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The Relationship Between War and Topography in the Middle East Since 1900
Historically, wars took place on low-lying battlefields between sovereign countries. Infantries would line up,
soldiers would die and battles would end with one side claiming victory. Today, however, this "traditional" method
of war has been replaced-that is, most wars are within states rather than between them, most casualties
are civilians and most battles are brief skirmishes that continue (Smith 1997). Equally striking has been a shift in
the spatial pattern of war from lowlands to highlands according to a United Nations report entitled Mountain
Watch: approximately 41% of the world's mountainous regions had experienced violent conflict since World War
II, compared with 26% of non-mountainous regions (Newton 2002).
In addition to testing Mountain Watch's assessment on the location of modern wars (1946-present), this report
will investigate the location of historical wars (1900-1945) to determine if war shifted from low to high
elevation during that time frame. Furthermore, this paper will evaluate whether war disproportionately occurs in
the mountains-that is, if war were to randomly occur in a given region despite terrain, one would expect that
the likelihood of war taking place in the mountains would be equal to its share of terrain in that region.
A disproportionate level would, therefore, suggest that mountains affect where wars occur. The analysis was
limited to the Middle East due to time constraints and because this has been one of the world's most war-
According to Starr (2002), spatial, technological and economic factors combine to cause the supposed
"mountain problem." This report will examine some of these issues; however, emphasis will be placed on
validating the phenomenon, rather than explaining it, thereby providing a foundation for future research on the topic.
. Has the share of mountainous wars increased since 1945?
. Do wars disproportionately take place in the mountains?
. Are the countries engaging in war today more mountainous than those who fought prior to WWII?
. Is the rate of mountainous wars increasing because people are increasingly residing in the mountains?
. War: armed conflict with at least 1,000 battle deaths annually (Newton 2002)
. Middle East: the land joining Africa, Europe, and Asia, as outlined in Figure 1
Figure 1. Middle East outline with post-World War II conflict locations: dots are battles and shaded
areas are broader conflict zones
Data Sources and Data Quality
The data sources cited in this report include the UN report Mountain Watch; war atlases such as West Point's;
and online historical atlases (Newton 2002; West Point 2003; White 2003, respectively). All of the maps used
to analyze data in this paper were created by the Central Intelligence Agency, and accessed via the University
of Texas online map collection website.
A dataset, created from these sources, consisted of qualitative (observed) and quantitative (calculated)
information. The former incorporated such categories as the type of war and battle location, while the latter
involved the length of the war and the percent mountainous terrain of a country. Middle East wars from 1900-
2004, specifically those listed in Tables 1 and 2, were assessed.
Middle East War List: 1900-1945
# Modern Day Country Major Adversaries
1 Afghanistan Britain
Length of War
3 Algeria In
4 Egypt In
5 Ethiopia It
7 Iran C
8 Iraq In
9 Israel In
10 Jordan In
11 Libya It
13 Morocco S
14 Russia In
16 Syria In
19 Tunisia In
20 Turkey In
21 Turkey C
Middle East War List: 1946-2004
# Modern Day Country M
1 Afghanistan C
4 Algeria C
5 Azerbaijan A
6 Chad Li
Length of War
Egypt, Syria, Jordan
Egypt, Syria, Jordan
1947-1948, 1965, 1971,
Data quality issues include: determining the start and end dates of a war (the war's length) when either side has
yet to declare war against the other; gathering population density figures for countries without reliable means
of collecting such demographic data (i.e. no recent census count); and calculating the number of deaths in a
war, which varies across sources.
Has the share of mountainous wars increased since 1945?
Fundamental to answering the question, a chronological divide needed to be developed to ascertain whether the
rate of mountainous wars increased around a fixed point. The reasoning behind the 1945 divide, aside
from commonly being used by various sources to differentiate between modern and historical wars, was
twofold: first, Middle East wars that took place during WWII culminated at the end of the war-that is, 1945
provided a clean breakpointt" to separate the list as illustrated by Figure 2; second, the landscape of
WWII battlefields was unique in that it was unlike any war either before or after it.
Figure 2. Frequency histogram of Middle East Wars from 1900 to 2004 with WWI and WWII
highlighted in yellow
The physical terrain of a war was determined by charting individual battles or campaigns onto relief maps using
red dots (Figure 3) and then classifying them into one of five categories: mountains, mostly mountains, edge
of mountains, mixed (roughly half mountains and half non-mountains), and no mountains. To show the change in
the portion of mountainous wars since 1900, graphs were created for pre- and post-1945 wars.
Figure 3. Chad vs. Libya, 1986 - 1987: Major battle locations
Do wars disproportionately take place in the mountains?
In order to estimate the percentage of mountainous terrain in the Middle East, gridded point counts were made
for each individual country, using the following method:
1. Superimpose a transparency with equally spaced points over a Middle East country map (Figure 4)
2. Count the number of points "landing" atop mountains
3. Divide the number of mountain points by the total number of points within the country
4. Multiply the percent mountainous terrain (result from step 3) by the country's land area
5. Sum all countries' mountainous land areas (result from step 4)
6. Divide the total mountainous land area (result from step 5) by the sum of the countries' total land area
Figure 4. Gridded Point Count of Chad
This method proved to be quite accurate in determining the percentage of mountainous terrain in a country:
whereas Mountain Watch notes that Afghanistan is over 60% mountainous (Newton 2002), the gridded point
count calculated it to be 57%. Finally, juxtaposing the percent of mountainous terrain in the Middle East with
the percent of mountainous wars can assess the question.
Are the countries engaging in war today more mountainous than those who fought prior to WWII?
The notion that perhaps there are more mountainous wars simply because the countries going to war are
more mountainous was tested by using steps 1 through 3 from the gridded point count process. Specifically,
the percent of mountainous terrain for countries that engaged in war before 1945 was compared with the percent
of mountainous terrain for countries involved in wars after 1945.
Is the rate of mountainous wars increasing because people are increasingly residing in the mountains?
To examine the correlation between population density and war, population densities for battle locations
were examined for wars from 1900-2004.
RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS
The share of mountainous wars ("mountains" + "mostly mountainous" + "edge of mountains") increased from
50% to 65% in the latter half of the century (Figure 5). However, if WWI and WWII are calculated separately,
since those were by far the largest conflicts and the fighting was largely non-mountainous, the difference in the
rate of mountainous wars between the first and second half of the 20th century becomes marginal.
Equally significant, though mountains account for 31% of the regional terrain, war has taken place in the
mountains 65% of the time, which suggests that war disproportionately occurs at higher altitudes (Figure 6).
Figure 5. Geographical Locations of Middle East Wars.
Mountanous iSQO - 194
Terrain WU, 1MM &
I No- 1945 1 W - 2CD4
Wh1Ioujt %W &
Figure 6. Percent Mountainous Wars: 1900-2004
Testing the confounding variables revealed no significant change in the percent of mountainous terrain for
warring countries during the 20th century. Furthermore, mountainous regions where wars have taken place
are, generally (59%), marked by low (< 25 people per square mile) population density. In other words, wars
tend not to coincide with high concentrations of people.
Barile Location of Middle East Wars: 1900 - 1945
Battle Location of Middle East Wars 1946 - 2004
Although there exists evidence of an increasing "mountain problem" in the Middle East from 1900-2004, a
more comprehensive study would, in addition to covering a larger study region (i.e. the entire world), trace back
the location of war centuries prior to that time period to examine whether the mountain-war correlation
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER RESEARCH
So the question then becomes, why is warfare disproportionately taking place within these highlands? The
answer may be found within the mountains themselves-that is, within their physical structure.
First, mountains form natural borders between many modern countries. An altercation or border dispute
among neighboring countries often results in a mountain-based war because it is the middle ground (e.g., the
Indo-Pakistani war). In the post-WWII era, 84% of interstate wars occurred on a national border, which were
formed by mountains 58% of the time.
Second, mountain caves provide refuge to rebels and essentially limit the impact of advanced weaponry. The result
is a "leveled" battlefield between "super-empowered individuals" and global superpowers, according to Tom
Friedman (2002). That is, oppressed minority groups, many of whom live on the outskirts of society and in
the mountains, are increasingly fighting against their more technologically superior oppressor, as in the
Chechen-Ruso conflict. For that reason, 20th century civil wars may have been even more likely to occur
in mountainous regions.
Third, the ruggedness of mountains hinders economic activities and increases poverty rates via "adverse
climate conditions, limited arable land, a lack of infrastructure, limited access to markets, and natural hazards
such as landslides and avalanches" (Schreier 2002). Tony Blair notes, "We know that poverty and instability leads
to weak states which can become havens for terrorists and other criminals" (Mitchell 2004). Thus, the irony is
that mountainous regions-because of their inability to provide sustainable economic development through
agriculture-provide "fertile soil for the spread of extremist ideologies and movements" (Starr 2002) and may
create an environment more prone to war.
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