Studying the Borders of Conflict in Iraq and Syria

With the anniversary of WWI upon us, it is useful for students to look at the connection between current events and the legacies of “the war to end all wars.” The violence unfolding in Iraq and Syria can be better understood with a historical perspective that takes into account the political divisions that occurred in the wake of this war. With the Ottoman Empire dismantled, regions that had for centuries existed under its mantle were suddenly under new configurations.

Ottoman empire

From 1517 until the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire ruled over the central Middle East (map shows extent in 1900).

Despite wartime negotiations between Arab and British leaders for the establishment of an independent Arab state after the defeat of the Ottomans, Britain and France instead asserted colonial power in the Middle East. The Sykes-Picot agreement emerged in 1916 – a decision reached in private between Britain and France (with Russia’s assent) for how to divide the former Ottoman lands. This agreement created modern national borders for Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine – the very area that Grand Sharif Hussein ibn Ali (1853-1931), the amir of Mecca, had argued should be turned into an Arab state.

Considered one of the most controversial documents of WWI, the Sykes-Picot agreement gave France direct control along the Syrian coast from southern Lebanon into Anatolia – represented in solid blue, as well as a sphere of indirect influence inland from this coast – represented by the blue “A.” Britain gained direct control over southern Mesopotamia – represented in solid orange, as well as a wide sphere of influence stretching to Gaza – represented by the orange “B.”

What is important for students to understand when they think about today’s unrest in Iraq and Syria is that these countries did not exist as nation states prior to the twentieth century. And struggles for independence from European powers, as well as explorations into pan-Islamism and pan-Arabism over the course of the twentieth century, complicated the process of nationalism. But these challenges have been exacerbated by sectarianism that divides rather than unites the Muslims living in these two nations. During the time of the Ottomans these peoples lived under the ultimate authority of a Sunni caliph in Anatolia (Turkey). The empire was run on a flexible political system that prioritized political stability over conformity, and it lasted as long as it did because it accommodated a reasonable amount of differences among its subjects.

The conflict in Iraq among the Sunni, Shia, and Kurds has prompted the idea – on more than one occasion – to create separate states for these peoples. In 2006, during a high point in sectarian violence in Iraq, then-Senator Joseph Biden recommended such a division. As the jihadist group Islamic State threatens the Iraqi government, questions arise again whether Iraq can be maintained as a single state. The Syrian civil war – at least partially based on sectarianism – is crippling this country. Of course, the group Islamic State is not looking to redraw national borders for these different sects, but to instead create an enormous Islamic caliphate that includes the former Ottoman lands, as well as Spain and other areas where Islam has a long and rich history (see this link for a map of the Islamic State’s territorial goals:

Studying these maps will enable students to gain a broader historical context for the ideas that inform today’s conflict in the Middle East. Questions like “how did shifting political borders affect national identity?” or “what sort of divisions, or opportunities for unity, emerged over the course of the twentieth century?” could help guide a thoughtful classroom discussion.

Additional background information can be found in the Current Context issues "ISIL/Islamic State" and "Islamic State in Syria Update."


Ottoman Empire: