Understanding the Disputed Areas of the Middle East
Disputed areas may be the greatest threat to stability in the Middle East and the world. Disputed areas are, well . . . disputed because, in order to secure peace in the here and now, warring parties decided to move forward and leave the resolution of the dispute for later generations to handle. As diplomatically astute as that approach may have been at the time of negotiations, some of these smoldering disputed areas have burst into flames at the turn of the 21st century, demanding attention. The following three regions are the most prominent.
In 1947, Hindu Maharaja Hari Singh refused to merge his kingdom of Kashmir with either India or Pakistan. Kashmiri Muslims revolted and violence spread. Fearing for his life, Hari threw in his lot with India and fled Kashmir on an Indian DC3. Fighting continued until January 1, 1949, when the United Nations brokered an agreement, temporarily providing half of Kashmir to Pakistan and half to India. India agreed to the U.N.’s call for a plebiscite, allowing Kashmiris to determine their own fate. In the meantime, Kashmir remained a disputed territory, divided along a Line of Control (LOC). The referendum has never taken place.
In the late 1990s, Islamic militants from Pakistan joined Kashmir extremists in attacks on Indian interests in Kashmir, hoping to force India to permit Kashmir’s self-determination. In May 1998, India detonated five nuclear devices under the Rajastan Desert. Pakistan responded by conducting a series of underground nuclear tests in Baluchistan. Many Pakistanis, including religious extremists, praised the advent of Pakistan’s nuclear might.
Tensions between the two countries increased into the next year. Hoping to pressure Delhi into a dialogue over resolving the Kashmir issue, Pakistan unleashed Islamic militants against Indian interests in controlled Kashmir in the summer of 1999. Clashes in the region of Kargil brought the two nuclear powers to the brink of war. Again in December 2001, militant attacks on the Indian parliament caused the two nuclear powers to square off. You haven’t heard the last of the Kashmiri crisis.
When the Ottoman Empire broke up after World War I, the Treaty of Sevres in 1920 promised the Kurds a homeland. Because of political difficulties, the Kurdish state never took shape, and Kurds in the region have been struggling for independence off and on ever since. In Iran, Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution allowed for brutal campaigns against the Kurds, as did Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. After the Persian Gulf War ended in 1991, 1 million Kurdish refugees fled to Iran and another half million fled to the Turkish border, but Turkey’s military did its best to keep them from entering. The United Nations adopted Resolution 688, establishing an autonomous regionin northern Iraq.
Today some 25 million Kurds live in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, the majority of whom hang out in Turkey. The Turkish forces have spent the past decade and a half brutally squashing Kurdish guerrilla uprisings. Although the Kurds are primarily Sunni Muslim, they joined forces with the Americans in the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein in 2003. The Turks have vowed to enter northern Iraq if the Kurds take the oil-rich Kirkuk region. The final chapter of Kurdistan has yet to be written.
The Palestinian conflict is a complex affair dating back to at least 1948. With the culmination of the Oslo Accords in 1993, and subsequent peace process between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak in 1999, optimists began to see peace as imminent. The main obstacles — Palestinian autonomy and Israeli dismantling settlements and returning the Occupied Territories to the Palestinians — seemed to be a foregone conclusion. And then, disaster!
When talks between Barak and Arafat stalled in 2000 over the fate of Jerusalem and other issues, violence erupted. New Likud leader Ariel Sharon visited al-Aqsa mosque (the Temple Mount for Jewish devotees), the most revered Muslim site in East Jerusalem. This visit ignited Palestinian outrage, and intensified riots erupted. The new wave of violence has been labeled the al-Aqsa Intifada.
A cycle of violencecharacterized by Palestinian suicide bombings and brutal Israeli retaliations had escalated to the extent that by January 2003 when Sharon had been reelected prime minister, most people had given up any hope for peace. Then, in April 2003, Sharon admitted in an interview that in order to achieve peace, Israel would have to dismantle some of the settlements. In June 2003, Sharon, Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, and U.S. President George W. Bush participated in a peace summit in Jordan.