An Imperialist History of Middle Eastern Borders

by Laura Robson, author of States of Separation: Transfer, Partition, and the Making of the Modern Middle East

For years now, pundits and politicians alike have been tossing around the idea of drawing new borders in the Middle East as a “solution” to conflict there—first in Iraq following its descent into sectarian violence after the American invasion in 2003, and then in Syria following its own spiral into civil war in 2011. This much-repeated idea was trotted out yet again just this month, when Thomas Friedman of the New York Times wrote a column advocating the partition of Syria and the construction of some kind of semi-autonomous Sunni area—protected by an international military presence—as the “least bad solution” for an impossibly difficult problem.

Such proposals for externally enforced ethnic or sectarian partition in the Middle East—presumably involving at least some element of population transfer, given the demographic realities of Syrian population centers—have a long history, and an impeccable imperialist genealogy.

When British and French colonial administrations took over, respectively, Palestine and Iraq and Syria and Lebanon in the early 1920s, they did so in the context of furious challenges to nineteenth-century European imperialism from all directions. Nationalists from India to Ireland to Egypt marched in the streets against colonial rule; on the diplomatic stage, both Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin, from their radically disparate political platforms, denounced old-style imperial adventuring (although, of course, neither the American nor the Bolshevik state was interested in relinquishing its own extraterritorial claims).

In the Middle East, the idea of restructuring states around nationality, ethnicity, and sect emerged as a useful way to recast British and French imperial occupation as a kind of internationalist modernization. To that end, the British and French colonial authorities emphasized to both their new subjects and an international public that they were merely “mandatory” authorities, working under the supervision of the new League of Nations to create functional modern nation-states out of the old Ottoman Arab provinces. In conjunction with the League, they came up with a variety of plans for demographic engineering —communally conscious borders, forcible and coerced refugee resettlement, mass population transfers, and support for a European Jewish settler community in Palestine—that were designed to simultaneously offer a rationale for the British and French colonial presence and help control people and territory on the ground.

Ethnic engineering of this kind was useful at the levels of both international diplomacy and practical imperial governance. Even the resistance such plans engendered was valuable to colonial authorities; it served to reinforce the local and international case that external forces were necessary to keep order in such volatile regions, thus extending the life of these colonial occupations and defending the high levels of violence required to maintain them.

The contemporary resurrection of this concept serves the same purposes. It offers a rationale for a long-term American and European military presence in the Middle East under the guise of “protecting”—that is, creating and enforcing—ethnically and communally homogenous nation-states. The appeal of this idea lies in the way it turns failure to success: the more chaos and bloodshed results from such policies, the stronger the case becomes for an ongoing—perhaps permanent—administrative and military presence, internationalist in name but acting primarily in the economic, political, and strategic interests of the occupying powers.


Laura Robson is Associate Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at Portland State University. She is the author of Colonialism and Christianity in Mandate Palestine and editor of Minorities and the Modern Arab World: New Perspectives.


Twice the Palestinian Knowledge, Half the Price!

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This holiday season, UC Press is pleased to partner with the Institute for Palestine Studies to offer the best Palestinian scholarship and stories. For the month of December only, you (or a lucky friend you choose!) can get 45% off on:

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On Jerusalem: A Special Virtual Issue from the Journal of Palestine Studies

Few places in the world are enmeshed in as much tension and debate as Jerusalem: as a historical site, a symbol of national identity, and a modern city. It has been destroyed, besieged, attacked, built, and re-built many times over its long history. With the city’s complex status remaining central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Journal of Palestine Studies presents its Special Virtual Issue: On Jerusalem, a collection of curated articles and essays on the city’s historical transformation and the contemporary context in which East Jerusalemites are living.

READ THE SPECIAL VIRTUAL ISSUE

IncluSpecial Virtual Issue Cover - Jerusalem copy-1ding some introductory material by Rashid Khalidi (Editor, Journal of Palestine Studies) and Khelil Bouarrouj (Online Content Editor, Institute for Palestine Studies), this Virtual Issue features a dossier on Jerusalem, a triptych of essays penned by prominent Palestinian and Israeli Jerusalemites who analyze the impact of the latest wave of violence and heightened repression on the city’s Palestinian residents. The Virtual Issue also showcases seven pieces from the Journal’s archive that serve both as context and complement to the dossier and provide a comprehensive look at Jerusalem’s recent history. Lastly, we round out this Virtual Issue with documents from our primary Documents and Source Material archive specifically related to the status of Jerusalem.

The Virtual Issue is available free in its entirety for one month. Don’t miss the latest from the Journal of Palestine Studies: visit jps.ucpress.edu to become a subscriber or to sign up for the Institute for Palestine Studies’ free newsletter.


Paris Attacks Herald Strategic Shift By Islamic State

This guest post, by Abdel Bari Atwan, was originally published on Rai al-youm. It is being republished here with permission from the author.


Abdel Bari Atwan

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The entire continent of Europe is in a state of shock after Friday’s attacks in Paris which have been claimed by the Islamic State. The sense of imminent danger spread across the Atlantic when the group’s Wilayat Kirkuk issued a warning, Monday, of a similar assault on Washington DC.

The West has consistently underestimated the strength and capabilities of Islamic State (IS) which first established itself in the incubators provided by security vacuums in Syria and Iraq, themselves the result in part or in total of Western interference, whether military or political or both. The sectarianism that enables IS to thrive and which drives the endless blood-letting in the Middle East these days was exacerbated by the West who, for example, imposed and supported the prejudiced, exclusive government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad. Syria is in ruins because the West and its regional allies decided that President Assad should be toppled, seemingly forgetting that his opponents had no military experience (the rest of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions were played out politically), that Assad would fight to the death because he didn’t want to go, and that he has the most powerful allies in Russia, China, and Iran.

Now IS is spreading outwards, its Middle Eastern strongholds under attack by Kurdish troops and Western planes. It is motivated by revenge and the urge to conquer.

Islamic State has already issued a chilling warning that Paris was “just the beginning of the storm.” The impact of these attacks is already being felt, certainly in political terms: when the G20 leaders met in Antalya, Turkey, on Sunday, a plethora of mutually important subjects were meant to be on the agenda: Syria, youth unemployment, energy in Sub-Saharan Africa, the silver economy, Islamic finance, tourism, and agriculture among many other topics. All their talk, however, was dominated and overshadowed by the problem of what to do about IS. The conference’s final statement was a vow to co-operate in the fight against terror, with no new strategy agreed on the most pertinent associated question: the future of Syria.

John Brennan, Director of the CIA, warned in a television interview that Paris was probably not the only attack and that more were likely in Western cities. He spoke of beefing up the CIA’s intelligence role but acknowledged that IS has taken hi-tech measures to make electronic surveillance extremely difficult. Meanwhile, Michael Morell, former deputy CIA director under Obama, overtly criticized his former boss’s policy on IS but failed to pinpoint what could be done instead. It is this “dithering” which has allowed the current emergency to escalate: “I think it’s now crystal clear to us that our strategy, our policy vis-à-vis ISIS is not working and it’s time to look at something else,” Morell told CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is also placing his faith in intelligence to protect the citizens of London, releasing an emergency budget of $3 billion to fund, among other measures, an additional 1,900 security personnel.

If we carefully consider the literature put out by IS, and in particular its magazine, Dabiq, it is clear that the IS strategy is to provoke the West to send in ground troops to fight them after the failure of more than 8,000 air sorties.

IS strategy is largely informed by a 2003 internet treatise called “The Management of Savagery” by Abu Bakr Naji (pseudonym). Naji points clearly to a period of “conquest,” exploiting weak security in enemy territories, spreading terror, and destroying their economies. Tourism is specifically mentioned and IS has already hit hard at Tunisia, Turkey and, most recently Egypt, by downing the Russian passenger plane over Sinai killing all 224 people on board.

IS has, in effect, declared war on more than 100 countries, including the three great powers (America, Russia, China), those with slightly less clout (such as France, Britain and Germany), and regional powers (such as Saudi Arabia and Iran). It appears to have embarked on a new strategic path, adopting the approach of al-Qa’ida in attacking Western targets in European capitals, and, for the time being at least dropping its ambitions to expand its existing territories.

In other words, because IS is incapable of effectively combating coalition airstrikes—since it does not possess planes and lacks the necessary ground-to-air defence missile systems—it has decided to move from defence to attack and from a more conventional form of war to a guerrilla, urban, hit and run style. Clearly this represents a serious threat not only to Western countries, but countries in the Middle East and North Africa region too.

In a new video released by the organization on Monday, the speaker urged “Moslems” everywhere to “target the Crusaders on their own turf and wherever they are.” He also explicitly threatened Europe with bombs and further menaced France saying, “We haven’t forgotten your crimes.”

Attacks in Europe in the past have mostly been by “sleeper cells” or “lone wolves,” but IS is actively recruiting young men from third generation immigrant populations in France and Belgium who have never even been to the countries of their parents and grandparents. This makes the security services’ job much harder since these are young men (and sometimes women) who are exactly the same as everyone else on the crowded streets of Paris, Bruxelles, London, or Berlin and who speak with the same vocabulary and accent.

The French air strikes in response to the attacks of Paris can be understood in terms of the popular desire for justice and revenge but policies born of anger rarely succeed. It may be useful to recall the reaction of President George W. Bush who invaded Afghanistan after the September 11 terrorist attacks and occupied Iraq two years later.

The current security emergency in Europe can only be ended by a political solution to all the issues facing the region, not only the Syrian crisis. A full review of all Western and Arab policies in the region is required since they brought us to this terrible situation. Meanwhile, the terrifying lion that is Islamic State has stretched its leg across the seas and into Paris. God only knows where it will reach next.


Islamic State cover

Abdel Bari Atwan is a Palestinian writer and journalist. He was the editor in chief at the London-based daily al-Quds al-Arabi for twenty-five years and now edits the Rai al-Youm news website—the Arab world’s first Huffington Post–style outlet. He is a regular contributor to a number of publications, including the Guardian and the Scottish Herald, and he is a frequent guest on radio and television, often appearing on the BBC’s Dateline London.

Purchase Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate on our website for 30% off with discount code 15M4426 at checkout.


UC Press at MESA 2014

University of California Press is exhibiting at the 2014 Middle East Studies Association Annual Meeting. The meeting convenes November 22-25 in Washington, D.C.

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