One of the saddest events in history was the division of the former European colonial empires, which once controlled much of the world. While the end of European colonialism was a just and needed development, the manner in which it was carried out has caused decades of civil wars and bloody conflicts. With wars still raging, it’s easy to wonder if perhaps we should redraw map lines to better reflect the ethnicity and religion of the various people found in the Northern Middle East.
Unfortunately during the breakup of the colonial empires in the Middle East and Africa, little attention was paid to either the ethnicity or religion of the various peoples spread across the land. Instead countries were divided in a rather capricious fashion, following colonial standards that were far more concerned about physical than human geography.
The division of colonial holdings resulted in entire tribes and cultures suddenly being cleaved by the invisible lines of new nation-states. Long standing peoples suddenly found themselves divided across invisible national boundary lines. Most of these peoples, however, would remain more committed to their own culture than to their new national identity.
One the most prominent ethnic group to suffer this division is the Kurds in Norther Iraq and Sryia, Southern Turkey, and Eastern Iran. The Kurds number almost 40 million people spread throughout the region. They speak their own language, Kurdish, and while the majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, some practice Shia Islam, Christianity, and other religions. In general, Kurds identify more closely with other Kurdish people than with non-Kurds of the same religion.
Meanwhile in various places, including Iran and Iraq, Sunni and Shia populations have also been pressed together. The two sects of Islam, Sunni and Shia, have been warring with one another for hundreds of years. While the continued advancement of society may eventually ease tensions, as it did with Catholics and Protestants, the current reality is that tensions remain high.
Had countries in the Middle East been divided along religious and ethnic lines, there is a strong likelihood that many of the current tensions in the Middle East would have never existed in the first place. While the Western media loves to portray the on-going Syrian war as freedom fighter verse a dictatorship, the reality is far more complex with ethnic and religious undertones coming into play.
The idea of dividing the Middle East up along ethnic and religious lines may sound radical, but main stream politicians have voiced similar ideas. Vice President, Joe Biden, floated the idea of dividing Iraq along Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia lines at the beginning of the Iraq War.
This idea might sound radical but in many ways, Northern Iraq has already become a semi-autonomous state under Kurdish rule. Not surprisingly tensions between Kurdish Iraq and the rest of the nation have improved in recent years. Meanwhile tensions between Sunni and Shia populations throughout the rest of Iraq remain strained. Could Iraq have been stabilized more effectively if each population were given greater authority? The case in Kurdish Iraq suggests yes, though the risk of a full out civil war would be increased, especially through the first few years of rebuilding.
The same could be said of Syria. The dominant group in Syria is the Sunni Muslims, who control most of the country. In the Northeast, however, the Kurds dominate, while in the East there is a large population of Alawite people and the South, a small region, is dominated by the Druze people. The tensions between these groups has helped spark and fuel the on-going civil war, which has claimed 60,000 thousand lives and may result in many more casualties in the months to come.
As radical as it may sound, dividing Syria and Iraq into five new nation states arguably presents the best possibility for peace in the region. The Druze people in Southern Syria and the Alawite people in Eastern Syria could be given their own separate (and comparatively small) nation-state to govern. This would free them from years of oppression at the hands of the Syrian government and ensure that they are able to control their own destiny.
Meanwhile, the dominate Sunni population of Syria could be merged with the Sunni minority in Iraq, creating one large and stable Sunni state. This would help the new Sunni country develop a strong and stable Sunni nation, while also buttressing against Shia power (and thus potential aggression) in the East. While the Sunni peoples of Syria might be recalcitrant about watching the Druze and Alawite people form their own state, the addition of more Sunni lands and peoples could outweigh the loss. The same could be said of the Sunni people in Iraq.
The Kurds in North East Syria and across Iraq could likewise be granted their long-standing desire for independence. The creation of Kurdistan would almost certainly end the decades long independence campaign that the Kurds have fought and should greatly ease tensions throughout the region. There would be a risk, however, that tensions in Turkey would flair up as Kurdish regions there would seek to join with the new Kurdistan.
This would leave the Shia population in Iraq. By forming a new Shia country the tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq would almost certainly ease up. The biggest risk, however, would be of Shia Iraq being absorbed by Iran. While this risk is real, the poor track record of the Iranian government, the stagnant economy, and the importance of the U.S. to Shia Iraq would likely drive them away from Iran.
The biggest challenge would be to divide oil revenues between the nations. Oil fuels many wars and if oil revenues were not fairly divided in a five state solution, the risk of continued conflict would remain. While the task would be daunting, setting up an internationally monitored organization to divide and redistribute the oil wealth in a fair, equitable, and agreed upon manner could be achieved.
In reality, the five state solution will almost certainly never be carried out. Further, things are always easier to see in hindsight, but the sad fact is that much of the blood spilt in the sands and soils of the Middle East and Africa has been caused by the capricious drawing of map lines. Post-colonial planners probably had no idea how much war and suffering they would cause as their pens drew up modern Africa and the Middle East, but the results occurred none-the-less. It is highly unlikely that the Middle East can simply be “re-drawn”, instead peoples will have to learn to cooperate and work together to build mutually inclusive and prosperous futures, however difficult that may prove to be.