We're excited to feature as a guest post today Part 2 of an article by Professor Sara Pursley entitled "'Lines Drawn on an Empty Map': Iraq’s Borders and the Legend of the Artificial State." The entire article was originally published on Jadaliyya on June 2 & 3, 2015. We're grateful to Jadaliyya and Professor Pursley for permission to repost part of it, but encourage everyone to also check out the whole thing!
Three moments in the early formation of Iraq’s borders—specifically those with Syria, Najd (present-day Saudi Arabia), and Turkey—may help illustrate some of the ways in which the process worked. The British played significant roles, and so too did residents of Iraq, Syria, Najd, and Turkey.
Iraq and Syria
The Iraq-Syria border was rather mobile from the end of the war in 1918 to Iraq’s formal independence in 1932, but the concept of Iraq and Syria as separate states was widely accepted. It is often forgotten that the San Remo conference, which was held in late April 1920, was in part a hastily convened response by the colonial powers to the Arab conference in Damascus in early March, which had proclaimed the independence of Syria and of Iraq as constitutional monarchies under two different sons of Sharif Husayn, Faysal and Abdallah, respectively. The Iraq declaration was issued by the Iraqi branch of al-Ahd, often referred to as the “Arab nationalist” party. Formed in late 1918 when the original group split into two, al-Ahd al-Iraqi was led by Iraqi ex-Ottoman military officers based in Syria; by 1919 it also had an active branch in Mosul and a less active one in Baghdad. Its official platform called for “the complete independence of Iraq” within “its natural borders,” which it defined as extending from the Persian Gulf to the bank of the Euphrates north of Dayr al-Zur in present-day Syria and to the Tigris near Diyarbakir in present-day Turkey—that is, rather more territory than included in the Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul.[i] The group also pledged to work within a loosely defined “framework of Arab unity”; this part of its platform is better understood as Arabist than Arab nationalist, as it did not involve any specific territorial or state-oriented imaginary.
By 1919, then, the two branches of al-Ahd were calling for two independent territorial states—Syria, with its capital in Damascus, and Iraq, with its capital in Baghdad. Throughout the 1920 Iraqi Revolt against the British Mandate—which started in May and June, partly in response to San Remo, and involved large areas of northwestern, central, and southern Iraq—this was also the official platform of the other major Iraqi nationalist party, Haras al-Istiqlal (the Guardians of Independence), based in Baghdad and with significant support in the southern Shi`i shrine cities.[ii] What the two parties diverged on was not the demand for an independent Iraqi state stretching from the Persian Gulf to somewhere north of Mosul, distinct from Syria, and with its capital in Baghdad—all of that they agreed on—but rather the question of what kind of foreign assistance the future Iraqi state would rely on. Al-Ahd al-Iraqi’s platform specified that it would rely solely on British assistance, while the platform of Haras stated that independent Iraq could request the assistance of any foreign power it pleased.