The Relationship Between War and Topography in the Middle East Since 1900

Material Information

The Relationship Between War and Topography in the Middle East Since 1900
Arvelo, Jason
Comenetz, Joshua ( Mentor )
Place of Publication:
Gainesville, Fla.
University of Florida
Publication Date:


serial ( sobekcm )

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of Florida
Holding Location:
University of Florida
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.


This item has the following downloads:

Full Text

Journ31l oi un.nder.r.3du.3-1e --.earch

..Oluine -, isue 2 - J.3nu.3r,..'Fe 'ruar, -i ,

The Relationship Between War and Topography in the Middle East Since 1900

Jason Arvelo


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-

prone regions.

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.

Research Questions

. 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.

Table 1

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

6 In

7 Iran C

8 Iraq In

9 Israel In

10 Jordan In

11 Libya It

12 In

13 Morocco S

14 Russia In

15 In

16 Syria In

17 F

18 In

19 Tunisia In

20 Turkey In

21 Turkey C

Table 2

Middle East War List: 1946-2004

# Modern Day Country M

1 Afghanistan C

2 S

3 U

4 Algeria C

5 Azerbaijan A

6 Chad Li

interstate: WVllI

interstate: WVllI


interstate: WVllI


interstate: WVllI

interstate: WVllI

interstate: WVllI


interstate: WVllI


interstate: WVllI

interstate: WVllI

interstate: WVllI


interstate: WVllI

interstate: WVllI

interstate: WVllI


ajor Adversaries


oviet Union

united States












1911-1917, 1920-1932










1915-1923, 1919-1922

Length of War







7 Cyprus



10 India






Russia (Chechnya)





Western Sahara







United States

Egypt, Syria, Jordan


Egypt, Syria, Jordan

Egypt, Syria











Morocco, Mauritania

1955-1959, 1963-1967,




1947-1948, 1965, 1971,


1961-1975, 1980-1991


1961-1975, 1980-1991










1994-1996, 1999-2002


1955-1972, 1983-Present





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.


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

held historically.


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.


1. Armenian National Institute. 2004. Map of the 1915 Armenian Genocide in the Turkish Empire.

2. Central Intelligence Agency. 2004. The World Factbook. Washington: GPO.

3. Central Intelligence Agency. 1984-2003. Base maps of countries.

4. Friedman, Thomas L. 2002. Longitudes and Attitudes. New York: Farrar.

5. Friedman, Motti. 2004. The Arab Israel Conflict in Maps.

6. Keegan, John ed. 1989. The Times Atlas of the Second World War. New York: Harper.

7. Kjeilen, Tore. 2004. Encyclopedia of the Orient: Melilla.

8. Library of Congress. 1987. Country Studies. Washington: GPO.

9. Livesey, Anthony. 1994. Historical Atlas of WWI. New York: Henry Holt.

10. Mitchell, Anthony. October 7, 2004. Blair Calls for Action on Crises in Africa. Associated Press.

11. Natkiel, Richard. 1982. Atlas of 20th Century War. New York: Gallery Books.

12. Newton, Adrian et al. 2002. Mountain Watch.

13. 2003. Armed Conflict Events Data: A Timeline of Events 1800-1999.

14. Pitt, Barrie and Frances. 1989. The Chronological Atlas of World War II. London: Macmillian.

15. Project Ploughshares. 2003. Armed Conflicts Report.

16. Schreier, Hans. 2002. Mountains: Sources of Water, Sites of Poverty and War.


17. Smith, Dan. 1997. The State of War and Peace Atlas. London: Myriad.

18. Smith, Dan and Michael Kidron. 1983. The War Atlas. New York: Simon & Schuster.

19. Starr, S.F. 2002. Conflict and Peace in Mountain Societies.

20. University of Texas. 2004. Perry-Castaneda Library Map Collection.

21. U.S. Committee for Refugees. 1998. Algerian Violence Reaches New Heights.

22. West Point. The Arab-Israeli Wars. 2003.

23. Western Sahara Online. 2004. Polisario's Epic Battles.

24. White, Matthew. 2003. Death Tolls for the Man-made Megadeaths of the Twentieth Century.

25. Young, Brigadier ed. and Richard Natkiel. 1973. Atlas of the Second World War. New York:

Putnam Sons.

26. Zavis, Alexandra. July 11, 2004. Arab Gunmen Ravage Sudan. Daily Camera. Section 2B.


Back to the Journal of Undergraduate Research

College of Liberal Arts and Sciences I University Scholars Program I University of Florida I

The oiminfuhtw (,, TrheGalor Nation

� University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611; (352) 846-2032.