This is the full version of yesterday’s article.
By Tim Marshall
Making sense of the world’s myriad conflicts is difficult. Without a map, and an explanation of geography, it is almost impossible. Words can tell you what is happening, the map helps you to understand why.
My new book, ‘Prisoners of Geography’, argues that topography imprisons leaders. As the introduction says “This was true of the Greek Empire, the Persians, the Babylonians, and before them, it was true for every leader seeking the high ground on which to build on to protect the tribe. Rivers, mountains, lakes, deserts, islands, and the seas, are determining factors in history.”
This is not a new theory but one rarely explained.
What is sometimes described as ”meaningless violence” can actually be brutally logical, based on creating a geographical reality such as pushing one set of people from an area and thus linking a motorway to a piece of land their enemy controls.
I first encountered this in the early 1990s during the Bosnia war when field commanders would sit down around a table covered in maps and explain why they were moving along a certain valley. This was a pattern repeated in Kosovo, Macedonia, and on to Afghanistan, Iraq, and then almost back full circle to Syria where the complex cultural and geographic divisions mirrored those of the Balkans.
Read history and you learn how President Assad’s minority Alawite tribe came from the hilly region above the Syrian coast. However, look at a map of the country’s roads, hills, and valleys, and the pattern of some of the fighting becomes clear, especially how Assad’s side are desperate to keep the route from Damascus to the coast open in case they have to make a run for it back to their historical roots.
Russia has been invaded many times from that direction. Enemies have poured across the flat land in front of the Russian border. It is extremely difficult to defend along that long territory running north to south. In front of it is the North European Plain, stretching all the way to France. At its narrowest, between the Baltic Sea and the Carpathian Mountains, the plain is only 300 miles wide. That region is called Poland – which explains why Poland has changed shape so often, sometimes disappearing from the map.
Russia gives us another stark example. Most of its ports freeze in the winter. Its only warm water port is Sebastopol. Even though it does not have access to oceans, it is of vital importance. So when last year Ukraine ”flipped” into the Western (NATO) sphere of influence, Putin felt he had to invade Crimea and annex it. Leaving morality to one side – easy to do in geopolitics – geography had given him no choice.
Some countries were not even on maps until the 20th century, including many in the Middle East. Until recently, most within that region did not think of nation states and legally fixed borders. As the chapter says: “The notion that a man could not travel across a region to see a relative from the same tribe unless he had a document, granted to him by a third man he didn’t know in a faraway town, made little sense. That the document was issued because a foreigner had said the area was now two regions and had made up names for them was contrary to the way in which life had been lived for centuries.”
Those documents were partially due to the Sykes Picot agreement of 1916, when the British and French drew a crude line across a map of the Middle East dividing it into spheres of influence into which, later, nation states were inserted. We are watching, seemingly helplessly, as Sykes Picot is redrawn in blood and the fault lines emerge from the artificial lines drawn by European colonialists.
The Ottoman Empire divided what is now Iraq into three administrative areas, Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. The British looked at the same area and divided three into one, a logical impossibility Christians can resolve through the Holy Trinity but which in Iraq has resulted in an unholy mess as the Kurds, and Sunni and Shia Muslims fight for control of the regions.
The chapter includes a section on Israel/Palestine, focusing on the fact that much of the West Bank consists of a mountain ridge running from north to south. Israel will not allow a potential enemy force on these heights as heavy weapons could be fired onto the coastal plain.
Seventy per cent of Israel’s population is on the plain, along with much of the country’s road systems and heavy industry, and its international airport. The distance from the West Bank border to Tel Aviv is about 10 miles and any half decent military could cut Israel in two. As the chapter notes, this is one reason for Israel’s insistence that “even if there is an independent Palestinian state, that state cannot have an army with heavy weapons on the ridge, and that Israel must also maintain control of the border with Jordan.”
Again, the rights and wrongs of this can be argued elsewhere; indeed they have been at this site and no doubt will be again.
Technology is increasingly pushing at geography’s prison bars. American bombers can now fly from the US to Mosul without refuelling, thus partially freeing them from the absolute necessity of requiring landing rights in another country’s territories.
The Iranian/USA-Israeli tension, though, shows us that geography still has a say.
The Israelis cannot reach Iran in a straight line without flying through other countries’ sovereign airspace, which is, at best, ”problematic” and at worst, very dangerous. Its refueling capabilities are not as advanced as the Americans’ and the long way round would give Iran’s air defences more warning of an approaching attack.
But there is another geographic factor – the Straits of Hormuz. At the widest point, it is only 21 miles across. The Iranians have the ability to close the Straits to the massive energy shipments heading out to fuel the world.
That ability, which is due to geography, concentrates the minds of many countries, and acts as another potential restraining influence on Israel’s decision-making. And to understand that, takes a reading of the politics, a glance at the oil and gas statistics, and a look at the map.
A longer version of this article first appeared in the UK’s Jewish Chronicle newspaper.