From Chechnya to Gaza: Instability in the Caucasus and the Middle East (7/28/2010)

Both the Middle East and the Caucasus are filled with discontent, instability, and terrorism. These two regions, so different culturally and historically, have three common sources of instability and violence. First, both regions are unstable because the borders drawn by the colonial powers fuel ethnic tensions. Second, the broken promises of the West in Palestine and concerning NATO expansion have made these problems worse. Third, both regions suffer from the blight of Muslim fundamentalism and terrorism. Fourth, compromise becomes very difficult because of the strategic issues due to local geography.

Colonial Borders Spark Ethnic Tension

Throughout the world, the European colonial powers drew arbitrary national borders without considering the ethnic or cultural makeup of the region in question. This practice is the source of many of today’s conflicts, which are overwhelmingly ethnic in nature. The division of ethnic groups by artificial borders has sparked armed struggles in both the Middle East and the Caucasus.

Milton-Edwards explained that “the process of modernization introduced by the colonial powers resulted in social dislocation, with traditional tribal powers undermined by a new class of urban notables… and the creation of new states such as Iraq and Jordan where boundaries took no account of pre-existing ethnic, religious, and tribal configurations… giving the entire area an artificial identity which it has spent more than a century coming to terms with…The new map that emerged resulted in the artificial creation of new states to which its citizens felt little or no sense of loyalty or identity” (2006, p. 18, 25).

The Kurds provide an excellent example of the consequences of the arbitrary decisions of the colonial powers. The Kurds are a distinct ethnic group of some twenty million people, with their own language and culture distinct from their neighbors. Yet the boundaries set by Europe divide them between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey (O’Toole, 1999). The Kurds’ agitation for independence and autonomy has overflowed into violence, and some Kurdish organizations operate as terrorist groups against targets in their respective countries. As a result, the nation-states in the region coordinate their retaliation against the Kurds, as occurred just this year, when Iran organized a crackdown on Kurdish villages, made possible by access to Turkish intelligence (Geo-Strategy Direct, 2010).

Lebanon provides another example in the Middle East, where instability has resulted from combining six different and distinct ethnic groups into one country. The Maronite Christians, Druze, Sunni Muslim, Shi’a Muslim, Armenians, and Greek Orthodox Christians were combined as the French mandate of Lebanon (Milton-Edwards, 2006, p. 26). With a weak state and the society divided, civil war was the inevitable result (Milton-Edwards, 2006, p. 223), plunging Lebanon into fifteen years of bloodshed.

Milton-Edwards explained that “Tribal sheikhs were often perceived as a significant hindrance to the difficult task of state-building in the new states of Arabia” (2006, p. 29). The same problems are seen in the Caucasus. Chechens also have a strong clan-based social structure that ties individuals to a large family and to the land itself; these relationships, combined with their ties to Islam, have prevented Chechen assimilation into Russian society (Gall & de Waal, 1998).

We also see the toll in suffering that comes from arbitrary borders in Georgia. As recently as 2008, war erupted in Georgia from a long-standing ethnic dispute between the Ossetians and the Georgians.

The Ossetians have always been an ethnic group distinct from the Georgians. The Ossetians were a Christian people whose settlement and growth southward into Georgia was encouraged and directed by the Russian empire in the 18th century so they could serve as a buffer zone to protect Russians from highlander attacks in the Caucasus (King, 2010, p. 9 and 68). Thus the Ossetians have a pattern of looking to Russia as a patron and protector for nearly three hundred years. Ossetia was given a special autonomous status within the Soviet Union, united with Georgia by treaty but became quite accustomed to managing its own affairs (King, 2010, p. 188).

The Ossetians themselves were divided by the Russian-Georgian border into North and South Ossetia; at the time this division didn’t seem that important, since they were all still part of the Soviet Union. Suddenly a border that was intended only as an administrative division became a permanent national border. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Georgia shifted to the Western sphere of influence, tensions were bound to rise with the Russian-aligned Ossetians.

Tensions in South Ossetia spilled over into violence when South Ossetia demanded greater autonomy and Georgia responded by revoking the autonomous district status South Ossetia had previously had. This conflict lasted from 1990-1992 and ended in an unresolved cease-fire with de facto, unrecognized, Russian-backed independence (King, 2010, 216-217). The conflicts of Soviet succession left Georgia without actual control of a sizeable portion of its national territory.

In 2008, Georgia moved troops to occupy South Ossetia and put an end to its de facto independence; Russia responded by driving the Georgians out of the contested area and invading Georgia itself (Friedman, 2008).

Dmitry Kadomtsev, a Russian-born American citizen was in St. Petersburg visiting his family during the 2008 war in Georgia, and his account helps to illustrate Russian public opinion. Kadomtsev explained in a personal phone interview that the Russian public strongly supported the war in Georgia because since South Ossetia had such a long history of autonomy, it had never really been considered a part of Georgia anyway. Kadomtsev’s account shows how even the Russian people considered the border dividing North and South Ossetia to be nothing but a meaningless line on a map, and that the ethnic reality does not respect political borders.

The Lies of the West

The West frequently does not keep its promises, and such promises can be the spark that ignites bloodshed. Three specific promises made and broken by the West have caused instability in both the Caucasus and the Middle East: the promise of independence to the Arab Revolt, the promise of an independent Kurdistan, and Secretary of State James Baker’s promise that “NATO will not expand one inch to the east.”

Great Britain made promises to Sharif Hussein, the leader of the Arab revolt, in a series of letters known as the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence. Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, promised Sharif Hussein on behalf of his country that “we confirm to you… our desire for the independence of Arabia and its inhabitants… [and that] Great Britain is prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits demanded by the Sherif [sic] of Mecca” (McMahon, 1915). But two years before the end of the war, and while the Arabs were paying for their independence with their own blood, Great Britain and France decided to partition the Middle East between themselves instead in the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement and promised a national homeland for the Jews in Palestine in the Balfour Declaration (Milton-Edwards, 2006). The betrayal of the Arab revolt is at the root of the strong anti-Western sentiment felt throughout the Middle East and has fueled the conflagration of terrorism that now infests the region and has cost countless lives.

The Kurds also felt the brunt of the unfulfilled promises of the West. The Treaty of Sevres, signed by fourteen different nations (including the Ottoman Empire, France, Italy, and Great Britain) made the following promises in Article 62 and 64:
A Commission sitting at Constantinople… shall draft within six months from the coming into force of the present Treaty a scheme of local autonomy for the predominantly Kurdish areas… If within one year from the coming into force of the present Treaty the Kurdish peoples within the areas defined in Article 62 shall address themselves to the Council of the League of Nations in such a manner as to show that a majority of the population of these areas desires independence from Turkey… Turkey hereby agrees to execute such a recommendation, and to renounce all rights and title over these areas.

The Treaty of Sevres was annulled and replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne after Mustafa Kemal Pasha led a successful overthrow of the sultan and seized power in a nationalist government (Columbia, 2009). In the new settlement, the Kurds were abandoned to fend for themselves. Their attempts to obtain their independence have cost many lives, as they have fought in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey over a period of many years. In Iraq, they were attacked with chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein. After they were encouraged to revolt in 1991 by the West “the US administration quickly abandoned the Kurds, one White House analyst summing the situation up: ‘It probably sounds callous, but we did the best thing not to get near [the Kurdish revolt]. They’re nice people, and they’re cute, but they’re really just bandits. They spend as much time fighting each other as central authority. They’re losers’” (Milton-Edwards, 2006, p. 233).

The recent 2008 war in Georgia and the loss of life there was at least partially caused by another broken promise. In 1990, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker promised Gorbachev, “if you remove your troops and allow unification of Germany in NATO, NATO will not expand one inch to the east” (Bradley, 2009). But NATO now includes much of Eastern Europe. President Putin referenced this incident when he said “A powerful military bloc appearing near our borders will be perceived in Russia as a direct threat to the security of our country. Statements claiming that this process is not directed against Russia are not satisfactory to us. National security is not built on promises, especially since we have had similar promises prior to the previous waves of the bloc’s expansion” (Russia Today, 2008).

If NATO had kept its promise made to Gorbachev, Russia would not have felt such a need to intervene in South Ossetia and invade Georgia itself. The Georgia war in 2008 was about more than just ethnic tensions; it was also about showing the world that America cannot always protect its client states (Friedman, 2008). It is unlikely that Russia would have taken such strong action if NATO encirclement was not threatening its vital security interests.

Muslim Fundamentalism and Terrorism

The plague of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is a destabilizing influence throughout the world; this is particularly true in both the Middle East and the Caucasus.

Chechnya is primarily a Muslim country; Islam was strongly established in Chechnya during the eighteenth century (Gall & de Waal, 1998, p. 31). Religious tensions with the Russian Christians in the era of the Tsars and later the anti-religious sentiment of the Soviet Union laid the foundation for the continued violence in Chechnya. In 1919 Uzum Haji, a Chechen jihadist who led a force against the White Army, showed by his words of hatred that no lasting peace would ensue: “I weave a rope to hang engineers, students and all those who write from left to right” (Gall & de Waal, 1998, p. 21). That same hatred has continued to fuel the violence both in Chechnya and the rest of the Caucasus.

Russian troops fought a bloody and vicious war in Chechnya from 1994 until 1996. Despite overwhelming military superiority, Moscow lost to an underequipped and undermanned guerrilla insurgency that often used terrorism to achieve its goals. In the face of huge casualties, they withdrew, making Chechnya a de-facto independent republic for a time (Toft, 2003, p. 79). Matthew Evangelista explained the result of such a settlement thus: “The lessons learned by many Chechens- at least the ones with guns- were that Russia is vulnerable to terrorist acts, that the Russian people are easily demoralized, and that their leaders will heed their views and withdraw as the costs mount” (2003). This same idea and strategy was applied against the United States throughout the 1990s. It was not until the attacks of September 11, 2001 that American leaders finally stopped giving in to terrorists when the casualties mounted.

Hamas and Hezbollah are two other excellent examples of the destabilizing influence of terrorist organizations. Hamas has prevented a peace settlement with Israel and executes moderates as collaborators, while Hezbollah provoked the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006. Both groups enjoy wide popular support and show the power allegiance to non-state actors can provide.

Geographic Issues

In both the Caucasus and the Middle East, geographic issues make lasting compromises and settlements very difficult. Two specific examples include Chechnya and the Golan Heights.

Russia will never let go of Chechnya or allow Georgia to regain control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia because of one simple geopolitical reality: the Caucasus is a crucial and vital national security interest for Russia. The Caucasus Mountains provide an area that is easy for the Russians to defend from an invasion from Turkey or Iran. If Russia lost these mountains, it would be much more difficult to defend the southern border. (Friedman, 2009, p. 107). Given Russia’s history of being invaded, the Russians have reason to be concerned.

Israel has occupied the Golan Heights since 1967, when it seized the territory from Syria in the Six-Day War. The Golan Heights were used by Syria to attack Israeli targets with artillery prior to that conflict (Strategic Forecasting, 2008). Thus, the Golan Heights are an important buffer zone for Israel, and it is extremely important for Israel strategically to prevent Syrian artillery from being able to reach Israeli settlements again. The recent rocket attacks on Haifa by Hezbollah reinforce the importance of not giving up high ground that can be used to shell Israel. Therefore, the geographic issues here make a lasting peace agreement very difficult.


What becomes clear as we study the two regions of the Middle East and the Caucasus is that instability and violence often have the same causes throughout the world: borders that do not reflect ethnic and cultural divisions, broken promises and treaties, geographic issues and the growing power of non-state actors. The violence in the Middle East and the Caucasus are symptoms of global problems with no easy solutions.


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