 3% of Egypt’s entire territory.

Egypt Population Density

An estimated 90% of Egyptians are Muslim, 9% Coptic Christian and 1% other Christian denominations.  An estimated two thirds of the Muslims are Sunni, 13% are non-denominational, 17% are Egyptian-Sufi, and 3% are Shia.  Over 90% of the Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.

Egypt’s known history begins twelve thousand years ago with a grain-grinding culture.  When climate changes or overgrazing a couple of thousand years later began to turn the land to desert, the people moved to the Nile Valley.  Some of the earliest developments in writing, agriculture, urbanization, organized religion and central government were made there where a unified kingdom was founded five thousand years later and a distinctively Egyptian religious and artistic culture began to flourish.  Many of the great pyramids were built in that time.

Christianity arrived in Egypt three thousand years later as its native civilization was fading, then it was conquered by Muslim Arabs in 639–42. They ruled Egypt for the next six centuries and were followed in 1250 by Mamluks, a military caste of Turkic slaves brought by Muslim rulers to Iraq in the 9th century.   Although the Mamluk regime was conquered by Ottoman Turks in 1517, they continued to rule semi-autonomously until France invaded in 1798.  When they were driven out in 1805, an Ottoman military commander took over.  His dynasty ruled until 1952 although they were by then British puppets.

Eight hundred years of benign, oppressive or behind the scenes military rule explains much about Egypt today, along with the results of several hundred years of rule by colonial powers, persistent social injustice and now, a very high percentage of under twenty year-olds.

Egypt’s debt to European banks from its partnership with France to complete the Suez Canal in 1869 was so great that it was soon forced to sell its share to Britain.  Expecting great benefit since the canal cut 4,300 miles off the sea distance between Europe and South Asia, Egypt instead got British and French controllers in its cabinet.

When the Ottomans allied with Germany in WW1, Britain replaced Egypt’s anti-British ruler and declared it a Protectorate.  The country rose in revolt after the war when Britain exiled leaders of the nationalist movement that won the first election.  Britain declared Egypt’s independence in 1922 but retained control and maintained a military presence until 1956.

Opposition to British rule led in 1928 to formation of the Muslim Brotherhood which focused first on education and charity but soon became a political force, too, advocating for the disenfranchised, modernization of Islam, and Egyptian nationalism.  During WW2 the Brotherhood sabotaged British forces in Egypt and supported terrorism in British Palestine.  In 1945, educated, lower middle class army officers established a secret Free Officers Movement within the Brotherhood.  In 1948, the Prime Minister outlawed it and was assassinated by one of its members.

In 1950, Gamal Nasser was chosen to head the still secret Free Officers Movement and began preparing to end British influence once and for all.  The military coup d’etat he organized in 1952 was quite peaceful, the Egyptian Republic was declared the following year and he became President in 1956.  Although the revolution was supported by the Brotherhood, they were given no role in the government.  When a Muslim Brother tried to assassinate Nasser during his 1954 speech celebrating the upcoming British military withdrawal, his response from the podium: “My countrymen, my blood spills for you and for Egypt. I will live for your sake and die for the sake of your freedom and honor” made him a hero.  He abolished the Brotherhood and imprisoned thousands of its members.

Nasser went on to became leader not only of Egypt but of many Arabs everywhere.  He promoted political unification of all Arabs.  All foreign powers would be expelled and Arabs would govern themselves via Arab Socialism, which meant not Communism but eliminating the exploitation of one group of citizens by another.

Nasser’s policy toward the Great Powers was neutral and wary.  He saw it as a continuation of British influence when in 1955 Britain, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Turkey, encouraged by the US, formed the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) to counter Russian expansion.  After Israel attacked the Egyptian-held Gaza Strip the same year and Egypt’s forces were too weak to respond, he made an arms deal with Czechoslovakia.  The US had stopped supplying arms because Egypt was neutral toward the USSR.

In 1956, when the US withdrew funding for the Aswan High Dam, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal.  France, Britain, and Israel invaded but US President Eisenhower forced them to withdraw.  Nasser later got funding for the dam from Russia.  He established a Constitution that enabled women to vote and prohibited gender-based discrimination.  By the end of the next year he had nationalized all British and French assets as well as other businesses, in total one third of the overall economy.

Pan-Arabism was by this time supported throughout the Arab world and Nasser seemed able to bring it about.  He opposed communism but the US saw pan-Arabism as a threat, too, and tried to build up King Saud as a counterweight.  When Egypt and Syria formed the United Arab Republic in 1958, absorbed the Gaza Strip and aligned with North Yemen, King Saud’s plan to have Nasser assassinated became instead a triumph when he waved the Saudi check for shooting down his plane to cheering masses in Syria’s capital.

In 1961, Nasser helped establish, along with Burma, Ghana, India, Indonesia and Yugoslavia, the Non-Aligned Movement of developing countries opposed to the Cold War.  It now has 120 members.  The same year he made Egypt’s leading Sunni institution authorize coeducational schools and declare Shia, Alawaite and Druze no longer heretical.

When civil war broke out in North Yemen in 1962 after a republic was declared, Jordan and Saudi Arabia supplied military aid to the royalists.  Nasser supplied troops and weapons to the republican side hoping to go on and expel British forces from South Yemen.  The war ended in 1970 in stalemate.

Also in 1962 Nasser introduced another new constitution along with a National Charter that included free universal health care, affordable housing, free education, more women’s rights, a minimum wage, and land reforms that gave tenant farmers security.  Government ownership of Egyptian business increased to 51%.  The economy came close to collapse by the end of the 1960s.

When Russia told him in 1967 that Israel was about to attack Syria, Nasser deployed troops near Israel’s border, expelled UN peacekeepers and blocked Israel’s access to the Red Sea saying, “our basic objective will be to destroy Israel.”  King Hussein, fearing that Israel would seize the West bank, committed Jordan to join Egypt and Syria.  Israel quickly captured Sinai and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.  Russia then resupplied about half of Egypt’s arms and Nasser cut relations with the US.

When Nasser died in 1970 he was succeeded by Anwar Sadat who realigned Egypt from Russia to the United States and launched economic reform.  Nasser had suppressed Muslim movements but Sadat hoped to win their support.  He freed Muslim Brothers from jail but left the Brotherhood outlawed.  Allied with Syria, he launched an attack in 1973 to regain part of the Sinai Israel had captured.  That later enabled him to regain all Egypt’s Sinai territory in return for peace with Israel, but after signing a 1979 peace agreement with Israel, he was considered an enemy of Muslims and was assassinated in 1981 by a Muslim extremist.

Hosni Mubarek, an air force commander during the 1973 war, was elected next.  He was subsequently elected to three more 6-year terms (but was the only candidate in the first two).  Despite mass arrests the Muslim Brotherhood continued to push for more democracy and against Western erosion of Islamic culture, and they continued to gain support, mainly because of their social services.

In 1989, the USA designated Egypt a major non-NATO ally.  In 1991, Mubarak began privatizing the economy and passing severe freedom-inhibiting laws.  The economy flourished but terrorist attacks increased, too, and parliament had almost no role by the late 1990s.  In 2005, although Brotherhood candidates could run only as independents, they won 20% of the parliamentary seats.  Two years later, independent candidates were banned and thousands of Brotherhood members were arrested.  The Brotherhood boycotted the 2008 election and in 2010 there were more massive arrests and all but one of their candidates lost.

Mubarak ruled Egypt for over thirty years and intended his son to succeed him but widespread protests forced him to resign in 2011.  The Egyptian military then reemerged and took over.  They legalized the Brotherhood and held an election.  The Brotherhood’s newly formed Freedom and Justice Party won almost half the seats and its candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was elected president.

Morsi granted himself unlimited powers and proposed what opponents said was an Islamist constitution, then twenty to thirty million protesters took to the streets.  The military stepped back in, removed him and re-outlawed the Brotherhood.  The US withdrew military aid to protest the abuse of democracy.  Morsi was charged with crimes that include inciting jihad in collaboration with Hezbollah and Hamas.  The head of the military, el-Sisi was elected president in early 2014.  Today Morsi was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the killing of demonstrators in 2012.  Last year, the UN condemned the sentencing to death of 1,200 people in mass trials “rife with procedural irregularities.”

On April 1, 2015 (sic) the US restored $1.3B of military aid to Egypt, our second largest total after Israel.  In September 2014, Russia had agreed to a $3.5B arms deal with Egypt and a few months later Egypt had facilitated a Russian arms deal with Libya.

Escalating the Middle East arms race will not end well.  Egypt’s relations with Iran are strained by Iran’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia, its relations with Turkey are strained by Turkey’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood, and it is militarily active in Yemen where Saudi Arabia and Iran are amplifying an age-old local conflict being exploited by Al Queda.

Meanwhile, Egypt is riven internally by the conflicting aims of Muslim Brothers, Coptic Christians, secularist and military leaders.  And there are no jobs for 39% of the under twenty year-old half of Egypt’s population.

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: 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.