Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


How the Europeans’ creation of Iraq, Syria and Libya contributed to today’s chaos

As you may have heard or read over the weekend, the New York Times Sunday Magazine did something unprecedented with its most recent issue. The Times devoted the entire issue to one article, which explores the widespread meltdown of the mostly Arab nations of the Mideast.

Scott Anderson, the writer of the piece, chose a cast of characters from across the region and told the intertwined tale of what happened to each of them in hopes of both humanizing and illustrating the widespread regional plague of wars and terrorism growing out of what was once optimistically called “the Arab Spring.” It’s a powerful tale, and this link will get you to it, although to tell you the truth, I found it overwhelming.

The British and the French

But one fact that Anderson noted almost in passing early in the piece, and then came back to occasionally, struck me as very powerful, perhaps became I’m somewhat obsessed with historical background. That fact is the basic story of how the map of the Arab/Muslim world was drawn, not by Arabs, not by Muslims, not by Mideasterners at all, but by the victorious World War I European powers, basically the British and the French. Here’s an excerpt from Anderson’s piece that explains why this is important:

While most of the 22 nations that make up the Arab world have been buffeted to some degree by the Arab Spring, the six most profoundly affected — Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen — are all republics, rather than monarchies. And of these six, the three that have disintegrated so completely as to raise doubt that they will ever again exist as functioning states — Iraq, Syria and Libya — are all members of that small list of Arab countries created by Western imperial powers in the early 20th century.

In each, little thought was given to national coherence, and even less to tribal or sectarian divisions. Certainly, these same internal divisions exist in many of the region’s other republics, as well as in its monarchies, but it would seem undeniable that those two factors operating in concert — the lack of an intrinsic sense of national identity joined to a form of government that supplanted the traditional organizing principle of society — left Iraq, Syria and Libya especially vulnerable when the storms of change descended.

… The process began at the end of World War I, when two of the victorious allies, Britain and France, carved up the lands of the defeated Ottoman Empire between themselves as spoils of war. In Mesopotamia, the British joined together three largely autonomous Ottoman provinces and named it Iraq. The southernmost of these provinces was dominated by Shiite Arabs, the central by Sunni Arabs and the northernmost by non-Arab Kurds.

To the west of Iraq, the European powers took the opposite approach, carving the vast lands of “greater Syria” into smaller, more manageable parcels. Falling under French rule was the smaller rump state of Syria — essentially the nation that exists today — and the coastal enclave of Lebanon, while the British took Palestine and Transjordan, a swath of southern Syria that would eventually become Israel and Jordan. Coming a bit later to the game, in 1934, Italy joined the three ancient North African regions that it had wrested from the Ottomans in 1912 to form the colony of Libya.

To maintain dominion over these fractious territories, the European powers adopted the same divide-and-conquer approach that served them so well in the colonization of sub-Saharan Africa. This consisted of empowering a local ethnic or religious minority to serve as their local administrators, confident that this minority would never rebel against their foreign overseers lest they be engulfed by the disenfranchised majority.

This was only the most overt level of the Europeans’ divide-and-conquer strategy, however, for just beneath the sectarian and regional divisions in these “nations” there lay extraordinarily complex tapestries of tribes and subtribes and clans, ancient social orders that remained the populations’ principal source of identification and allegiance.

Much as the United States Army and white settlers did with Indian tribes in the conquest of the American West, so the British and French and Italians proved adept at pitting these groups against one another, bestowing favors — weapons or food or sinecures — to one faction in return for fighting another. The great difference, of course, is that in the American West, the settlers stayed and the tribal system was essentially destroyed. In the Arab world, the Europeans eventually left, but the sectarian and tribal schisms they fueled remained.

Built to fail

In short, he argues (and I don’t disagree) that Iraq, Syria and Libya were built to fail as nations. They made no sense. They are aggregations of groups that don’t get along, separated by a combination of ethnic and religious differences, generally ruled by dictators from minority groups that can hold power only by force, discrimination and oppression and, in the early period, by relying on outside powers.

The word “nation” has an important meaning other than a territory contained within lines drawn on a map. It means a people, often united by ethnicity, language, culture and history. The Kurds of the Mideast are such a “nation,” and they mostly live within one geographical zone. But, instead of drawing a boundary around that zone and calling it “Kurdistan,” the Anglo-French mapmakers divided the Kurds across four “nation-states,” Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, where they live under Turks, Arabs and Persians, all of whom have mistreated them horribly. Saddam Hussein used poison gas against them. Turkey, for many years, refused to acknowledge there was any such ethnicity, refused to call them Kurds, and tried to stamp out the Kurdish language. No one other than the Kurds seems open to the idea, but it would be a great act of historic justice to draw a boundary around the one contiguous territory in which Kurds predominate and give them a shot at governing themselves.

Denominational divide

I’ll never fully understand why the Shiite Arabs who predominate in southern Iraq and the Sunni Arabs who predominate in central Iraq can’t get along, but they never really have since the birth of Iraq as the brainchild of the Anglo-French mapmakers. It seems that the denominational divide is as powerful as the ethnic/nationality divides elsewhere. The perpetual crisis of Iraq in the post-Saddam era seems substantially about that denominational divide, which seems to have taken on the flavor of an actual ethnic/national/language divide.

I expect some to react to this particular rant of mine by suggesting that reopening the map of nations will destabilize the region — but have you looked at the region?

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/15/2016 - 09:47 am.

    Would that

    …more publications would do something similar to the NYT. It would help explain why we’re wasting our time, treasure, and a truly tragic loss of lives trying to “restore” order to an area where disorder has been the norm since… well, the Treaty of Versailles. Woodrow Wilson’s idea of peace was never implemented, perhaps couldn’t have been implemented, and the result was a failure of those lofty ideals around the world, with the rise of fascism in Europe and Japan. World War II was the result, but we’re still dealing with the dregs of that initial, post-WW I, failure in the Middle East.

    Iraq is a cautionary tale of the dangers of theocracy, one to which we ought to pay more attention as evangelical zealots in this country make noises, once again, about this being a “Christian” nation. Religions are seldom tolerant of what their practitioners view as heresy, and a lengthy history shows that Christianity is no better than Islam when it comes to displays of bloody intolerance. Islamic atrocities are merely more recent than Christian ones.

  2. Submitted by Jim Million on 08/15/2016 - 09:55 am.


    This mess made mostly throughout the last century is very specifically made by European powers. And, it was essentially about oil, yes, even way back when. Previously I’ve noted that British Petroleum (BP)
    was first “Anglo-Persian Oil,” then “Anglo-Iranian Oil” after WW I until the late 1930s, when it morphed into what we know today.

    Ironic Factoid: The last battle of “The Great War,” was fought between a small British force and a German contingent, fought two days into the Armistice. The news didn’t arrive until a radio message got to the German troupes via Italy, I believe. Where was this late last stand? In a “Stan” north of the current Iranian border. Oh, almost forgot: the Brits were defending a small oil refinery wanted by the Germans.

    The best telling of the relevant Arabian story is “Lawrence of Arabia.” Everything we see in this carefully-crafted story by T.E. Lawrence is preamble to what we watch today. To me the most revealing element is that of tribal animosities/rivalries clearly captured in Lawrence’s effort to build his “coalition.” Watch it again, if you will, as foundation to what we experience now. Much has truly not changed in 100 years.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/15/2016 - 10:41 am.

    Getting along…

    Islam was split in two immediately after the death of Muhammed. Shiite and Sunni conflict began shortly thereafter. And just as in every religion there were many splits from there. There is no agreement as to the number of sects within Islam because certain groups are regarded as “not Islam” by the sect-counters but there are many, many sects beyond the basic Sunni/Shiite split.

    In the west, the rising predominance of government as opposed to religion quashed the religious wars that were found in the middle ages in Europe. The government overlay on the Middle East was nowhere as great as it ended up being in in Europe and the generally clan/tribal divisions in the Middle East were left whole which allowed the preservation of separate and conflicting religious groupings. The increasing footprint of the modern state structures of Iraq are running squarely into divisions that have been preserved for over a thousand years.

    For instance, with respect to Syria, the Alawite group that Assad come from had been persecuted by other Islamic sects over the centuries. Assad wanted to move the group closer to Sunni groups whereas the group itself wants to be an independent 3rd grouping.

    Read the article and see if you get a glimpse of the nest of conflicts that make up the region.

    What does this mean ? It seems quite unlikely that the western infidel will be able to resolve the differences for an area of the world where differences based in religion are so deep that they cannot be negotiated, accompanied in the worst cases with a religious outlook that all to often requires enemies and fellow travellers and their culture must be destroyed in their entirety.

  4. Submitted by Marcia Wattson on 08/15/2016 - 10:58 am.

    The viability of “nations”

    Eric writes: “The word “nation” has an important meaning other than a territory contained within lines drawn on a map. It means a people, often united by ethnicity, language, culture and history. The Kurds of the Mideast are such a “nation,” and they mostly live within one geographical zone.”

    The Kurds might eventually be able to form a new nation, and it has long been a desired outcome by many observers, but Anderson also made clear that the Kurds have their own tribal and clan disunity. There are Talabani and Barzani clans, and the Yazidi are neither. While the Kurds may be united in fighting ISIS now, if/when they do form their own state, there is no guarantee that internal strife would not continue to hinder their efforts to form a stable government.

    As he points out, monarchies (and one might add, dictatorships) have had an advantage in maintaining pluralistic, orderly societies. Corruption never fails to destabilize these countries as the people strain for more democracy. We are seeing the result in failed state after failed state. Religion is currently blamed for every kind of failure to maintain respect, justice and stability. It is not religion itself, but the failure to embrace and insist on pluralism and human rights that brings failure. That is why the United States has not been willing to stand by and watch as these horrendous conflicts rage on. We are part of the “developed” modern world that is trying to show a path to realizing the values enshrined in our founding principles. Our success at demonstrating those values is being tested every day. The world is watching to see if we can remain a beacon of hope, or if we will deteriorate into another rage-filled failed state.

    The entire Times article is well worth reading. Find the time.

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/15/2016 - 01:42 pm.

    There seems to be an assumption that peace would reign in the Middle East if Sykes and Picot hadn’t had their famous meeting.

    Well, if disharmony is in geography, the tangled nature of religion and religious sects is found in these maps here: Look at the scattered nature of the various groups. It’s not entirely clear to me that we would not be in a less bloody present in the alternative history universe.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/15/2016 - 04:57 pm.


      Without British meddling, there would still be a lot of tribal conflict, but less large scale warfare.
      There would probably not be a Syrian air force, for instance.
      On the other hand, the Soviets and Russians would probably have been more involved without pseudo states backed by major powers.
      Unfortunately, we can’t rewind history, or predict what would happen if we did.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/15/2016 - 05:35 pm.

      Basis for an Assumption

      There is a tendency to see non-European and non-American history through a colonialist viewpoint. The accepted version is that the Allied Powers instigated/encouraged rebellion in Arabia as a way of making life difficult for the Ottoman Empire. In reality, there had been Arab nationalist movements active since at least the 1840s. The Ottoman Empire was crumbling, but the collective attention of the European powers was focused on other parts of what was crumbling (Greece, the Balkans, the Maghreb). There was also the need to keep the tension between the Russians and the Ottomans at a useful level.

      Sykes/Picot is a symptom of the colonialist attitude. It was drawn up with little concern for the people living in the region (Hey, that kind of thinking served everyone well in Africa, didn’t it? I mean, everyone who mattered did alright, didn’t they?). The local people were lied to about the existence of the agreement–TE Lawrence was told about the secret agreement, but felt bound by his duty as a British officer to keep his government’s secrets.

      In the end, I think there would still have been an unstable Middle East without Sykes/Picot, or the treaties granting British and French mandates over randomly drawn swaths of territory. It is possible, however, that there would have been some resolution of territorial questions that bore some relationship to conditions on the groud.

  6. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 08/15/2016 - 04:41 pm.

    Nothing improved

    After WWII. Nation “creating” never works.

  7. Submitted by Andy Brown on 08/16/2016 - 12:36 pm.

    This re-telling of Libya’s

    This re-telling of Libya’s history is flawed.

    Firstly, Italians took over what amounted to a single province in Ottoman Empire.

    Secondly, Italians partitioned Libya almost immediately into Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. While the two were eventually merged in 1930es, they existed as a single country for less than a decade.

    Thirdly, after WWII and up until early 50es Libya was actually partitioned into THREE countries: Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan.

    How did they become one?

    Well, you see, since WWI the British formed a cozy relationship with a Senussi order, where they managed to install a young pro-British prince Idris at the helm. However, they gloriously surrendered the lands of Senussi order to Italy so that Senussi’s become someone else’s problem (prior to that, pro-British Egypt tried to claim it as its own), and Senussi fought a guerrilla war against Italians up until early 30es – after they were defeated, Idris fled to Turkey, if my memory serves me right.

    After Cyrenaica became occupied by the British, they quickly turned it into a monarchy under a rule of King Idris. Later on, they lobbied UN, against unsuccessful pleas of other countries, that Libya should be united federal kingdom under the rule of Idris, and Idris will promise that he’ll keep it open and representative of all three states that formed united Libya. As a result, UK and US got themselves a friendly monarchy, Idris expanded his reign far beyond what he should have got, and Libya, which at least temporarily had democratic limited governments under Italy in 1910’s, went back to monarchy under the reign of a dynasty that they didn’t really like.

    Needless to say, Idris’ promise was good for less than a decade: he made a nice constitutional coup that turned Libya into united monarchy without any restrictions, the British and the Americans got their military bases and oil contracts, and the oil wealth went mostly to the Cyrenaican elite.

    And, no, this has nothing to do with colonialism and 1910’s, and everything to do with 1950’es and heavy-handed decolonization.

  8. Submitted by Jim Million on 08/16/2016 - 07:07 pm.

    So Well Told

    Thanks for some straight history here. Some might likely argue over decolonization, perhaps with the premise colonialism should have been moderated but not abandoned. I may have read something on that many years ago, but cannot exactly remember.

    Ah, the 1950s, the American decade for sure, with our great expansion in technology, wealth and average standard of living while Europe was still rationing goods in many countries. As for foreign issues, as I recall, the Brits couldn’t get out of Palestine soon enough, once Israel was created. The French hung around in their northern spots somewhat longer, I believe (particularly Syria and Turkey), and became quite bogged down in another preferred region: French Indochina, yes, what we came to know as Vietnam. Iraq and other countries suffered consequences of what politicians call “a vacuum,” while a young Saddam Hussein grew into a favorite thug. Egypt tried to form the United Arab Republic (UAR), with little success. All this while the U.S. diligently worked to reform and rebuild the Pacific. As usual, American media covered the hot spots while most citizens pretty much ignored the other side of the Atlantic, as usual, and all that stuff the “usual suspects” wished the Americans to settle.

    Very many world leaders (and their peoples) like to cast aspersion on “American Exceptionalism,” not truly knowing its root characteristic, as I believe : a successful democracy separated from history’s failures and excess baggage by two fortuitous oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific.

    Here’s an intriguing little piece:

Leave a Reply