April 12, 2015

Carving Up the Ottoman Empire and Middle East Conflict

The Ottomans ran a multilingual, multireligious empire, ruled by a sultan who also bore the title of caliph—commander of all the world’s Muslims. Having joined the losing side in the Great War, however, the Ottomans saw their empire summarily dismantled by European statesmen who knew little about the region’s people, geography and customs.
The resulting Middle Eastern states were often artificial creations, sometimes with implausibly straight lines for borders. They have kept going since then, by and large, remaining within their colonial-era frontiers despite repeated attempts at pan-Arab unification.
The built-in imbalances in some of these newly carved-out states—particularly Syria and Iraq—spawned brutal dictatorships that succeeded for decades in suppressing restive majorities and perpetuating the rule of minority groups.
But now it may all be coming to an end. Syria and Iraq have effectively ceased to function as states. Large parts of both countries lie beyond central government control, and the very meaning of Syrian and Iraqi nationhood has been hollowed out by the dominance of sectarian and ethnic identities.
The rise of Islamic State is the direct result of this meltdown.