"There’s no doubt that Europeans were happy to create borders that conformed to their own interests whenever they could get away with it. But the failure of Sèvres proves that that sometimes they couldn’t. When European statesmen tried to redraw the map of Anatolia, their efforts were forcefully defeated. In the Middle East, by contrast, Europeans succeeded in imposing borders because they had the military power to prevail over the people resisting them. Had the Syrian nationalist Yusuf al-‘Azma, another mustachioed Ottoman army officer, replicated Ataturk’s military success and defeated the French at the Battle of Maysalun, European plans for the Levant would have gone the way of Sèvres.
Would different borders have made the Middle East more stable, or perhaps less prone to sectarian violence? Not necessarily. But looking at history through the lens of the Sèvres treaty suggests a deeper point about the cause-and-effect relationship between European-drawn borders and Middle Eastern instability: the regions that ended up with borders imposed by Europe tended to be those already too weak or disorganized to successfully resist colonial occupation. Turkey didn’t become wealthier and more democratic than Syria or Iraq because it had the good fortune to get the right borders. Rather, the factors that enabled Turkey to defy European plans and draw its own borders — including an army and economic infrastructure inherited from the Ottoman empire — were some of the same ones that enabled Turkey to build a strong, centralized, European-style nation-state.
Of course, plenty of Kurdish nationalists might claim that Turkey’s borders actually are wrong. Indeed, some cite Kurdish statelessness as a fatal flaw in the region’s post-Ottoman borders. But when European imperialists tried to create a Kurdish state at Sèvres, many Kurds fought alongside Ataturk to upend the treaty. It’s a reminder that political loyalties can and do transcend national identities in ways we would do well to realize today.
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