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University of Basel

Is there such a thing as “fair” borders?

Text: Irène Dietschi

There are many who would blame the wretched state of certain countries today on borders that were arbitrarily and carelessly drawn up by their former colonial powers. Some scholars, however, remain skeptical about this claim.

The historical ruins of Ani on the Turkish-Armenian border: The area in the foreground is Turkish, whereas the hills in the background belong to Armenia. (Photo: Alexander Balistreri)
The historical ruins of Ani on the Turkish-Armenian border: The area in the foreground is Turkish, whereas the hills in the background belong to Armenia. (Photo: Alexander Balistreri)

It is a bit reminiscent of a sandbox game. The idea is that, to reduce the number of conflicts in the Middle East, all one needs to do is rethink the borders so that they better reflect the identities of the populations concerned. For Alexander Balistreri, this is a typical chicken-and-egg problem. Balistreri is a research associate in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Basel. He is currently researching the history of the multiethnic border region between the Caucasus and Anatolia.
He says that very few conflicts in the Middle East have been sparked by borders themselves. Most of them are about state power, with the borders serving merely as a pretext.

“Take Syria as an example,” Balistreri explains. “In the Syrian war, borders played only a secondary role at first. The trigger for the conflict was the Arab Spring of 2011 and the protests against President Assad’s regime.” Only later did actors who made the borders an issue become involved. Thus, the so-called Islamic State abolished the border between Iraq and Syria. This terrorist militia also wants to break down the other state borders in the Middle East, in order to replace them with a jihadist “state-building project”.

Parceled up between Britain and France

Let us turn the clock back 100 years. The end of World War I also marked the demise of the Ottoman dynasty, which had held power since 1299. A new Middle East came into being – with roughly the same borders as today. In the Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916, Britain and France divided up the region into colonial spheres of interest. Britain gained control over what is now Jordan, Iraq and some areas around Haifa. The French asserted control over south-eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Under the agreement, the French and British Governments were free to decide for themselves where the state boundaries within their respective spheres of influence should run.

For Balistreri, however, this narrative is too simplistic. “None of the countries in the region was created from nothing.” The French and the British were the main players when it came to drawing the borders, of course. “Still, it is wrong to think that the new dividing lines in the Middle East were created with a ruler and drawing board, as it were, at the end of the Ottoman Empire. Every one of these borders was negotiated. There was a great deal of dispute, but also subsequent changes.”

For example, Turkey in 1920 accepted the ceasefire lines as new national frontiers – a historical coincidence – but these borders were to change several times. As a gesture of friendship, Turkey ceded to the Soviet Union parts of the Caucasus that had belonged to the Ottoman Empire from time immemorial and were not occupied. At the southern frontier, on the other hand, France handed over the district then known as Alexandretta (today’s Iskenderun, in Hatay province) to Turkey in 1938. “The French did it for diplomatic reasons,” Balistreri explains, “as a way of trying to get Turkey to enter World War II on their side.” In a similar way, practically all the region’s borders have been used as political footballs by different local interests and actors over the years. As a result, every border has its own origin story.

American plans to reshape the region

After the wars in the Gulf, a range of plans and proposals for rescuing the Middle East by redrawing its borders appeared in the US media. How some circles imagined a reshaped Middle East might look was set out in the Armed Forces Journal, a publication by leading figures in government and industry, in 2006. “The most glaring injustice in the notoriously unjust lands between the Balkan Mountains and the Himalayas is the absence of an independent Kurdish state,” the piece stated, arguing that, after the fall of Baghdad, the USA and its coalition partners had “missed a glorious chance to begin to correct this injustice”.

According to this US publication, the map of the Middle East ought to look like this:

- Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq all lose territory to a “free Kurdistan”.

- Lebanon, likewise, gains territory at Syria’s expense, to be reborn as “Phoenicia”.

- Iraq is partitioned along communal lines into a “Sunni Iraq” and an “Arab Shia State”, incorporating parts of Iran.

- The Baluch people are united in a “Free Baluchistan” carved out of Pakistan and Iran.

“Some Americans had a real sense that they had been chosen to reshape the Middle East,” says Balistreri, who himself grew up in the USA, “even though the British and French had already learned that you can’t really solve anything with borders.” “Plans” of this kind were debated in the USA at the time, but they were never articulated as a program at the government level. Maps showing the proposed new boundaries also circulated in the Middle East, where they caused a bit of a stir, but the notion of an American “master plan for the Middle East” was more of a conspiracy theory. “To date, none of it has been put into effect,” Balistreri says.

Redefining the meaning of “borders”

Yet, the question remains: Does it make sense to rethink the borders of the Middle East? For example, would ethnic and/or religious borders be not only fairer, but “more natural” than political dividing lines? Balistreri sees this as an illusion. The idea of what constitutes a “good” border has changed many times in the course of history. Moreover: “The origin of a border tells us very little about its potential as a source of conflict.”

Balistreri cites the example of Jordan. This state, which borders on Israel, the autonomous Palestinian territories, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Red Sea is “the quintessential artificial country” in the Middle East. Yet Jordan is stable, “if not the most stable country in the whole region”. The opposite is true of Lebanon: Although its frontiers are based on 19th-century administrative borders, it has repeatedly experienced civil wars. The fact that Lebanon’s borders are “rooted in history” has not prevented these wars, Balistreri says.

He concludes, “’Natural’ borders are no guarantee of peaceful co-existence. Borders are drawn according to a wide range of criteria, not just one.” Furthermore, people are not simply “Kurds” or “Sunnis” or “Alawites”, but have many different facets to their identity. Borders are a human institution that needs to be continually reinterpreted.

Balistreri is very skeptical of the suggestion that having different borders could solve the conflicts in the Middle East. He comes to a different conclusion: “Instead of redrawing the borders, we could redefine what they mean.” As in Europe, borders should be permeable and encourage mobility. Ideally, therefore, they would not be symbols of conflict and division, but would have an organizing, ordering function – a function that brings people together.


More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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