Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Victorian Cartographers & The Levant

Or, perhaps this post would be more accurately entitled: "Victorian Cartographers Give the Levant the Gift that Keeps on Giving"?

My personal model for geopolitical analysis attempts to convert all influences into the same denomination so that their interactions and impacts can be more accurately viewed in light of each other: that denomination remains something of a fuzzy concept inside my head, but I think it's best explained as a kind of non-linear attractor basin, or even more plainly, I convert everything to a kind of conceptual geography. The mountains that separate Lebanon from Syria are mountains in the very literal geographical sense. They are also mountains in that they create two economic basins, and act as a ridge impeding interaction between the two. In my model, a road connecting Beiruit with Damascus--by way of facilitating transport and communication over those mountains (both conceptual and geographical)--has the effect of creating a conceptual valley connecting the two basins. Similarly, the religious differences between Levantine Christians, Levantine Shi'a Muslims, Levantine Sunni Muslims and Syrian Allawites all create their own conceptual relief which interacts with the other forms of conceptual geography in the area. Political boundaries--whether artificial or conforming to the existing conceptual relief features--also create relief features. This relief--as if this wasn't already complicated enough--also functions in time. Over time, human activity tends to create dense networks of interconnectivity within basins, with far less connectivity reaching across prominent relief features--regardless of whether they are religious, political, economic or physical geography. This process creates natural basins of interaction: the Tigris & Euphrates river valley, the Nile valley, the Island of Great Britain, etc. When one of these natural basins is cut in two suddenly and sharply by the creation of an artificial political boundary, two things happen: first, there is significant disruption to the human activity in the basin, which must suddenly adapt its network to the new geography (Think of the impact of the Himalayas suddenly springing up between Chicago and New York). Second, the longer this artificial barrier is maintained, the more the basins on either side evolve in along their own path, creating unique institutions and patterns that will make them strongly incompatible with each other if the artificial barrier is ever removed.

So returning finally to the actual topic here, that last scenario is exactly what drives the fundamental conflict in the Middle East today--more specifically the conflict between Syria and Lebanon. The two basins around Beirut and Damascus have alternately been combined as one (major trade routes connected the internal lines coalescing at Damascus with the maritime routes at Beirut for much of the last millennium) and divided by artificial barriers. This has created the classic situation where there are powerful simultaneous forces pulling the two together and driving the two apart. Most recently, the Sykes-Picot agreement between the British and the French on how to divide up the region, and then the removal of those two powers from positions of influence in the region, has set up the present-day dynamic that is driving the current conflict. Take a look at these two maps. Specifically, see if Beirut and Damascus are being pulled into the same basin, or divided in two separate basins by artificial political boundaries:

1. Middle East in the 19th Century
2. Sykes-Picot Agreement

The artificial division of the levant between 4 zones (British, Quasi-British, French, Quasi-French) explains much of the current situation. And, as with most Victorian cartography, the lines were drawn without an understanding (or at least without a concern) for their impact on the "natural-tendencies" of the regions to form specific basins of activity. We see the same thing taking place on the border between Iraq and Syria--an artificial division that divides a historically prominent basin. Perhaps it is asking too much to think that cartographers should anticipate the impacts of their actions 50 years down the road when their present empire no longer exists? Perhaps this phenomena is yet another argument for atomization of polities united under a loose federation--the way Europe seems to be trending in some ways? Either way, I think that such a "basin-approach" is a valuable explanatory model for understanding the cause of present conflict, and predicting the future impact of present actions...


Anonymous said...

I understand the idea that artificially separated basins will develop "unique institutions and patterns that will make them strongly incompatible with each other if the artificial barrier is ever removed." This follows the assumption that a group of people will develop whatever political, economic, societal, and religious networks they can, given the limits (real/geographical or artificial) of their situation.

Take New York and Chicago again, with the Himalayas suddenly in the middle. Both areas will modify their trade practices, and to some extent their culture will evolve differently. I can also see that their political characteristics could develop in different directions over time. Should the Himalayas ever disappear, the two regions would have many incompatibilities in all of the above areas. But how does this translate into conflict?

The New York-Chicago example is a bad one, but I feel that there must be many instances where such artificial boundaries were erected or removed, tensions may have ensued, but conflict was avoided. What is the catalyst for the conflict in the Middle East (and elsewhere)?

Jeff Vail said...

Good question: what causes the slide from incompatibility to conflict. To look specifically at the Middle East, I think that there are a number of factors: For example, when a single basin is divided for a while into two smaller basins, a religious group may come to majority power in one of the smaller basins where they were an oppressed minority group before. This has happened alternately to Shia, Sunni and Allawite in the Levant. While they are in power, they get to implement their perception of religious law, they get to exploit the choice economic opportunities, etc. But as soon as the two basins are re-united, the dynamics return power to the majority group. The once-again minority group doesn't want to give up their influence and wealth, so conflict ensues. Actually, something quite similar to this is happening right now in Iraq, with the Shi'a majority regaining power, and the largely Sunni insurgency fighting to keep from losing what influence and wealth they have come to expect...

But that said, New York/Chicago is a pretty poor example. For some reason, I was thinking of the late 19th century era of railroads and meat processing economics. In that limited scenario, if it suddenly became impracical (through, say, a high-duty political border being established along the Appalachia ridge) to supply the eastern seaboard with beef from the plains, then local industry would develop. This local, less efficient industry would then be decimated if that artificial border was suddenly removed, and it's possible that they wouldn't go quietly. OK, it's still a bad example... but again, we're seeing something similar to this with globalization. It makes more sense for a business to outsource their New England textile mills to Honduras (because the 'conceptual relief' of high taxation is suddenly removed), but it doesn't make the people who lose their job any happier. The US has a relatively stable system that can cope with these kind of shocks fairly well, but in a nation where high poverty, war or other forms of instability already exist (Syria/Lebanon), these kinds of things can be both the catalyst and framework for conflict.