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Landis: Iraq/Syria Situation Parallels 20th Century 'Great Sorting Out' In Europe

A refugee camp in Syria's northern city Aleppo, December 2013
IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation
A refugee camp in Syria's northern city Aleppo, December 2013

In recent years, millions have been killed or forced to flee their homes due to instability and violence across Iraq and Syria. Among these victims are many ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis.

The University of Oklahoma's Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Syria Comment blogger Joshua Landis says minorities are being targeted because of a nation-building process he calls the “Great Sorting Out.” He compares the current situation in Iraq and Syria to interwar and post-World War II Central Europe.

WATCH: Joshua Landis Goes Into Greater Depth About The 'Great Sorting Out' With University of Denver Center for Middle East Studies Associate Director Danny Postel

“The First World War, the great empire-destroying war, brought down the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the German Empire, and, of course, the Ottoman Empire,” Landis says. “But the people were all mixed together, an ethnic-religious mosaic. They were left within these borders.”

This changed with World War II.

“In the Second World War you get a ‘Great Sorting Out’,” Landis says. “Poland was 64 percent Polish before the war, but by the end of the war was almost entirely Polish. Czechoslovakia was 33 percent minorities, but almost all of those are gone by the end of the Second World War. This process goes on right down Central Europe.”

The process continued after the war.

“Six percent of Crimeans were Germans, for example, before World War II when Hitler occupied it,” Landis says. “They became collaborators in the eyes of many people when Stalin retook it, and all those six percent were driven out. And this process has gone on: 12-13 million Germans were ethnically cleansed through Central Europe between 1945 and 1947, right after the Second World War, because they were seen as the guilty minority.”

Now, Landis says, this process is happening in the multiethnic countries of Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Israel, and Lebanon. Their former ethnic-religious mosaics are being overtaken by religious nationalism.

If these countries are in the midst of a “Great Sorting Out,” it could have huge implications for American policy in the Middle East.

“What America is trying to do in bombing ISIS is to reconstitute a secular Iraqi national identity in which Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds are all going to get along together and different ethnic and religious groups are all going to somehow find an amicable way to live together,” Landis says. “If what I'm saying is largely correct, this is going to be a very difficult project to do.”

Landis says that ISIS currently serves in part as a mechanism for self-determination for Sunnis that are trapped between Shiite regimes in Damascus and Baghdad. Without another outlet for this desire for self-determination, many Sunnis will continue to support it.

“This ‘Great Sorting Out’ is part of a nation-building process,” Landis says. “It’s long and it’s bloody.”

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