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BPC’s Nick Danforth: Four maps that explain the chaos of the Middle East

The Washington Post

Monday, October 17, 2016

In Washington’s ongoing debate about the cause of the continuing chaos in the Middle East, President George W. Bush stands condemned for the 2003 intervention that pushed Iraq into civil war, while President Obama stands condemned for the nonintervention that worsened Syria’s civil war. In Libya, meanwhile, Washington’s partial intervention also failed to bring peace, while too few Americans are even aware of their country’s role in the conflict afflicting Yemen.

Without trying to defend or absolve U.S. policy, then, it is worth stepping back to ask what shared historical experiences might have left these four countries—Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen—particularly at risk of violent collapse. The following maps help highlight how, at various points over the past century, historical circumstances conspired, in an often self-reinforcing way, to bolster the stability of some states in the region while undermining that of others.

Century-old states are more stable today

Countries whose political or geographic precedents stretch back over a century are more stable today. Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and, to some extent, the ruling dynasties of what are now Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, all, in one form or another, trace their current political structures to the late 19th century, before European colonialism took root in the region. Consequently, they were more likely to have the resources to maintain some independence in the face of European imperialism, or at least negotiate a less disruptive form of colonial rule.

Turkey, most vividly, escaped colonization at the beginning of the 20th century because the already extant Ottoman army defeated a number of would-be colonizers: first during World War I and then after the empire’s dissolution in Turkey’s subsequent war for independence.

Iran, meanwhile, was divided into informal spheres of influence by the British and Russians in the late 19th century but avoided formal colonization and initially kept the Qajar dynasty in power.

And Egypt, a British protectorate for several decades, became the first country in the region to achieve nominal independence in 1922, under the same dynasty that had established the Egyptian state more than a century earlier.