Myth of the Nation-State

Radicalization of Russia’s Muslims—Are Crimean Tatars Next? (Part 2)

[Part 1 can be read here. Thanks to Iryna Novosyolova for a helpful discussion of some of the issues discussed in this post.]


In 2014, the Russian Federation acquired another Muslim group that may prove troublesome both within Russia and globally: the Crimean Tatars. According to the 2002 Russian census, there were only 4,131 Crimean Tatars living in the country, concentrated in Krasnodar Krai in southern Russia; the March 2014 annexation of Crimea, however, brought with it some 245,000 Crimean Tatars. The referendum, which allegedly showed an overwhelming desire of the people of Crimea to join Russia, was boycotted by Crimean Tatars (various Ukrainian and international media sources reported at the time that 95-99% of Crimean Tatars did not take part in the referendum; see here, here, and here; while Russian media stated that the proposed boycott did not take place). Also, reports surfaced in the social media and Ukrainian news outlets that Russian (para)military personnel were confiscating and tearing up passports of potential voters of Crimean Tatar background (see here, here, here, and here).

Crimean Tatar MapCrimean Tatars have good reasons for viewing the Russian annexation of their homeland with suspicion and worse: since the Crimean Peninsula was first made part of the Russian Empire in 1783, Crimean Tatars have been subjected to massacres, exiles, discrimination, and deportations. By 1897, they constituted only 34% of the peninsula’s population. After the Bolshevik Revolution, persecutions of Crimean Tatars continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s, marked by widespread imprisonment and execution. The confiscation of food to supply central Russia resulted in widespread starvation. According to some sources, half of the Crimean Tatar population was killed or deported between 1917 and 1933. Persecution reached its culmination on May 18, 1944, when the Soviet government deported the entire remaining Crimean Tatar population to Central Asia as a form of collective punishment for alleged collaboration with the Nazis during their occupation of Crimea in 1941-1944 (the reality of this purported collaboration is discussed in my earlier post). The deportation process, as described by the victims in their memoirs, was horrific. More than 32,000 NKVD troops participated in this action. The deportees were given only 30 minutes to gather personal belongings, after which they were loaded onto cattle trains and moved out of Crimea. The expulsion was poorly planned and executed; the lack of accommodation and food, the harsh climatic conditions of the destination areas, and the rapid spread of diseases generated a high mortality rate during the first years of exile. It is estimated than nearly half of the deportees died of diseases and malnutrition, causing Crimean activists to call it an instance of genocide. Even after Crimean Tatars were officially “rehabilitated” in 1967, they were not allowed to return to their homeland until after the fall of the USSR because, as some scholars explain, Crimea was seen by Soviet leaders as too geopolitically and economically crucial. Although many Crimean Tatars have returned to the peninsula since 1991, few managed to move into the areas of their historical settlement. Prior to the deportations, the majority of Crimean Tatars—members of the Tat and Yalıboyu subgroups—lived in the mountainous central and southern parts of Crimea and on the southern coast. These areas, and particularly the coastal region, are climatically favorable, protected by the east-west running mountains from frigid northern winds. But upon their return, most Crimean Tatars had to settle in the less desirable central and eastern parts of the peninsula.

The resentment is further fueled by a new wave of repressions since the 2014 annexation. Many Crimean Tatar activists have been prosecuted by Russian authorities: some face criminal charges in Russia and hence cannot go back to Crimea, others have been subjected to unjustified searches and seizures of their property. As noted in Lily Hide’s article in Foreign Policy,

“The new regime has banned leading Crimean Tatars from the peninsula, and instigated politically motivated court cases against others. It promised to make Crimean Tatar one of three state languages, then reduced hours of Crimean Tatar instruction in schools, closed down ATR, the Crimean Tatar television network owned by Islyamov, and has regularly raided Tatar households and religious institutions in search of ‘extremist’ material. Until a January 2016 visit by a Council of Europe envoy, the new authorities refused to grant access to Crimea to international monitoring organizations and the U.N., though human rights violations have been extensively documented.”

The initial reaction from Crimean Tatars has been “to resist through peaceful means”, says Hide. For example, a long-term media campaign led by Serhii Kostynskyi of Ukraine’s National TV and Radio Committee aimed to “expose human rights abuses and win back Crimea with ‘soft power’”. However, such attempts to draw the attention of international and domestic media to Crimea have been a limited success. The continuing fighting in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine has deflected the attention of both politicians and the media, locally and internationally. Moreover, the majority of Crimea’s Russian-speaking population are happy to be part of Russia, even if it brought the peninsula little economic or social development. Thus, Crimean Tatars, who constitute a minority in their historical homeland, have little support within Crimea and have to look for an alliance elsewhere. As noted in Hide’s article, “Crimean Tatar activists and Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary groups” have joined forces in “leading a low-level insurgency against the Russian annexation”. In the fall of 2015, the two groups together imposed a unilateral “trade blockade of the peninsula, stopping traffic, demanding to see travelers’ documents and confiscating goods”; in November 2015, “unknown saboteurs cut four nearby power lines providing electricity to Crimea, leaving the entire peninsula in the dark”. Many Crimean Tatar activists realize that joining forces with the paramilitaries and adopting their tactics “meant giving up the moral high ground”. But Hide cites Evelina Arifova, one of Crimean Tatar activists pushing for a trade and electricity embargo on the peninsula, as saying: “Without their radicalism, we wouldn’t have achieved anything”.

This conclusion in favor of radicalism can be based not only on Kostynskyi’s less-than-successful media campaign in Ukraine on behalf of Crimean Tatars, but also on the contrasting experiences of Muslim groups in the North Caucasus, particularly the Chechens and the Circassians. When I mention the two groups in my classes, I typically get many nods of recognition for the first group and mostly blank stares for the second. As mentioned above, the Circassians, like the Chechens, were subjected to a prolonged war with the Russian Empire and ultimately the majority of them were expelled from their ancestral homeland. The exiled Circassians—those who survived the brutal expulsion—found new homes throughout the Ottoman Empire, especially in present-day Turkey, Jordan, Syria, and Israel. Yet unlike the Chechens, today’s Circassian activists chose to follow a peaceful, non-violent path for maintaining their ethnic identity and culture, seeking recognition of the genocide committed against them, and campaigning for Russia to allow some of them to return to their homeland in the Northwest Caucasus (the latter issue is particularly relevant for the Circassians in war-torn Syria). The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, where the Circassians’ ancestors were boarding the Ottoman ships, offered them an excellent opportunity to draw international media’s attention to their cause. And yet, most mainstream media organizations downplayed or ignored the Circassian issue, as discussed in detail in Martin Lewis’ earlier GeoCurrents post. The Chechens, in contrast, have gained much more media attention. “They got their PR campaign together”, a student in one of my adult education classes once joked. “By blowing stuff up”, I replied. Here, I agree with Martin Lewis that the media is to some extent complicit in driving nationalist movements to become more radicalized and more violent. As Lewis puts it, “if news source chose to highlight violent responses while ignoring non-violent ones, a perverse message is seemingly sent: ‘If you want our attention, kill someone!’”. While Crimean Tatars have not yet been involved in violence against persons, they are evidently prepared to blow up power lines and destroy goods. It is, however, a step in the radical direction.

Several other factors suggest that we might see a rise in violence perpetrated by Crimean Tatars and an internationalization of their more militant activists. Unlike the Chechens and the Volga Tatars, the Crimean Tatars do not constitute the majority or even a plurality in their region. It is therefore hardly likely that they will be able to gain much cultural or economic autonomy, regardless of whether Crimea remains under Russian control or is transferred back to Ukraine—and independence is entirely out of the question. In fact, the vector of Russian policy with respect to Crimean Tatars is clear from the recent persecutions of the Crimean Tatar activists, including the exile of their leader, 72-year old Mustafa Jemilev, a veteran of the dissident movement. Jemilev is now banned from Crimea by Russian authorities, while his wife remains in Crimea and his son is in prison in Russia. While for now Crimean Tatars align themselves with Ukrainian paramilitaries, it would not be surprising if the more militant wing of their movement begins to look for alliances in the larger Muslim world.

krimea3The comparison between Tatarstan and Chechnya above also suggests that stunted economic and social development facilitates radicalization of Muslim groups. While the authors of a recent article in Foreign Affairs William McCants and Christopher Meserole focus on “political culture”, they too admit that economic factors play a role, particularly the high degree of unemployment. As many other authors have suggested, high unemployment among young males creates a demographic base for jihadi recruiters to draw upon. By all accounts, Crimea was economically underdeveloped already on the eve of the Russian annexation in March 2014, even according to Russian sources such as Russia Today, a media outlet that peddles pro-Putin state-sanctioned propaganda in English. According to their article “Crimea’s economy in numbers and pictures”, published on March 15, 2014, Crimea’s budget deficit at the time constituted $1 billion, while the republic’s annual GDP was only $4.3 billion (see image on the left, reproduced from the Russia Today article). By 2018, Crimea expected Russian investment of about $5 billion. Yet Crimea also had a lot to lose by severing its ties with Ukraine: on the eve of the annexation, 90% of water, 80% of electricity, 60% of primary goods, and 70% of tourism came from Ukraine. The Russia Today article hypothesized that “if Crimea becomes a part of Russia it’ll become a more attractive holiday destination for Russia’s population of 142 million, whose per capita income is more than three times that of Ukrainians”. However, in reality, the hostilities turned off tourists and the logistical difficulties in getting to and from the peninsula with a ferry caused a further drop in Russian tourism. As reported by, “almost 60% of tourists from Russia do not consider the resorts of the annexed Crimea … to be a decent replacement for Turkey and Egypt”. Thus, although Sergey Aksyonov, Crimea’s prime minister and an advocate of joining Russia, had hoped that breaking away from Ukraine would transform the economy for the better and would turn the peninsula into another Singapore, this has not happened. The economic sanctions imposed by the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia, and several other countries directly against Crimea and Crimean individuals have further inhibited tourism and infrastructure development.

eng_ukraine_mapThe political and economic problems, as well as direct persecutions, have caused many Crimean Tatars to leave the peninsula; according to, 10,000 Crimean Tatars have been forced out of Crimea and moved to Kherson, Lviv, Zaporizhye, and Kiyiv districts of Ukraine (see map on the left from This mass displacement parallels what had happened in Chechnya in the wake of the two Chechen wars. Thus, the destruction of family and community ties as a result of this relocation may bring Crimean Tatars to the point where religious identity would matter more than ethno-linguistic identity. As is, only a small minority of Crimean Tatars speak their indigenous language, which is considered to be endangered: although it is taught in several schools, it is mostly spoken by older people, according to the Ethnologue. Islam, on the other hand, has always been an important part of Crimean Tatar identity. Historically, Crimean Tatars were described as “diligent Muslims”, but while some important Muslim traditions—charity, fasts (including that of Ramadan), and pilgrimage to Mecca—were strictly observed, others were downplayed or ignored. For example, the German geographer Gustav Radde, who visited Crimea in the mid-1850s and wrote an ethnographic treatise about Crimean Tatars, informed his readers that Crimean Tatars drank vodka and a low-alcohol homebrew, though not wine. Another Islamic proscription that was generally ignored by Crimean Tatars is the ban on gambling, playing cards and dice, which were considered acceptable and indulged in widely, Radde wrote. Yet the treatment of women and the family law in traditional Crimean Tatar society, as described by Radde, is reminiscent of what is practiced in the most strictly Islamic countries. Thus, although Crimean Tatars today have certainly not seen the de facto implementation of Sharia law that has been experienced in Chechnya under Ramzan Kadyrov, including polygamy and enforced veiling, they could move in the more radical Islamist direction, especially as dislocation, persecutions by Russian authorities, and the continuing loss of their indigenous language make Islam the linchpin of their identity.

All in all, Chechnya has experienced significant radicalization and internationalization of its rebels, Tatarstan seems to be experiencing the same phenomena in a milder form, and the Crimean Tatars may be beginning to move in the same direction. Such developments may be driven as much by Russia’s repressive policies and the international media’s silence on non-violent protests as by internal causes such as economic and social underdevelopment. I think the conclusion of the authors of the Chatham House summary about the North Caucasus applies as well to Crimea:

“The causes of radicalization in the North Caucasus mean the situation is unlikely to change until Russia itself changes and Moscow is able to offer an alternative vision to the people in the region. If religious repression continues, so will the insurgency.”

“Russian political culture” may yet prove to be as deadly as the French one, albeit not by banning the veil but by allowing it—and by leaving little room for moderate Muslim identity based on history, culture, traditions, and language rather than jihad.




Radicalization of Russia’s Muslims—Are Crimean Tatars Next? (Part 2) Read More »

Radicalization of Russia’s Muslims—Are Crimean Tatars Next? (Part 1)

[Thanks to Iryna Novosyolova for a helpful discussion of some of the issues discussed in this post.]


A recent article in Foreign Affairs listed the use of the French language as the best predictor of a country’s rate of Sunni radicalization and violence, and particularly of the percentage of a country’s Muslim population that joins in the international Jihad. According to ICSR estimate, of all Western European countries France has supplied the largest number of foreign fighters to ISIS in absolute terms, whereas Belgium leads in per capita terms (40 per million population). The authors of the Foreign Affairs article, William McCants and Christopher Meserole, claim that Francophone status is a better predictor of foreign fighter radicalization than wealth, education or health levels, or even Internet access. The French language itself, the authors state, is obviously not to blame, but is rather a mere proxy for the “French political culture”. Policies such as the French ban on face covering (adopted in September 2010), which prohibits wearing niqābs, burqas, and other veils covering the face in public places, are said to create a fertile ground for drafting recruits into the militant Islamist movement.

religion in russiaBut France and Belgium may not be the only countries where the assimilatory or discriminatory policies adopted by the state encourage the radicalization of the Muslim population. In fact, Russia has been experiencing the same phenomena: a growth of violence perpetrated by Muslim extremists at home and an increasing recruitment for Jihad outside Russia. As mentioned in an earlier GeoCurrents post by Evan Lewis, Russia has been one of the top recruiting grounds for ISIS. According to ICSR estimate, some 800-1,500 foreign ISIS fighters came from Russia. In absolute numbers, this estimate surpasses the corresponding numbers for United Kingdom (500-600), Germany (500-600), Belgium (440), and possibly even France (1,200). Another recent source cites Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs official Vladimir Makarov as saying that 3,417 Russians have been recruited by ISIS to fight in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East, a major increase from the 1,800 Russian citizens fighting for ISIS in September 2015. According to Makarov, some 200 of these Russian ISIS fighters are new converts to Islam who “do not come from the regions where this religion is traditional”. Cases such as that of Varvara Kraulova, a student who attempted to cross into Syria to join ISIS in the summer of 2015, are widely publicized in the media (see, for example, here and here), but they constitute a minor fraction of Russian citizen who have pledged themselves to the so-called Islamic State. As noted in the report on foreign fighters compiled by the New York-based Soufan Group in December 2015, the overwhelming majority of the Russian ISIS fighters come from traditionally Muslim areas of Russia, especially from the Northeast Caucasus (Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan). Other areas with large and historically rooted Muslim populations, such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan in the Middle Volga region, have also provided substantial contingents of ISIS fighters, as did the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. According to Voice of America, Russian-speaking jihadists from the former Soviet republics have formed their own community within ISIS, located in Al-Raqqah (the de facto capital of ISIS), with schools and even prayers in Russian.

Russian authorities primarily adopt a punitive approach to the problem, conducting criminal prosecution of ISIS fighters upon their return to Russia. According to Russia’s Chief Prosecutor Yury Chayka, 650 criminal cases were open against Russian citizens fighting for ISIS in November 2015; by March 2016, this number was up to over 1,000. Attempts are also made to drive recruitment down by publicly humiliating those who join in the form of “shame boards” that feature “photos of those traitors [who] dishonor” their names, their families, and their clans by joining ISIS. The anti-terrorism forces also work with the religious authorities in the North Caucasus to certify imams based on their attitudes towards terrorism, reports the (“Caucasian knot”) website. Yet such anti-terrorism measures seem to be less than consistent, according to the September 2015 Roundtable Summary by Chatham House, as “the Russian security services mostly appear to be looking the other way when North Caucasian fighters travel to Syria, possibly because these potential troublemakers are at much greater risk in the Middle East than at home”.

Moreover, wittingly or unwittingly, Russian state policies also exacerbate the problem by creating a fertile ground for radicalization and jihad recruitment, especially among the youth, as reported by The Soufa Group report cited above also points out,

“the North Caucasus has a long history of Islamist extremism, and the increased flow of  fighters from this region is in many ways unsurprising. Local grievances have long been drivers of radicalization in the Caucasus, and as the strong centralized security apparatus of the  Russian government limits the scope for operations at home, the Islamic State has offered an attractive alternative”.

Russia has had a long history of exclusionary and discriminatory policies towards—and even wholesale deportations of—its Muslim populations. As noted in the Wikipedia article on Islam in Russia,

“the period from the Russian conquest of Kazan in 1552 to the ascension of Catherine the Great in 1762 featured systematic Russian repression of Muslims [in the Middle Volga region] through policies of exclusion and discrimination – as well as the destruction of Muslim culture by the elimination of outward manifestations of Islam such as mosques.”

Map of Circassian RepublicsWith the ascension of Catherine the Great in 1762, the focus of these policies shifted to the North Caucasus. Here  war was waged by the Russian state against the indigenous Muslim groups for a hundred years, until Chechnya was finally incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1859, and most of the Circassians in the Northwest Caucasus were exiled to the Ottoman Empire in 1864. During the Soviet period, Islam, like other religions, was suppressed. During World War II, several Muslim ethnic groups, including Chechens, Ingush, and Crimean Tatars were deported by Stalin’s security forces from their homelands to Siberia and Central Asia. According to Stanford historian Norman M. Naimark, up to 40% of the Chechen nation perished in the process; comparable numbers in other deported ethnic groups died as well. In 1956, during Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization program, members of the deported ethnic groups who had not perished during their harsh exile were “rehabilitated” and some of the groups (for example, Chechens but not Crimean Tatars) were permitted to return to their homeland. Nonetheless, the survivors of the exile lost economic resources and civil rights, and continued to suffer from discrimination, both official and unofficial.

At the time of the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, several Muslim-majority republics within Russia, such as Tatarstan and Chechnya, asked for independence, yet the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation declared such attempts to gain sovereignty to be illegal. (Crimea, which had been part of the Ukrainian Union Republic within USSR, remained part of newly independent Ukraine.) In February 1994, Russia offered an autonomy agreement to Tatarstan and Chechnya, promising a broad range of rights and policy-making abilities, but stopping short of full independence. Tatarstan accepted the agreement but Chechnya did not, and the paths of their subsequent histories took different directions, as discussed in detail in my earlier posts on Tatarstan and Chechnya.

As HNN’s David R. Stone summarizes,

“the end of Moscow’s authority meant that the Chechen people, well-equipped with historical grievances to drive their discontent, found themselves in the Russian Federation due to the accidents of history and map, but badly wanted out.”

Over the course of the First (1994-1996) and Second (1999-2000) Chechen Wars, Chechnya was increasingly driven in the radical separatist direction. But the wars also resulted in the installation of a new puppet Chechen administration under the cleric Akhmad Kadyrov, who broke with the anti-Russian resistance movement, in part over its increasing religious radicalism, and began working with Russian authorities. His son, Ramzan Kadyrov, who took over after his father’s assassination in February 2007, continued the policy of apparent cooperation with Moscow, which pleased neither the Chechen separatists nor the Russian loyalists. But he has never been a “Kremlin puppet”, as some pundits have depicted him. Some observers, such as Viktor Shenderovich, even suggest that the younger Kadyrov may be to some extent the puppet-master, pulling the strings in Kremlin. His recent speech on February 23, 2016 (the 72nd anniversary of the Chechen deportation), in which Kadyrov laid a curse on Joseph Stalin and the chief of the Soviet security apparatus Lavrentiy Berya, certainly indicates that Kadyrov has his own agenda and does not always dance to Putin’s tune. Some pundits claim that the speech aimed to further fuel the popular campaign for Kadyrov to remain in power after his term ends later this year.

Still, Kadyrov has largely remained, in the words of journalist Yulia Latynina, “an all-powerful barbarian warlord at the court of a once-powerful but now rotten empire”, and a peculiar symbiosis of Russian and Chechen leadership has emerged in the wake of the two Chechen wars. The current Chechen government accepts that full independence from Russia may never happen, while Putin’s administration continues to use Chechen insurgents as the much-needed enemy figure. Since this situation does not please Chechen separatists, they continue their struggle by resorting to violence, both at home and in other Russian regions, even in Moscow itself. Chechen terrorists perpetrated several horrific terrorist attacks, most notably the October 2002 seizure of the Nord-Ost musical theater in Moscow, where over 800 spectators—many of them children—were taken hostage, and the seizure of an elementary school in the town of Beslan in North Ossetia on September 1, 2004. These terrorist attacks—and the botched rescue attempts by the Russian security forces—claimed the lives of some 130 hostages in the Nord-Ost theater, and 385 children and teachers in Beslan. These horrific terrorist attacks ended whatever hope might have still existed of winning broad international support for the cause of Chechen independence.

The death of the old-style Chechen nationalism during the rule of the Kadyrovs, father and son, the economic devastation of the republic that forced many residents to flee into neighboring regions of Ingushetia and Dagestan, and the rise of criminal gangs engaging in lucrative trade in people, weapons, oil, and drugs have all helped push Chechnya in a more radical direction. Historically, Islam in the North Caucasus was Sufi-oriented, tolerant in its practice, and not especially strict, but the pressure of war resulted in a surge of fundamentalism, as noted in a recent report on the North Caucasus by Konstantin Kazenin and Irina Starodubrovskaya, who claim that the Chechen wars not only gave some younger people in the region military training and battlefield experience, but also contributed to the inclusion of the North Caucasus in the global jihadist networks. Moreover, David R. Stone points out that “the traditional family and clan links that tied Chechen society together frayed and broke as a result of death and displacement”. Chechens who fled into other areas of the Caucasus found themselves in environments where ethnic and clan identity mattered less, and religious identity mattered more. As a result, many Chechen refugees were turned to radical Islam, “a vision that goes far beyond a concrete local struggle for specific, attainable goals to see instead a worldwide struggle between good and evil”. While refugees flowed out of Chechnya, foreign Islamist fighters flowed in to aid what they saw as a Muslim fight against the infidels, be they Russians, Americans, or even relatively secular Chechens. In the words of an Islamist militant leader Said Buryatsky, an ethnic Buryat and an ex-Buddhist convert to Islam,

“gone are the times when we fought for the freedom of Chechnya, for this pagan notion. Now we fight for Allah. Gone are the times when every Chechen was our brother. Now a Russian is our brother if he is a mujahideen, and a Chechen if he’s a kafir is our bitter enemy.”

Framed now mostly as an international radical Islamist movement, Chechen terrorism continues to hold its grip on Russia, perpetrating attacks such as the Domodedovo International Airport bombing in 2011, which killed 37 people, and supplying numerous foreign fighters for ISIS.

Tatarstan_locationTatarstan, which accepted the autonomy agreement with Russia in 1994, has been given many of the institutions of a full-fledged sovereign state, including a constitution, a legislature, a tax code, a national bank, and a citizenship system. At least in theory, it can conduct its own relations with foreign states and can set its own foreign economic policy and trade relations. But when push came to shove in the wake of Russia’s current confrontation with Turkey, which began in November 2015, central Russian government began to dictate to Tatarstan what it can do in relation to Turkey. For example, the Russian Ministry of Culture circulated a “recommendation” to all republics with Turkic titular populations, including Tatarstan, to break off relations with the International Organization of Turkic Culture (TÜRKSOY). It remains to be seen how long Tatarstan can manage to maintain its current “run with the hare and hunt with the hounds” position in relation to Russia and Turkey. Because of its ambivalent situation, Tatarstan has also experienced some radicalization of its Muslim population, similar to what has been happening in Chechnya, albeit in a milder form. According to various sources, including the FSB, a substantial number of ISIS recruits—perhaps as many as 200 or more—came from Tatarstan and the other Middle Volga republics. Ironically, ISIS recruitment for the war in Iraq and Syria resulted in a sharp decrease in terrorist attacks within Tatarstan since the early 2014.

Also as in Chechnya, the focus of the militant movement shifted from ethnic to religious identity. Historically, Volga Tatars have been fairly moderate Muslims, yet they have succeeded in retaining their ethno-linguistic identity despite almost half a millennium of Russian rule: according to the 2002 population census, 96.3% of Tatars still speak their ancestral language, compared to only less than half of the Khanty people, a quarter of the Mansi, and 12% of the Itelmen. But in recent decades this situation has been changing, as more extreme forms of Islam have been gradually gaining ground in Tatarstan. The internationalization of Tatarstan’s Muslim culture has been studied in detail by Rais Suleimanov, an expert on influences of foreign Muslim groups within Russia, particularly in the Middle Volga region; his multi-part article on how “Turkish emissaries for decades influenced the minds and hearts of our [Tatar] compatriots” can be read here and a shorter version of it is found here. According to Suleimanov, religious ties between Tatarstan and Turkey, which began on the basis of the ethno-linguistic and cultural connections between the two peoples, have allowed a more internationalist form of Islamist ideology to penetrate Tatarstan.

Several factors, however, mitigate Islamist radicalization in Tatarstan. Compared to Chechnya, Tatarstan has both more de jure and de facto rights (for instance, only Tatarstan retained the right to call its head a President; Kadyrov is known simply as “the head of Chechnya”, not its president). Also, in sharp contrast to the war-torn Chechnya, whose economic and social development has been stunted by the armed conflict, Tatarstan ranks relatively high in terms of economic and social development indicators. For example, Tatarstan’s GDP per capita is more than 4.5 times higher than that of Chechnya. According to Rosstat data, average per capita income in Tatarstan in 2013 was 26,161 rubles per month, whereas in Chechnya it was only 17,188 rubles per month; moreover, nearly half of Tatarstan’s residents’ personal income comes from salary and business profits, whereas in Chechnya only about a third of personal income comes from those sources, with a bigger chunk (38.1%) deriving from “other sources of income”, including currency operations and “hidden” money streams. In Tatarstan more than three quarters of the population live in towns and cities, whereas in Chechnya only about a third  do. Unemployment is nearly 7 times lower in Tatarstan than in Chechnya (4% vs. 26.9%). An average Tatarstan resident enjoys 6 extra square feet of living space compared to Chechnya. The availability of physicians and nurses per capita is 1.5 times greater in Tatarstan than in Chechnya, and the percentage of students in higher education institutions in Tatarstan is twice that in Chechnya. It may be for those reasons that Tatarstan has supplied 5 times less foreign fighters for ISIS in absolute terms, and 15 times less in per capita terms than Chechnya.

(To be continued…)

Radicalization of Russia’s Muslims—Are Crimean Tatars Next? (Part 1) Read More »

Lecture Slides on ISIS

ISIS LectureDear Readers,

For the next 10 weeks I will be teaching a lecture course on the history and geography of current events, which is offered in two versions, one for Stanford students and the other for the community at large through Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program. This class is very demanding on me, as I must come up with new 70-minute lectures each week on a wide variety of topics. As a result of such burdens, I will not have time to put up regular GeoCurrents posts during this period. I will, however, post my weekly lecture slides. At the link below, one can get my images from last night’s talk on ISIS/ISIL/DAESH. These slides were made in Keynote but were exported to the more commonly used PowerPoint format. The conversion process is not perfect, however, and as a result some details have been lost and some text has been slightly altered.

The slides themselves cannot of course convey the full scope of the lecture, but I do hope that they can be useful for some readers.

Class TopicsNext week’s lecture will be on the current crisis in Brazil. After that, topics have not yet been determined. I have posted a list of possible topics, however, and I am polling students on what they would like to learn about, whether on the list or not. GeoCurrents readers should feel free to offer their own suggestions as well. (You can now vote on your favorite topics here.)







Lecture Slides on ISIS Read More »

Tatarstan: A “Hostage of Freezing Relations between Russia and Turkey”?

[Many thanks to Ekaterina Lyutikova for most helpful discussions of some of the issues discussed in this post, as well as for the photos, some of which are used as illustrations below. I’m also grateful to Martin W. Lewis for helpful discussions and edits and for modifying the Wikipedia map of Percentage of Ethnic Tatars, used below.]


Tatarstan has not been much of a geopolitical hotspot in recent years and has largely remained “under the radar” for most mainstream Western media. This may soon change, however, if the present trends continue. Rapidly worsening relations between Russia and Turkey, as well as Tatarstan’s ambivalence in relation to both, lead experts such as Rais Suleimanov to doubt its continued peaceful existence; the quote in the title of this post is from Suleimanov’s recent article titled “Tatarstan can not decide: is it a part of Russia or a governorate of Turkey”. (All translations from Russian in this post are mine.)


As can be seen from the maps in the previous posts (see here, here, and here), Tatarstan is one of the most economically and socially developed regions of the Russian Federation. Although it lags in per capita GDP behind such resource-rich yet sparsely populated regions as Nenets Autonomous Okrug or Chukotka, Tatarstan registers lower alcoholism and crime rates, as well as longer life expectancy for both genders. According to maps reposted from, an average resident of Tatarstan receives a reasonably balanced diet (blue map), and the overall obesity rate in the republic is relatively low (orange map).



According to the data from the Federal State Statistics Service, Tatarstan ranks 9th of 83 regions by the percentage of university students (4.7% of total population). Two of the country’s three dozen national research universities are located in Kazan, Tatarstan’s capital: Kazan State Technological University (founded in 1890) and Kazan State Technical University named after A. N. Tupolev (established in 1932). Moreover, Kazan (Volga region) Federal University, founded in 1804, is Russia’s second oldest university. The eminent mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky served there as the rector from 1827 until 1846, and the list of the university’s famous students includes Vladimir Lenin (expelled for revolutionary activity), Leo Tolstoy (quit his studies), and composer Mily Balakirev (graduated in 1855).

Kazan, TatarstanKazan, Tatarstan 2Further contributing to its livability is the extraordinary cleanliness of Tatarstan’s cities, towns, and villages, including its capital Kazan, a metropolis of nearly 1.2 million, as can be seen from the photos of city center on the left. The striking cleanliness of the Tatars, noticeable particularly in the lack of rubbish on the streets and the general appearance of houses and yards, has caught the attention of many a traveler to the region. A good example is Jonas Stadling, who wrote an account of the famine in Eastern Russia in 1892, published in The Century magazine (volume 46, p. 560). As Stadling wrote: “The Tatars made a very favorable impression by their cleanliness and politeness”. Similar mentions of exceptional cleanliness are made also in David Lewis’ After Atheism (p. 126), Paul William Werth’s At the Margins of Orthodoxy (p. 164), and in many other sources. dvornik-2The character of a Tatar yardman/caretaker, sweeping the grounds of some large building in Moscow or Saint Petersburg, makes frequent appearance in Russian 19th-century fictional and memoir literature, including Dostoyevsky’s works.* (The Volga Tatars’ ethno-linguistic “relatives”, the Crimean Tatars, made the same impression on travelers such as German explorer Gustav Radde, who traveled to Crimea in 1850s and noted the “special care about cleanliness of [Crimean Tatar] homes and bodies” in his ethnographic treatise about the group.)

Not only does Tatarstan manage to optimize economic and social development, but its economy is more balanced than that of Russian regions with higher per capita GDP. In the 1970s-80s, Tatarstan was one of the largest oil producing areas in the USSR, but starting in the mid-1990s, the Republic has managed to diversify its economy. Tatarstan’s overall GDP is less than a third of that of Tumen or Sakhalin oblast, but much less of it, only 21.3%, comes from natural resources (chiefly unrefined oil), compared to 54.6% in Tumen oblast, 61.6% in Sakhalin, or the whopping 71% in Nenets Autonomous Okrug. According to Deputy of the State Council of Tatarstan Rafael Khakimov, “since 1996 … we switched to the deep processing of oil, to the development of industry as a whole, to the high-tech manufacturing, aeronautics and IT‑technologies. We succeeded in doing that and today we depend on crude oil exports only minimally.” A substantial share of Tatarstan’s GDP comes from manufacturing (18.3% in 2012), trade and real estate operations (24.1%), construction (10.4%), and agriculture (6%). Several sources note a 5% growth in Tatarstan’s agricultural output in 2015, particularly in crop and milk production. (The latter makes sense since Tatarstan has the highest dairy consumption rate in Russia, 364 kg, or over 800 lbs, per capita per year.) Tatarstan was also ranked highest in “innovation activity” in 2015, well ahead of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, and Novosibirsk.

But Tatarstan’s economy may take a serious hit in the near future as a result of rapidly worsening relations between Russia and Turkey. A significant contributing factor to Tatarstan’s prosperity in recent years has been investments by Turkish businesses, to the tune of $1.5–2 billion, according to different sources (see here and here), which constitutes one fourth of all foreign investments in Tatarstan, and one sixth of all Turkish investments in the Russian Federation. Among those Turkish investments are “about a dozen of major enterprises built by Turkish investors … located in the Alabuga special economic zone” in north-central Tatarstan, notes Russian News Agency TASS. Unlike the case with many Chinese-owned business in Russia’s Far East, “98% of workers [in Turkish-owned businesses in Tatarstan] are Russian nationals”.

For the last 15 years, the relationship between Russia and Turkey has generally been very productive. But on November 24, 2015, the relations between the two countries took a nose-dive after Russia’s Su-24 bomber was shot down in Syria by an air-to-air missile fired from a Turkish F-16 fighter jet. Russia’s President Putin responded harshly, calling the attack “a stab in Russia’s back delivered by terrorists’ accomplices”, according to Russian News Agency TASS. Two days later, Russia introduced economic sanctions against Turkey, which prohibited “the imports of many Turkish food products including fruits, vegetables, poultry and salt and imposed a ban on hiring Turkish nationals”, as reported in The Moscow Times. According to an early RBC report, other measures considered by the Russian government include freezing of economic cooperation programs, restrictions on financial operations and commercial transactions, the revision of customs duties, and “interventions” in tourism, air transportation, and shipping. Several large-scale cooperative projects also fell under these restrictive measures: for example, the proposed “Turkish Stream” natural gas pipeline was suspended by Russia and subsequently terminated by the Turkish side. Similarly, the fate of what was to become Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, located in Akkuyu in southern Anatolia, is now unclear. The abovementioned RBC report concluded that these measures would “unavoidably hit both Turkish and Russian businesses”. Because of Tatarstan’s extensive economic ties with Turkey, it is liable to be among the worst-hit regions of the Russian Federation.


However, Tatarstan’s relations with Turkey go far beyond their economic ties. Speaking of Turkey in December 2015, Tatarstan’s President Rustam Minnikhanov (note the title, more on that below!) reportedly said: “We are in the same language group, of the same religious identity”. The Republic’s titular ethnic group, the Tatars (or more precisely, the Volga Tatars), who constitute 53% of Tatarstan’s population, speak a Turkic language. According to the 2002 census, moreover, 96.3% of Tatars still speak their ancestral language, making them one of the most successful minority groups in Russia in preserving their linguistic identity.** Although little-known outside Russia (and indeed to many people in Russia), Tatar is the 7th largest Turkic language globally and the largest Turkic language in the Russian Federation. In fact, with over 5.3 million speakers, it is the 2nd most widely spoken native language in Russia. The Tatar and Turkish languages are traditionally classified as belonging to different branches of the Turkic language family (Kipchak and Oghuz, respectively); nonetheless, there are many linguistic similarities between them and the internal classification of Turkic languages remains controversial. While I disagree with Bernard Lewis, who wrote in The Middle East. A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years that “the differences between these various languages were no greater than between the vernaculars spoken in the Arab lands from Iraq to Morocco”, similarities between Tatar and Turkish are much greater than those between languages from different branches of the Indo-European family, such as English and Russian.

Another link between Tatars and Turks is that of religion: both groups are Sunni Muslims. Rais Suleimanov, an expert on influences of foreign Muslim groups within Russia, particularly in the Middle Volga region, has written extensively on how “Turkish emissaries for decades influenced the minds and hearts of our [Tatar] compatriots” (his multi-part article can be read here and a shorter version here). Moreover, the Grand Mufti of Tatarstan Kamil Samigullin studied in Turkey under Mahmut Ustaosmanoğlu, the leader of influential İsmailağa Jamia.

Yet historical and cultural links between Tatarstan and Turkey go deeper still. Symbolic of this connection is the planned installation of a monument to the prominent statesman and scholar Sadri Maksudi Arsal, a Tatarstan native who moved after the Bolshevik Revolution to Turkey where he worked as an advisor to the first President of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The monument was supposed to be opened in Kazan’s Istanbul (!) Park in December 2015 by Turkish President Recep Erdoğan. After the events in late November, Erdoğan’s visit was cancelled. Around the same time, the Yunus Emre Institute for Turkish Studies at the Kazan Federal University, opened as a Turkish “soft power” initiative in 2012, was closed. As part of the anti-Turkish measures, the Russian Ministry of Culture circulated a “recommendation” to all republics with Turkic titular populations, including Tatarstan, to break off relations with the International Organization of Turkic Culture (TÜRKSOY).***

As a result of this confrontation between Russia and Turkey, Tatarstan found itself between Scylla and Charybdis, and its response has been rather cautious and ambivalent. According to Rais Suleimanov,

most federal subjects [in the Volga region] exhibited solidarity with the federal center. The only exception was Tatarstan, which adopted a not-completely-loyal attitude in relation to the federal center, preferring not to spoil its relations with Turkey, simultaneously sending clear signals to Ankara: “we are not on the side of Moscow”.

Moreover, Suleimanov points out that Tatarstan’s “run with the hare and hunt with the hounds” position has been in marked contrast to that of Bashkortostan, a neighboring region that also has a substantial Turkic-speaking Muslim population (in addition to its Turkic titular ethnic group, the Bashkir, Bashkortostan also has a significant Tatar population and a smaller group of Chuvash, which combined constitute 57.6% of the republic’s population). Yet, Bashkortostan’s authorities, Suleimanov says, “have chosen not to depart from the political line of the federal center”. After adopting a wait-and-see position for some time, Tatarstan ultimately refused to follow Minister Vladimir Medinsky’s “recommendation” regarding TÜRKSOY, and the Republic’s officials questioned whether the federal Ministry of Culture can “dictate” to regional cultural authorities. Tatarstan’s cultural authorities certainly have good grounds for their resistance, which can be understood through a brief historical excursion.

The Expansion of Russia

Tatarstan has a long history of being under Russian rule. After a brutal siege and assault, Kazan was taken in 1552 by Ivan the Terrible (Saint Basil’s Cathedral at the edge of Red Square in Moscow commemorates the event). The conquest of Kazan marked the second wave of non-ethnic-Russian territories annexed by Moscow (shown in green on the map on the left). (The first wave, shown in purple, included Finnic-speaking groups, such as Merya, Meschera, Murom, and Veps, which were largely absorbed in the 11-12th centuries, as well as the still-surviving Komi and Nenets populations.) Although technically a sovereign tsardom in personal union with Russia, Tatarstan was henceforth administered from Moscow. In 1708, in the course of Peter the Great’s administrative reform, the Kazan tsardom was transformed into a gubernia (governorate), to be administered by a governor sent from Saint-Petersburg. The first governor was Peter Apraksin, a close associate of Peter I, handpicked to oversee the strategically important area. At the time, Tatarstan supplied timber for naval use and horses for the cavalry, and its workshops on the Volga River built ships for Peter’s new navy. Revealingly, the Wikipedia list of governors contains no Tatar names. Quite a few of the region’s governors, however, were of German descent. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Tatarstan became an Autonomous Republic within the Russian Union Republic, but despite this title, it had little real autonomy. Several proposals were considered to upgrade its status to that of a union republic, but all were rejected. But despite their lack of self-rule for over four centuries, the Tatars managed to retain a sense of ethnic and cultural identity, and, as mentioned above, their indigenous language (nearly all Tatars speak it as their mother-tongue, compared to only less than half of the Khanty people, a quarter of the Mansi, and 12% of the Itelmen, according to the 2002 census).

On the eve of the fall of the Soviet Union, in August 1990, Tatarstan issued a Declaration of State Sovereignty, and after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 it continued on the course for separation from Russia. In a referendum conducted in March 1992, over half of the votes were cast for the independence, and in November of the same year a Constitution of the Republic of Tatarstan was adopted, declaring it a sovereign state. However, the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation declared those documents to be illegal. In February 1994, Russia offered an autonomy agreement to Tatarstan, promising a broad range of rights and policy-making abilities, but stopping short of full independence. (The same agreement was offered to Chechnya, which did not accept it.) Tatar authorities accepted the deal, giving Tatarstan many of the institutions of a full-fledged sovereign state, including a constitution, a legislature, a tax code, a national bank, and its own citizenship system. The Kazan government can conduct its own relations with other subjects of the Russian Federation and even foreign states, and can set its own foreign economic policy and trade relations. But it remains to be seen how much actual economic independence will be allowed by Russia.

Tellingly, the head of state in Tatarstan is called “President”, again in marked contrast to Chechnya and other ethnic republics within Russia. (This would be analogous to having a “President of California” who would nonetheless be under the power of President of the USA.) While it may seem a trivial matter, labels can matter a great deal, and Tatarstan fought tooth and nail to preserve its right to call its head a President. A Russian law adopted in 2010, however, allowed for only one president—that of the Russian Federation. All internal republics, except for Tatarstan, switched to calling their heads of state glava, “head”. Tatarstan has ever since been lobbying to keep its “President”, most recently by using the 94.4% vote in favor of President Minnikhanov in the September 2015 election. (These election results may have been falsified, claims Rais Suleimanov.) While the issue has not yet been closed, it appears that Tatarstan has more leeway than Russia’s other federal subjects. This unbalanced situation “allows one to consider Russia an asymmetrical ethno-federation”, according to Suleimanov, thus forming another example of the “myth of nation state”, which GeoCurrents has written about extensively.

Kazan Kremlin

The currently brewing confrontation between the Kremlin in Moscow and the Kremlin in Kazan (see photo of the latter on the left) is not the only issue threatening Tatarstan. Suleimanov and other experts talk about a possibility, even likelihood, of exploding terrorist activity in the region. The most frightening scenarios involve an expansion of radical Islamism in Tatarstan and further forging of connections between such home-grown groups and extremist organizations based elsewhere in the Muslim world, including Hizb ut-Tahrir and ISIS.


As indicated in ISW map of ISIS activity, discussed in an earlier GeoCurrents post, Russia has been one of the main sources of ISIS recruits. While many of them have come from the Caucasus region, a substantial number—over 200, according to some sources—are from Tatarstan and the rest of the Middle Volga region. Ironically, ISIS recruitment for the war in Iraq and Syria is said to be the chief reason for the sharp decrease in terrorist attacks within Tatarstan: while several brutal attacks shook the Republic in 2012 and 2013, there has been a relative calm in 2014-2015. But some of these ISIS fighters are now coming back from Syria to Tatarstan. Moreover, according to Suleimanov, in November 2015, ISIS propagandists released two videos in which Tatarstan is explicitly mentioned as a target of radical Islamists. Future developments in the conflict in Syria will, no doubt, have a critical impact on the situation in Tatarstan, which remains for the time being “a place to watch”.

*One source even claims that the entire cleaning staff of the Winter Palace, over 100 people, consisted of Tatars.

**According to the same census, 96% of Tatars also know Russian to some extent.

***Although some anti-Turkish protests occurred across Russia, even in the Middle Volga region, many people felt that the Russian government’s reaction was too strong, leading several journalists and bloggers to post tongue-in-cheek proposals to “prohibit” or “rename” Turkish coffee, Turkish sweets, the espionage thriller (book and film) titled “Turkish Gambit” (set in the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War), Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca, and even the music group Turetsky Choir (whose director’s last name means “Turkish” in Russian).


Tatarstan: A “Hostage of Freezing Relations between Russia and Turkey”? Read More »

“Misled by the Map”—video lecture


Misled by the MapDear Readers,

One of the main concerns of GeoCurrents is the thesis that the basic political map of the world, focused as it is on mutually recognized sovereign states, is a misleading document. This map purports to depict the existing global political configuration but does not actually do so. Instead, it essentially shows the world as it should be, according, that is, to the foreign-policy establishment. Western Sahara, for example, appears as a country on almost all political maps—except those made in Morocco— even though it has never actually been an independent state and in all likelihood will never be one. Diplomatic pretense, on other words, habitually trumps geopolitical reality in our most basic depiction of the world.

Numerous GeoCurrents posts over the years have pointed out many of the failures of the standard political map. I often feel, however, that this topic deserves more concerted attention. I have therefore contemplated writing a book on the topic, but to do so I would probably have to quit writing GeoCurrents posts or take a leave of absence from teaching, neither of which I am willing to do. But I have been able to give extended consideration to this topic in the form of an illustrated lecture, given under the auspices of the Stanford University alumni program. This lecture was recorded and has been put up on the internet. It is also available for viewing below. Many thanks to Stanford for hosting this lecture and especially for making it available to the public.

(Video and audio recordings of other talks and lectures can be found here.)

“Misled by the Map”—video lecture Read More »

The Anomaly of Banaba Island: Part of Kiribati, But Administered from Fiji


Revised-Map-Of-Geopolitical-AnomaliesFor some time I have been making a list of “geopolitical anomalies,” loosely defined as existing arrangements that defy the standard model of sovereign states exercising completely control over unambiguous, clearly delimited territorial realms. Until recently, however, one of the world’s more interesting geopolitical anomalies had escaped my attention: that of Banaba Island (also called Ocean Island) in the Pacific island country of Kiribati. Banaba definitely belongs to the country of Kiribati, yet it is administered by a legal body based in another country, Fiji. The “body” in question is the Rabi Council of Leaders and Elders, which administers both Rabi Island (in Fiji) and Banaba Island in Kiribati, although it maintains its main office in Kiribati Banaba MapSuva, the capital Fiji, located on the island of Viti Levu. The people of Rabi Island are Fijian citizens, but they also hold passports from Kiribati. More importantly, they maintain ownership of Kiribati’s Banaba Island, which gives them they authority to administer it. One of the eight members of the Rabi Council of Leaders and Elders, moreover, sits in the parliament of Kiribati in order to represent the community.

Kiribati mapBanaba covers only 6 km2 (2.3 sq mi), but is still one of the larger islands of Kiribati, a country mostly composed of tiny coral atolls scattered across an enormous expanse of oceanic space. Only 335 people Banaba Island Maplived on the island as of 2012. Rabi Island is considerably larger in regard to both area and population, covering 67.3 km2 (26.0 sq mi) and counting some 5,000 inhabitants, 95 percent of whom are ethnic Banabans.

The unusual geopolitical situation of Banaba is rooted in the island’s extraordinarily rich phosphate deposits, a resource that was also extremely abundant on the near-by island of Nauru, a sovereign state in its own right. The phosphate deposits are now largely mined out, leaving both Nauru and Banaba in precarious situations. Although the people of Nauru mostly remained on their own mined-out island, those of Banaba were mostly relocated just after WWII to Rabi Island in Fiji. As historian Gregory T. Banaba MapCushman explains in his award-winning book, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World, the Banaban people were not exactly forced to relocate to Rabi Island, but there were severely misled in several ways (pp. 128-129). The indigenous people of Rabi Island were similarly relocated, in their case to nearby Taveuni Island. But as the Wikipedia notes, “The original inhabitants still maintain their links to the island, and still use the Rabi name in national competitions.” The Wikipedia article on Rabi also provides a good description of the relocation process:

The Banabans came to Fiji in three major waves, with the first group of 703, including 318 children, arriving on the BPC vessel, Triona, on Fiji Rabi Map15 December 1945. Accompanying them were 300 other I-Kiribati. The Banabans had been collected from Japanese internment camps on various islands; they were not given the option of returning to Banaba, on the grounds that the Japanese had destroyed their houses – this was not true. They were told that there were houses waiting for them on Rabi: in fact they were given tents to live in and food rations which lasted for only two months. It was the middle of the hurricane season, and they were still weak from years of Japanese imprisonment: 40 of the oldest Banabans died. They were joined by a second wave between 1975 and 1977, with a final wave arriving between 1981 and 1983, following the ending of phosphate mining in 1979. Recognizing the lack of opportunities for Banabans in their homeland, the Rabi Council assisted the remaining population to move to Rabi after 1981.

But not all of the Banaban people relocated to or remained on Rabi Island; as noted above, some 335 do live on their home island today. Not surprisingly, geopolitical tensions persist. Rabi islanders are angry that only people living on Banaba are eligible for proceeds from the 614-million (Australian dollars) trust fund established from phosphate mining. In 2006, the representative of the Rabi Council of Leaders and Elders in the Kiribati parliament called for Banaba to secede from Kiribati and join Fiji. Other local leaders have called on Banaba to declare its own independence. Proposals to reopen the phosphate mines have generated considerable discontent among the Banaban people.

Kiribati is, of course, keen to retain Banaba Island. Not only does its government view the Banaba as an intrinsic part of its own territorial domain, but it also sees the comparative lofty island (with a high point of 81 m [266 ft]) as a potential place of refuge in case rising sea-level inundates the county’s atolls.

Janice Cantieri posted a preliminary report on the plight of the people of Banaba as part of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling initiative in July 2015. Evidently, more of her stories will be forthcoming.

The Anomaly of Banaba Island: Part of Kiribati, But Administered from Fiji Read More »

GeoCurrents Editorial: Recognition for Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland

(Note: GeoCurrents is a non-partisan blog devoted to providing geographical information, particularly in reference to current global events. On rare occasions, however, opinion pieces are posted on the site. This is one of those occasions. As I regard this issue as extremely important, this post will remain at the top of the GeoCurrents page for at least the next week.)

Now that Joe Biden is a possible candidate for the 2016 U.S. presidential election, attention is again falling on a 2006 editorial in which he and Leslie Gelb advocated dividing Iraq into three ethnically based regions. At the time of its publication, the Biden-Gelb essay was widely misinterpreted as a call for dismantling Iraq altogether and replacing it with independent Sunni Arab, Shia Arab, and Kurdish states. But Biden, Gelb and their defenders were quick to insist that their intention was actually that of saving Iraq by restructuring it as a federation, giving substantial autonomy but not outright independence to these three regions.


As this controversy made clear, any proposal for the actual dismemberment of Iraq was essentially unthinkable at the time for the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. The existing geopolitical order had to be maintained, such thinking had it, in order to preserve stability. If the Kurds of Iraq were to acquire their own country, what would prevent countless other disgruntled ethnic groups from demanding the same? If the international community were to consent to Kurdish desires and recognize their independence, anarchy could spread across the region and eventually, perhaps, the entire world. As a result, the mere mention of partition was generally dismissed out if hand.

Kurdistan Independence InevitableMore recently, this inflexible consensus seems to be yielding, although in an understated manner, with little discussion of underlying principles. Major media sources are now wondering whether the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan is not inevitable, regardless of the warnings of international-relations experts. Some writers have taken a step further, advocating the immediate recognition of Kurdish sovereignty in northern Iraq. Consider for example, Andrew Stuttaford’s offhand remark in a recent National Review essay on the ISIS threat: “The Kurds (independence and enhanced military support for them already, please) are the only benign, and reasonably effective, fighting forces in the region, but they are unlikely to want to stray too far from Kurdish territory.”

But despite such rumblings, most foreign-policy analysts still shudder at the thought of breaking up Iraq. Certainly the current U.S. administration remains committed to the country’s unity. As the indispensable Kurdish news agency Rudaw reported on August 1, 2015: “The White House has reconfirmed its position on maintaining a unified Iraq in a firm rebuttal to a 100,000-strong petition asking the United States to support Kurdish independence Tuesday.”

geopolitical anomalies map 10Fusing Iraq back together would require considerable force and would probably result in massive bloodshed, as well as the suspension of the dream of democratic governance. Can we reasonably imagine that the Peshmerga would be willingly folded into the Iraqi military, as would be demanded if a truly unified state were to reemerge? Does anyone who understands the actual situation think that the Iraqi Kurds would voluntarily submit to Baghdad and allow the dismantling of the essentially sovereign state that they have struggled so hard to create? By the same token, is it reasonable to assume that the Sunni Arabs of the northwest would acquiesce to a united, democratic Iraq in which the Shia majority holds electoral sway? The events of the past 12 years certainly indicate otherwise. I, for one, would be willing to bet a considerable amount of money, and at unfavorable odds, that Iraqi unification will not occur within the next 10 years — or any other time period that one might specify.

The Bosnia & Herzegovina Option

Bosnia and Herzegovina MapThe best hope for rebuilding some kind of state within Iraqi’s recognized boundaries would be something on the order of the Biden-Gelb plan, allowing the three main regions to enjoy de facto but not de jure sovereignty, sharing little more than membership in international organizations. The result would be a largely fictional country, similar to Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which the main groups maintain largely peaceful relations mostly by limiting their interactions. But any such arrangement would be viewed by most Iraqi Kurds as a temporary expedient, a mere a way-station on the route to actual independence.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, moreover, does not make a good exemplar, as it is more a sliced-up protectorate than a real country. As GeoCurrents reader Vatroslav Herceg writes, “In Bosnia and Herzegovina you have coffee bars that are for Croats, coffee bars that are for Bosnians, and coffee bars that are for Serbs in the same city.” Given this situation, Herceg foresees the return of political violence:

I am not a nationalist, but if Bosnia and Herzegovina is left like this there will be another war in the Balkans. I don’t want another war, my family already suffered in the 1990s war. Just look at the artificial flag* of Bosnia and Herzegovina, [which] shows that this entity is a EU and USA protectorate.


Put differently, the diplomatic charade embodied in the creation of an artificial federation that forces mutually hostile groups into the same “country” might buy time, but it will not solve the underlying issues. This is not to argue, it is essential to note, that there was anything historically inevitable about the mutual antipathy found among Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina (or, for that matter, among Iraq’s Sunnis Arabs, Shia Arabs, and Kurds.) Given different historical circumstances, a sense of Yugoslav identity might have prevailed, leading to the perpetuation of Yugoslavia. But that did not happen, and the events of the past quarter-century cannot be wished away. Yugoslavia is gone for good, and Bosnia and Herzegovina appears to be headed in the same direction. A curiously vegetative state, Bosnia and Herzegovina is kept alive only by the artificial life-support system of the international community. Should we wish the same for Iraq?

The Delusion of Reunification

Iraq and Syria Political Situation MapThe insistence on maintaining the superficially existing geopolitical framework flows from an exhausted doctrine that has itself become a major obstacle to peace. Recent events have made a mockery of the idea that the partition of Iraq could be dangerously destabilizing, as complete destabilization—and far worse—has already occurred. The terror state of ISIS that has spread its tentacles over a vast swath of Syria and Iraq draws much of its strength from the international community’s insistence that these imperially imposed entities remain inviolate regardless of the desires of their residents or the realities on the ground. The break-away state of Iraqi Kurdistan, on the other hand, is a refuge of stability and effective governance, not the font of insecurity imagined by those who sanctify preexisting borders. The idea that rewarding such success with diplomatic recognition would somehow prove disruptive to some imaginary Iraqi peace process is laughable.

Somalia Political Situation MapNor is Iraq the only country in the larger region that has collapsed beyond the point of reconstitution. Yemen and Libya might remerge as coherent states, as their fall was recent, but I would not count on it. Syrian reunification is even more of a long shot, as its national unity is too weak and its mutual antipathies too entrenched. And what of Somalia? Like Iraq, Somalia ceased functioning as real country nearly a quarter-century ago. Since then, its geopolitical contours have remained in flux, with territories passing among its weak provisional government, Islamist forces, and autonomous warlords. But Somalia also contains, like Iraq, one relatively well-run, stable government that acts as a sovereign power despite its lack of international recognition: Somaliland. The reunification of Somalia, difficult as that is to imagine, would probably require the crushing of Somaliland, as Hargeisa (Somaliland’s capital) would be no more willing to submit to Mogadishu than Erbil (Hewler, in Kurdish) would be willing to give in to Baghdad. Attempting to revive the moribund states of Iraq and Somalia would, in all likelihood, prove far more disruptive than acknowledging the functioning states of Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland.

World Political Map ProblemsIn the end, I cannot avoid the conclusion that the dream of reunifying Iraq and Somalia is deadly delusion, a mirage generated by viewing global political geography not as it actually is, but rather as the diplomatic establishment thinks it should be. Such a blinkered worldview is unfortunately ubiquitous, encoded in our basic world-political maps. In the United States, these ideologically laden documents not only show a country that collapsed decades ago (Somalia), but even depict a country that has never existed, other than in the imaginations of diplomats and insurgents (Western Sahara). How many years—how many decades—have to pass before we can acknowledge reality and drop our geopolitical illusions? Abandoning pretense and facing the truth is a necessary precondition for achieving peace and stability.

The Matter of Precedent

Those who fear the recognition of Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan usually invoke precedent. If a precedent is set by the division of officially recognized countries, they ask, where will the process end? As dozens of countries are plagued by secession movements, they dread the opening of a veritable Pandora’s box of anarchy and rebellion.

The precedent argument, however, fails from the outset. It greatly exaggerates the power of the international order while ignoring key events of the past thirty years. In that period, newly independent countries have sprouted over much of the world, while a number of states dissolved completely when their constituent divisions all gained independence. The USSR, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia no longer exist; Eritrea, East Timor, Kosovo, and South Sudan have successfully detached themselves from the countries to which they formerly belonged. Other new states could easily emerge in the near future; as has been made clear, both Scotland and Quebec will be allowed to gain sovereignty if a majority of their voters so decide. If these occurrences somehow inspired militant secession movements, resulting in an uptick of violence and anarchy across the globe, it somehow escaped notice.

Yet as it so happens, a precedent has been established: the partition of countries is perfectly acceptable provided that it occurs in a certain manner. The general conditions are that the government of the country slated for losing a particular territory must agree to it, while the people of the seceding region must voice their support, preferably through the ballot box.** But as South Sudan clearly shows, violent resistance to the existing geopolitical framework can be the precipitating process. South Sudan gained independence largely though warfare, grinding down resistance in both Khartoum and the international community through decades of struggle. Gaining sovereignty in such a manner may have set a bad precedent, but set it was, with no way of being erased. That precedent, moreover, was largely created by the same foreign-policy establishment of the United States that vigorously opposes the independence of Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan. As The New York Times reported in 2014, “South Sudan is in many ways an American creation, carved out of war-torn Sudan in a referendum largely orchestrated by the United States, its fragile institutions nurtured with billions of dollars in American aid.”


But South Sudan makes a fraught example, as its independence has hardly been successful. Indeed, the Fund for Peace currently ranks South Sudan as the world’s most “fragile state,” considerably more fragile than even Syria. Although this particular claim is difficult to take seriously, given that Syria has been shattered beyond recognition, it does indicate the severity of South Sudan’s challenges. One might therefore conclude that independence was a major mistake, and perhaps even extrapolate this insight to the rest of the world, reckoning that it is best to maintain the world political map exactly as it is, discounting any possible benefits that might result from the partition of failed states.

Many solid reasons, however, can be found for dismissing any conclusions drawn from the debacle of South Sudan. I retain some hope that the “world’s youngest country” can repair its cleavages and begin to heal and develop. I am also relieved that its unfortunate people are no longer under the thumb of the Khartoum government, unlike those of Darfur and South Kordofan (the Nuba Hills), who still suffer attacks of almost genocidal intensity. But regardless of its dire predicament, South Sudan makes a poor comparison with either Somaliland or Iraqi Kurdistan. The people of South Sudan made their case for independence on the basis of the oppression that they had long endured along with their tenacious military resistance. They had no experience, however, in running an effective government, holding elections, establishing an independent judiciary, and so on, all of which have been accomplished with some success by both Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan. Both of these entities have successfully built their own states over the past several decades, doing so in a chaotic regional environment and with little help from international developmental agencies. In the case of Somaliland, Peter J. Schraeder, persuasively argued years ago that such accomplishments merited the recognition of sovereignty. In the intervening years, little has changed.

Problems Behind, Problems Ahead

1995 Divided Iraqi Kurdistan MapIn constructing their own unrecognized state, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have had to overcome deep divisions within their own society. In the mid-1990s, the region’s two main political groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), mostly representing the Kurmanji-speaking north, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), mostly representing the Sorani-speaking south, fought a brief war. But although regional tensions in Iraqi Kurdistan persist, civil strife is no longer a threat. On both sides of the linguistic/political divide, most people have concluded that Kurdish identity and secular governance trump more parochial considerations. In the intervening years, the Kurdish Regional Government has managed to construct a reasonably united, secure, and democratic order. Much the same, moreover, can be said of the government of Somaliland. Such achievements deserve acknowledgment, ideally by the recognition of full independence.

The recognition Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan would, of course, generate its own diplomatic complications. The African Union would take quick offense at any country offering formal ties with Somaliland, while Turkey would be furious at any state proposing to do the same with Iraqi Kurdistan. If such a newly independent country were to include any of the Kurdish territories of northern Syria (Rojava), Turkey might even threaten war. But no major foreign-policy initiatives are ever risk free, and all necessarily generate irritation and anger among some interested parties. Considering the horrific and seemingly interminable conflict that has chewed up Iraq, Syria, and much of the Horn of Africa—generating a refugee crisis of global scope—a new approach is required, even if it carries risks of its own. I would suggest that such a new policy begin by abandoning the fantasy map of the foreign-policy establishment and instead recognize the global geopolitical framework as it actually is. Unlike the internationally recognized but non-functional country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan are genuine states, taking orders from no other power and running their own affairs as they see fit — and doing so with more capability and liberality than most of their neighbors. As such, they deserve immediate recognition.

Flag of Bosnia*As noted in the Wikipedia article on the flag: “The three points of the triangle are understood to stand for the three constituent peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs.[2] It is also seen to represent the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina which is shaped like a triangle. The stars, representing Europe, are meant to be infinite in number and thus they continue from top to bottom. The flag features colors often associated with neutrality and peace – white, blue, and yellow. The colors yellow and blue are also seen to be taken from the flag of Europe; the color blue was originally based on the flag of the United Nations. The present scheme is being used by both the Council of Europe which owns the flag and the European Union which adopted the Council of Europe’s flag in 1985.”

** Exceptions exist, as the first condition was not met in the case of Kosovo. As a result, many countries do not recognize the Kosovo’s independence.



GeoCurrents Editorial: Recognition for Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland Read More »

Forgotten Modern Kingdoms of the Arabian Peninsula, Part 1

Stanford University’s history department recently took its old collection of instructional maps out of storage to hang on permanent display in the hallways. This was an inspired decision, as some of these maps are gems and even the more ordinary ones have some interesting and unusual features.

1923 Arabia MapA 1923 map of Asia by Denoyer Geppert Co. of Chicago, for example, is unexceptional, but its depiction of the Arabian Peninsula is intriguing (see the detail posted to the left). It shows, for example, the small, independent state of Asir in the southwest, rarely seen on maps of this sort, as well as the short-lived (1916-1925) Kingdom of Hejaz. It oddly portrays Oman as if it were a sovereign state rather than a British protectorate, and more oddly still classifies both Qatar (somewhat distorted on the map) and what is now the UAE (then the “Trucial States,” another British protectorate) as parts of the Omani polity. The most unusual feature is the pink strip of land—color-coded as British territory—just to the southwest of Qatar, in an area that now belongs to Saudi Arabia. The mapping makes it seem as if this slice of land had been a northern extension of the British colonial sphere in southwestern Arabia (Aden and the Hadhrahmaut).


Arabian Neutral Zones MapDespite such odd and incorrect portrayals, I rather like this map of the Arabian Peninsular, as it reminds me of the recent establishment of the region’s geopolitical framework. When I was a child, I was intrigued by the undefined boundaries in the Empty Quarter (Rub’ al Khali; “Dahna Desert” on the map here), and even more so by the existence of the stateless Saudi-Iraqi and Saudi-Kuwaiti “neutral zones.” Later on, I was slightly disappointed to see the boundaries fixed and the neutral zones partitioned into nonexistence.


Rashidi Emirate MapOn the map in question, Saudi Arabia does not appear, and for good reason, as it did not exist in 1925. Nedj (“Nedjed”), however, does figure prominently, and Nedj was the nucleus of a state that would be proclaimed as “Saudi Arabia” in 1932. But even the Saudi conquest of Central Arabia was an early 20th century undertaking. Up to 1921, this area had been contested with the more liberal and cosmopolitan Rashīdis of Haʾil, whose state had long overshadowed that of the Saudis. The Saudi state, based on an alliance between the House of Saud and Wahhabi religious establishment, followed up its conquest of the Rashīdi Emirate with the annexation of the Kingdom of Hejaz in 1925 and then with mopping up operations against such small states as coastal Asir (technically the Idrisid Emirate of Asir). According to some sources, Hejaz has never been fully incorporated into the Saudi state at the cultural level. As noted in the Wikipedia:

Hejaz is the most cosmopolitan region in the Arabian Peninsula. People of Hejaz have the most strongly articulated identity of any regional grouping in Saudi Arabia. Their place of origin alienates them from the Saudi state, which invokes different narratives of the history of the Arabian Peninsula. Thus, Hejazis experienced tensions with people of Najd.


Izady Middle East religion mapSaudi Arabia is actually the world’s last great conquest empires, one formed in the unsettled environment that emerged with the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. It is such a recent entity that it net even fully figured out the problem of royal succession, and it still faces an unsustainable dynamic in the ever-increasing size of the House of Saud. In political terms, it is something of an anachronism, a pre-modern, absolute monarchy whose very name denotes the possession of territory by a family. (This would be like the UK styling itself “Windsorian Britannia.”). Given such conditions, “Saudi” national unity remains insecure, and the country faces the possibility of unraveling along regional lines in the event of a profound political or economic crisis. As Mike Izady’s map of religion in the Middle East shows, the Wahhabi sect on which Saudi Arabia rests is deeply rooted only in the central portion of the country, and is largely foreign to the economically vital Gulf and Hejaz regions.

The recent and imperial nature of the Saudi state is rarely discussed, just as the country’s diversity of Islamic sects is generally ignored. Articles on Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign against the Zaidi Shia (Houthi) rebels in Yemen, for example, almost never mention the significant fact that most of the people in the neighboring highland region of southwestern Saudi Arabia are also Zaidi Shias (Those of neighboring Najran Region, on the other hand, are mostly Ismaili Shias.) Such historical amnesia is found the very title of the Wikipedia article on the creation of the Saudi state, “The Unification of Saudi Arabia,” which implies that the various conquered regions had some kind of preexisting and widely recognized unity that gives coherence to the current-day country.

If the Rashīdis of Haʾil or the Hashemites of Hejaz had prevailed over the House of Saud, world history would probably have taken a markedly different course from the one that led to the world of today. Speculating on how things might have developed, however, is futile exercise. But the main point remains: there was nothing inevitable about the 20th-century emergence of a state encompassing the area that now forms Saudi Arabia, much less of a state that has the religious-political complexion of the current Saudi polity.

DK Atlas Arabia 1925 MapThe same argument can be made in regard to the other contemporary countries of the Arabian Peninsula, most of which have shallow roots, at least in their current territorial configurations. Conventional historical maps of the early 20th century that depict a just a few British protectorates conceal the intricacy of the preexisting geopolitical order, one that could have yielded very different modern geopolitical formations. Compare for example, the standard map of Arabia in 1925 found in my favorite world historical atlas, the DK Atlas of World History, with the extraordinarily Arabia 1905-1923 Mapdetailed map of Arabia 1905-1923 made by Joaquín de Salas Vara de Rey. The latter map may seem to be overly elaborate, but as Yemen continues to implode, it may end up having more relevance for the future than we might imagine.

The next GeoCurrents post will examine two fascinating south Arabian political entities that did not make it onto the modern map: Mahra and Dhofar.



Forgotten Modern Kingdoms of the Arabian Peninsula, Part 1 Read More »

Mapping the Unlikely Break-Up of Nigeria


As the previous post argued, electoral geography indicates that Nigeria has a problem with national unity, as the winning candidate in the 2015 presidential election received extremely few votes in the southeastern corner of the country. Such evidence, however, should not be unduly emphasized, as a sense of national identity is well established across most of the country. As a result, I certainly do not expect Nigeria to collapse and be replaced by a group of successor states.

But that said, it remains true that quite a few Nigerians would like to see the dismantling of their country and the subsequent emergence of smaller and more ethnically and religiously united countries. Interesting discussions of this issue can be found in internet discussion boards, especially Nairaland Forum. As a result, a number of “post-Nigeria” maps have appeared on the internet. The remainder of this post will examine and analyze a few of these maps.

Division of Nigeria Map 1The most basic vision of a divided Nigeria splits the country along religious lines, separating the Muslim north from the mostly Christian south. The first map shows such an imagined division from a northern perspective. The term “Arewa,” used to denote the prospective Muslim state, is the Hausa word for “north.” As noted in the Wikipedia article on the word:

In post independence Nigeria, some use the word as a general term for Nigerian Hausaland: a contraction of “Arewacin Nijeriya” (Northern Nigeria). Much of the north was once politically united in the Northern Region, a federal division disbanded in 1967, and was previously home of the seven Hausa states, later the Sokoto Caliphate in the pre-colonial period, and the Northern Nigeria Protectorate under British colonial rule.

Northern Nigeria regionalist groups, such as the Arewa Consultative Forum, the Arewa Media Forum based in Kaduna, and the related Arewa House and Arewa People’s Congress are examples of this usage. These groups do not advocate independence from Nigeria, and focus on cultural unity of the so-called Hausa–Fulani community which forms the majority in the north of the nation.

Within even smaller regionalist circles, the term Arewa Republic is used as to describe a speculative future region, entity, or state that coincides with the pre-1967 Northern Region, Nigeria.

Division of Nigeria Map 2The second map shows an independent South Nigeria, imagined in this case from a leftist political perspective (note the use of “People’s Republic”). Although it may seem a relatively easy matter to separate the north from the south, the issue is complicated by the existence of the ethnically and religiously fragmented Middle Belt. As a result, the first two maps posted here show a significant degree of overlap, with such states as Plateau claimed by both groups. In any divisional scheme, Nigeria’s Middle Belt would prove problematic – as the region is today. This relatively lightly populated area is currently experiencing widespread violence that pits sedentary farmers against nomadic herders, a conflict that has pronounced religious and ethnic overtones.

Division of Nigeria Map 4Some divisional schemes would address this problem by making the Middle Belt an independent country in its own right. Intriguingly, in one vision this is the only area that would retain the name “Nigeria.” Such finer-grained divisions generally separate the Yoruba-dominated southwest from the Igbo-dominated southeast. But for some futurist cartographers, such a division would not be fine enough, and as a result they envision additional states. One Division of Nigeria Map 5such fictional country is composed of the Edo-speaking region along with the ethnically mixed delta; this “United Niger-Delta” would be the wealthiest of the proposed Nigerian successor states by a significant margin. Some proponents of a Nigerian break-up also imagine the separation of the Hausa- and Fulani-speaking northwest and north-center from the Kanuri-speaking northeast, as can be seen in the upper-left map of the four-map set.

Division of Nigeria Map 6Division of Nigeria Map 3Few of these maps connect their imagined new states with areas located outside of Nigeria’s boundaries. A prominent exception, however, is found in the last map posted here, which envisages a greatly enlarged Republic of Benin. This country would include—and would be demographically and economically dominated by—southwestern Nigeria. Such a state would also be dominated by the Yoruba people, who are a minority group in the current Republic of Benin. Note that the old Edo-speaking Kingdom of Benin (now Nigeria’s Edo State) would also be included in this would-be country, as would much of the oil-rich delta.

Such imaginative maps of political devolution are by no means limited to Nigeria, and can instead be found in reference to most parts of the world. As a result, they should perhaps not be taken too seriously. But I do find them intriguing, and I think that they sometimes illustrate deeply embedded ideas about how the world should be politically organized.


Mapping the Unlikely Break-Up of Nigeria Read More »

Final Maps on “Geopolitical Anomalies”

This post merely contains some of the additional maps that I prepared for my March 31 lecture on the history and geography of current global events. These maps, like those in the two preceding posts, focus on geopolitical irregularities and anomalies in a region of the world that might be called the “Greater Middle East” (for lack of a better term). The maps in this post, in general, depict anomalies that are less pronounced than those considered in the previous posts.

Unfortunately, I do not have time to prepare explanatory text to accompany these maps. I must be ready to give an hour-and-fifty-minute lecture on Yemen for the same course on Tuesday, April 7, and that will demand most of my time over the next two days.

Divided Territories Map Non-Contiguous States MapOman Exclave MapNew States MapRefugees Map 1Refugees Map 2European Colonial Spheres MapFederations Map

Final Maps on “Geopolitical Anomalies” Read More »

Geopolitical Anomalies in the “Greater Middle East,” Part 2

(note: The introduction to this post is found in the post of April 1)

Thus far we have examined a number of geopolitical anomalies in a sizable region of the world centered on Saudi Arabia. We have not yet looked at the most serious challenge to the standard model, however, that of state collapse. Other important issues remain to be considered as well.

Feeble States MapAs mentioned in the introduction to this series, Somalia has not functioned as a coherent state since 1991. Although its internationally recognized federal government controls more territory than it did a few years ago, large areas are still under the power of the radical Islamist group al-Shabaab, while the northwest forms the de facto state of Somaliland. Other areas are essentially run by local clans or other organizations that pledge their ultimate loyalty to the federal government but in actuality have complete or almost complete autonomy. A prominent example is Puntland in the northeast, which covers a third of Somalia and contains roughly a third of its population. Puntland’s constitution reveals its geopolitically ambiguity. It states, for example, that “Puntland is an independent integral part of Somalia”; being “independent” and being an “integral part” of a given country, however, would generally be seen as mutually exclusive propositions.

For many years, Somalia was the only collapsed state in the area covered by the map. That is obviously no longer the case. The official governments of Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq have lost control of vast stretches of their official territory to rival national governments, fully autonomous regions, and Islamist militias. It is now questionable whether any of them can be reconstituted as coherent states, at least any time soon. The authority that several of these states do still possess, moreover, relies heavily on military backing from other countries. The governments of both Iraq and Syria, for example, depend on the armed clout of Iran. The United States and other countries also help prop up Iraq by launching air strikes against ISIS (alternatively, ISIL, Daesh, or Islamic State). Afghanistan is more stable and unified than the other countries highlighted on the map, and is therefore depicted in a lighter shade of red. But if the United States military were to withdraw completely, it is quite possible that it too would unravel — as indeed has previously occurred in the recent past.

Islamist Organizations Greater Middle East MapOne of the main reasons for the collapse or near collapse of the states depicted on this map is the rise of radical Islamist organizations, the more important of which are shown on the next map. The territories under the power of these groups change rapidly, and as a result the map should be regarded as suggestive rather than strictly factual. But the rise of these groups is highly significant, presenting a major challenge to the standard model of global geopolitics. The more extreme groups, such as ISIS, vehemently reject the very notion of the nation-state, which they view as an unholy Western creation and imposition. Although the territories under the control of Islamist armies may well be rolled back in the coming months, these organizations still have the ability to attract militants both locally and from abroad, and thus will likely continue to present an obstacle to state consolidation for many years.

Combat Fatalities MapAlthough actual battle casualties in recent years have not surprisingly been highest in Syria and Iraq, many other countries in the region have experienced a good deal of bloodshed. The map to the left shows total combat fatalities by country for 2014 alone, based on a Wikipedia table. Two states stand out here that have not featured prominently on the other maps in this series: South Sudan and Central African Republic. South Sudan would actually rank second, after Syria, if I had selected the highest estimate given for each country rather than the lowest. South Sudan is noted as the world’s newest sovereign state, having gained independence in 2011. When South Sudanese rebels were fighting against the government of Sudan for independence, they were able to maintain a degree of cohesion, but when that struggle ended the two main ethnic groups of the region, the Dinka and the Nuer, quickly fell apart. Although the fighting has more recently subsided, it is uncertain whether South Sudan will be able to construct cohesive state. Central African Republic has a much longer history of independence than South Sudan, but it also continues to have difficulty in this regard. The vicious fighting between its Muslim and Christian militias in 2014 certainly does not bode well for future stability.

Separatist Movements MapEven many of the countries in this region that have not experienced extensive combat nonetheless contain active separatist movements that seek independence for the people they claim to represent, thereby challenging the legitimacy of the nation-state. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, most of the countries visible on this map are home to such separatist groups, as can be seen in the image posted here. Most of these organizations, however, are not particularly violent or effective, and many consist of little more than a few discontented persons banding together to create a website. But others have the potential to emerge as threats to the states in which they are located. Consider, for example, Ethiopia. According to the Wikipedia article, Ethiopia experienced only 218 combat fatalities in 2014, 172 in the war against Somali OLF Mapinsurgents in the eastern Ogaden region and 46 in the struggle against Oromo rebels in the central part of the country. The same article, however, gives much higher cumulative combat fatalities in these struggles (1,300 in both cases). Another Wikipedia article states that the insurgency of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) ended in 2012, but a low-level conflict nonetheless persists, and as recently as the 1990s the organization boasted 60,000 fighters (current figures run around 5,000). Significantly, the OLF claims roughly half of Ethiopia’s territory, and its website maintains that it represents an Oromo nation some 40 million strong.


Border Disputes MapThe next map in today’s post shows the ubiquity of territorial disputes in this part of the world, based on another Wikipedia table. As can be seen, relatively few countries here have no border disagreements with their neighbors. Most of these disputes are admittedly relatively minor, and thus do not interfere much with international relations. Some are also rather obscure, such as the argument between Egypt and Saudi Arabia over Tiran and Sanafir islands. According to Wikipedia, Egypt controls these islands but Saudi Arabia claims them, but the article goes on to state that “the definite sovereignty over Tiran Island is left unclear by both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, due to geostrategic reasons.”, however, frames the issue quite differently, stating that:

Tiran Island MapBoth of the islands officially belong to Saudi Arabia but are being used by Egypt. Because of strict military regulations, it’s not possible to enter the islands.

The Multinational Force and Observers [MFO] has soldiers stationed at observation points to ensure both parties abide the treaty. The force and observers, totaling 1,900, are under the command of a Norwegian military officer. The military personnel are on loan from 11 nations.

Other border disputes in the region are far more serious. The Durand Line that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, for example, is absolutely rejected by the government of Afghanistan, which claims that it had been negotiated with the British colonialists in South Asia to separate spheres of influence rather than to fix an international boundary. This perennial border dispute plays into the tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have recently intensified. As noted in a Wikipedia article on Afghanistan–Pakistan skirmishes, “The cross-border shellings intensified in 2011 and 2012 with many reports from different occasions claiming that Pakistani missiles have hit civilian areas inside Afghanistan’s Nuristan Province, Kunar Province and Nangarhar Province.”

Additional geopolitical anomalies found in this region of the world will be explored in the final post in this series. With luck, that post will go up on April 5. We will then turn our attention to the situation in Yemen.


Geopolitical Anomalies in the “Greater Middle East,” Part 2 Read More »

Geopolitical Anomalies in the “Greater Middle East,” Part I

(Note: The introduction to this post is found in the previous post, that of April 1))

U.N. Greater Middle East MapA detail from the Wikipedia map of United Nations members, discussed in the previous post, shows only one non-member in the region that we might crudely dub the “greater Middle East,” which is the focus of today’s post. That non-member is the Palestinian geopolitical anomalies map 1territory, composed of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as can be seen the second map. This area is deeply anomalous in regard to geopolitical standards, and would be worthy of an entire post. The two units of which it is composed are not just geographically but also politically separate, despite efforts to form a unity government.* They have some but by no means all of the attributes of sovereignty. As the map notes, they also occupy an ambiguous position in the United Nations, as well as in the global system of mutual state-to-state recognition.

geopolitical anomalies map 2But the Palestinian territories are merely one of a great many geopolitical anomalies found in the region depicted on this map. Consider, for example, the situation of Kosovo. Although the U.N. map portrays Kosovo as part of Serbia, it is in actuality an independent country. It is not, however, a members of the United Nations, and its recognition by other sovereign states is far from complete. Three other states in the region are also characterized by incomplete international recognition, as the next map shows. 32 U.N. members do not recognize Israel, while Cyprus and Armenia are each denied by one member, Turkey in the former case and Pakistan in the latter. Curiously, Pakistan refuses to acknowledge Armenia in deference to Azerbaijan, which has lost much of its internationally recognized territory to Armenia, yet Azerbaijan itself continues to recognize the country.

geopolitical anomalies map 3







geopolitical anomalies map 4The next map, “States With Barely Functional Central Governments,” highlights recognized U.N member states in which regional governments or factional militias have more power than the state itself, a category that encompasses Lebanon and Bosnia & Herzegovina. In the former case, the militia of Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia political party, is much stronger than the national armed forces. As Hezbollah militarily operates on its own, with support from Iran and without oversight by the Lebanese government, its presence in Lebanon contravenes a key defining feature of the state, as states are supposed to have a monopoly over the legitimate use of force and coercion. Lebanon has a peculiar system of “confessionalism,” one in which politics are structured around religious communities. Although this system once functioned relatively well, it has not in the long run proved conducive to national unity. Intriguingly, Lebanese confessionalism was enacted as a temporary measure more than 80 years ago, yet it remains full ensconced.

Bosnia in many ways is even less of a coherent state than Lebanon. It is divided into three autonomous units, the “Serb Republic,” the Croat-Bosniak “Federation” (which is itself rather dysfunctional), and the self-governing unit of Brčko (which formally belongs to both the “republic” and the “federation”). Equally important, the highest political office in the country is arguably that of the “High Representative,” who is not even a citizen of the state, making Bosnia something of an international protectorate. As the Wikipedia notes, “The OHR’s [Office of the High Representative] prolonged interference in the politics of Bosnia and Herzegovina is also considered to be one of the causes of the low commitment of citizens towards the state.” The other reasons for the “low commitment of citizens towards the state,” however, are probably more significant, particularly that of the persisting ethnic animosity that marks Bosnia’s constituent communities. If given a free choice, most Bosnian Serbs would probably opt to join their territory with Serbia, just as most Bosnian Croats would likely want to join their lands with Croatia. Under such conditions, referring to Bosnia and Herzegovina as a sovereign state is a bit of a stretch, while calling it a “nation-state” is simply unreasonable.

geopolitical anomalies map 5The next two maps, showing internationally unrecognized annexations, are a bit more straightforward. Russia has officially annexed Crimea, and will likely retain full control over that territory. But as this action is widely viewed as illegitimate, most maps produced elsewhere in the world will almost certainly continue to show Crimea as geopolitical anomalies map 6Ukrainian territory. The situation in regard to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh is somewhat more complicated. The Armenian-majority territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has officially declared itself to be an independent state, although it has not been recognized as such by any member of the U.N. Most sources, however, regard it as having been unofficially annexed by Armenia. Most of the lands surrounding the official boundaries of Nagorno-Karabakh, moreover, are controlled by the Armenian military and are therefore effectively part of that country. Armenia is able to maintain control over these territories, which formally belong to the larger and more economically powerful country of Azerbaijan, in large part due to Russian support.

geopolitical anomalies map 7The next map portrays internationally recognized sovereign states that do not control their full territorial extent due to the emergence of self-proclaimed states (which are themselves depicted on the following maps). All of these proclaimed statelets exercise effective power over all or most of the territories that they claim, but they do not necessarily possess all of the elements that constitute genuine sovereignty. Most of them are widely viewed as “puppet states” of larger independent countries.



geopolitical anomalies map 8The map posted to the left shows the three self-proclaimed states in question that have received some international recognition. Northern Cyprus is recognized only by Turkey and is often regarded as Turkish client state. The other two, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have gained higher international standings, being reckoned as independent by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru. (Vanuatu had briefly recognized Abkhazia and Tuvalu had briefly recognized both states, but they later withdrew their recognition). Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are commonly regarded as Russian client states, with Nauru giving its nod of approval due to financial compensation from Russia, and Venezuela and Nicaragua doing so to signal their disapproval of the United States and other countries opposed to Russia’s actions. Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared their independence shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, rejecting membership in Georgia, which by international consensus should rightfully encompass them. Northern Cyprus declared its independence from Cyprus in 1983, a maneuver made possible by the Turkish invasion and partition of the island in 1974.

geopolitical anomalies map 9The next map adds to the previous one several self-proclaimed states that lack international recognition. One, Nagorno-Karabakh, has been discussed earlier in this post. Three of the other entities shown on this map, Transnistria (officially, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic), Luhansk People’s Republic, and Donetsk People’s Republic, are widely regarded as Russian puppet states. Transnistria was hived off from Moldova after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the latter two emerged out of far eastern Ukraine during the conflict of 2014. Together, Luhansk and Donetsk form the self-proclaimed federation of Novorossiya, or New Russia. They are recognized as sovereign states only by South Ossetia. Transnistria is recognized by South Ossetia as well as Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Together, these four statelets comprise the inaptly named Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations, also called the Commonwealth of Unrecognized States. The other self-proclaimed state shown on this map, Somaliland, enjoys more genuine independence, not serving as a client state. Yet Somaliland has no formal international recognition and is instead regarded as part of the non-functional state of Somalia. Ethiopia, however, comes close to recognizing it, with its local consulate headed by a diplomat with ambassadorial ranking. In 2014, moreover, the British city of Sheffield recognized Somaliland’s independence, a purely symbolic maneuver that nonetheless generated marked enthusiasm in the self-proclaimed state.

geopolitical anomalies map 10Finally, the last map includes as well a fully autonomous region that has not declared its own sovereignty but may well do so in the future: Iraqi Kurdistan. Of all of the “statelets” shown on this map, Iraqi Kurdistan probably has the most effective government; along with Somaliland, moreover, it has the best claims to possessing something approaching genuine independence. I have also appended to it the currently autonomous Kurdish areas of northern Syria, known locally as Rojava. The future situation of this area is of course highly uncertain.


Whatever Rojava’s future may hold, the region is currently structured in an interesting manner that has some bearing on geopolitical models. As described in the Wikipedia:

 The political system of Rojava is a mixture of socialist principles at the local level with libertarian principles at the national level. …

Political writer David Romano describes it as pursuing ‘a bottom-up, Athenian-style direct form of democratic governance’. He contrasts the local communities taking on responsibility vs the strong central governments favoured by many states. In this model, states become less relevant and people govern through councils similar to the early US or Switzerland before becoming a federal state in the Sonderbund war. Rojava divides itself into regional administrations called cantons named after the Swiss cantons. …

Its programme immediately aimed to be “very inclusive” and people from a range of different backgrounds became involved (including Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, and Turkmen (from Muslim, Christian, and Yazidi religious groups).


Thus far we have examined just a few of the anomalies found in the geopolitical map of this region. We will look at many more in tomorrow’s post.

* As noted in the Wikipedia, “On 30 November 2014, Hamas declared that the unity government had ended with the expiration of the six month term. But Fatah subsequently denied the claim, and said that the government is still in force.”

Geopolitical Anomalies in the “Greater Middle East,” Part I Read More »

Regional Stereotypes in Brazil

As noted in the previous post, the Brazilian states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have distinctive voting patterns. In the 2014 presidential election, São Paulo voted strongly for the center-right challenger Aécio Neves, whereas Rio de Janeiro was the only state in southeastern Brazil to support the incumbent, Dilma Rousseff. The two states are similar in some respects, as they are both prosperous by Brazilian standards, densely populated, and located in the same general area. But the rivalry between the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro—and between their two main cities of the same names—is intense.

Brazil Paulista Stereotype MapIn looking for maps that might help explain the regional patterns of the recent Brazilian election, I came across an interesting cartographic collection that sheds light on this important regional rivalry. The site, called National Stereotype, takes on all manner of national and regional stereotypes with a tone of good-natured amusement. A 2013 post on Brazil includes six maps depicting visions of the country from the perspectives of several regions. Here the competition between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro is clearly evident.

The first map reproduced here, which shows the supposed vision of Brazil held by the typical Paulista (resident of São Paulo), labels Rio de Janeiro as “Brazilian Argentina.” As National Stereotype explains:

Argentina brasileira = Brazilian Argentina. The rivalry between paulistanos/paulistas (those from the city/state of Sao Paulo) and cariocas/fluminenses (those from the state/city of Rio de Janeiro) is legendary. As legendary as the rivalry/hatred Brazilians have against Argentineans, hence the name.


Brazil Paulista Stereotype2 mapOther intriguing features of the map include the label “does not exist” for the remote Amazonian state of Acre (home of the noted politician Marina Silva), and the designation of Rio Grande do Sul as a land of male homosexuality. According to National Stereotype, other Brazilians often make fun Rio Grande do Sul, a state with its own distinctive voting patterns (see the comments on the previous GeoCurrents post). A second map showing a Paulista perspective is more stripped down—and more hostile to Rio, which is designated as a radioactive zone that one should not enter.


Brazil Carioca Stereotype MapThe map showing the perspective of the residents of Rio de Janeiro, or Cariocas, seems much less insulting to the regional rival, as it merely labels São Paulo as “Interiorr.” But as National Stereotype notes, the “Paulista/caipira accent draws the “r”. The interior is the hinterlands of Brazil, and cariocas think paulistas are hillbillies or rednecks.” Note that “Argentina” is used again as a term of disdain, in the case for the three southernmost states of the country. On this map, Acre in the far west is deemed an “unknown area.” Note as well that the maps showing the view from either Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo reduce northeastern Brazil to one state, although Paraíba is used in the former case and Bahia in the latter. The description of the important state of Minas Gerais on the Rio map as “Region without beaches” is telling; as National Stereotype puts it:

To most cariocas … the beach is everything. So a big state with lots of people and without beaches like Minas Gerais is seen as very puzzling or boring. Why would people choose to live there?


Brazil Gaucho Stereotype MapThe map showing the perspective of the residents of Rio Grande do Sul, who are known in Brazil as Gauchos, also features beaches prominently, both those in neighboring Santa Catarina and those of the faraway northeast, the latter designated as Praias distantes, or “distant beaches.” The northeastern interior, on the other hand, is disparagingly called Destino dos impostos, or “destination of [our] taxes.” Rio de Janeiro is more insultingly labeled Favelas, or “slums,” while the term used for São Paulo refers to a long-standing football (soccer) rivalry. Yet again, the existence of Acre is jokingly called into question, with an intentional misspelling. Rio Grande do Sul itself is deemed the land of civilization and given a huge extension to the north. Its northern counterpart, Rio Grande do Norte, occupies a prominent position on the map but not in the correct location, as it is actually two states to the east of Piauí. Minas Gerais is insulted here for the poor quality of its grilled meat: “Gente que não sabe fazer churrasco” (“people who don’t know how to barbeque”). This may seem to be a rather feeble insult, but barbequing is highly regarded in Rio Grande do Sul.


The Beloved CountryI wonder what the Gauchos of Rio Grande do Sul would think of South Africa’s tradition of meat grilling, known as braai, which is something of an obsession in the Afrikaner community. One can see its significance in the title of a recently published cookbook, which refers to the title of a famous South African novel.

Regional Stereotypes in Brazil Read More »

My Error on Ukraine’s Political Divisions

Ukraine Political Regions 1Several months ago, I posted an article and a map on GeoCurrents in which I divided Ukraine into a “nationalist” region and a “Russian-oriented” region. In retrospect, it seems that most of the area that I had designated as “Russian-Oriented Ukraine” does not actually fit that category. Despite the fact that a few pro-Russian demonstrations have occurred in a number of cities in this region, the bulk of it has remained calm and shows no signs of giving substantial to support pro-Russian separatists. A recent Harvard study indicates as much:

A new study conducted at Harvard University suggests that Russian-speaking Ukrainians may be significantly more supportive of Kyiv’s standoff against Moscow and the pro-Russian separatists than has previously been reported. …

What was surprising, “very surprising” [Bruce] Etling said, was the portion of Russian-language content coming specifically from within Ukraine that was backing the Euromaidan protests. “In Ukraine, among Russian-speakers, 74 percent were supportive of the protests, and only a quarter were opposed,” he said.

Ukraine 2004 election mapI had based my idea of a “Russian-Oriented Ukraine” not so much on linguistic geography as on electoral geography. The area that I had so designated had consistently supported candidates oriented more to Russia than to Europe and more in favor of decentralization than of a strong, unitary state. But evidently it was one thing to vote for a Ukrainian party that leaned toward Moscow and eschewed strong Ukrainian nationalism and quite another to want to see the break-up Ukraine Political Regions 2of Ukraine and the establishment of pro-Russian “statelets”. As a consequence, I have redrafted the map. In its new form, only Lugansk and Donetsk—much of whose territories now form two unrecognized, pro-Moscow “People’s Republics”—are deemed “Russian-Oriented.” (Crimea is still designated as “Russian-Occupied.”) The rest of southeastern Ukraine has been relabeled as “ambivalent,” which is probably not the best term.

New Novorossiya mapI am hardly the only one to have made this error. Many Russian nationalists, for example, openly refer to the entire expanse of southeastern Ukraine as “Novorossiya,” or “New Russia.” (As this term Novorossiya Map 2dates back to the conquest of this region from the Ottoman Empire in the late 1700s, “Novorossiya” now seems to connote to such people something on the order of “New Old New Russia.”)

Major threats to Ukraine’s national integrity, of course, still exist—and not just in the far east and Crimea. Last night’s ultranationalist protests in Kiev (Kyiv) were discussed in a blog-post today by Walter Russell Mead under the heading “Prelude to Dismemberment?” Such an assessment, however, seems rather extreme to me.

Ukraine Language MapLanguage maps showing the Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking regions of the country are themselves fascinating, as they tend to vary greatly in their depictions. I have posted here two extremes. The first is a recent Wikipedia map, derived from 2001 census data, that shows almost the entire country as strongly Ukrainian-speaking. The second, which also relies on information from the 2001 census (albeit aggregated in a different manner), shows the Ukrainian language as limited Ukraine Language Map 2to the far west; it also indicates that the entire southeast, and much more of the country as well, is actually Russian speaking. Most intriguingly, it depicts the core north-central region of the country as “Surzhyk speaking,” Surzhyk being an informal Russian-Ukrainian hybrid, described by the Wikipedia as:

a range of mixed (macaronic) sociolects of Ukrainian and Russian languages used in certain regions of Ukraine and adjacent lands. There is no unifying set of characteristics; the term is used for ‘norm-breaking, non-obedience to or nonawareness of the rules of the Ukrainian and Russian standard languages.’


The linguistic situation here is obviously highly complex. Rather than wade into these murky waters myself, I would refer readers to an excellent recent post on this issue by Asya Pereltsvaig in her website Language of the World.



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ISIS Advances and the Kurds Retreat In Northern Syria

Kobane Military SituationThe struggle involving the Islamic State (alternatively, ISIS or ISIL) in northern and eastern Syria and northern Iraq is finally receiving abundant coverage in the global media. Today’s (Sept. 21) New York Times, for example, features several articles on the issue, focused mostly on the international complications generated by the conflict. Many publications in the U.S., however—including the Times—have either downplayed or ignored altogether the major offensive that the Islamic State is currently conducting against Kurdish forces in the Kobanê region of northern Syria. A major Kurdish enclave is currently gravely imperiled, threatening another human rights catastrophe. As reported today in Reuters:

“ISIL (Islamic State) are continuing to advance. Every place they pass through they kill, wound and kidnap people. Many people are missing and we believe they were kidnapped,” Welat Avar, a doctor, told Reuters by telephone from Kobani. “We now urgently need medicines and equipment for operations. We have many casualties … ISIL killed many people in the villages. They cut off the heads of two people, I saw it with my own eyes,” he said.

A Kurdish politician from Turkey who visited Kobani on Saturday gave a similar account of the Sunni militants’ tactics. “Rather than a war this is a genocide operation …”

Kobane Googler EarthAs a result of the ISIS advance and the corresponding atrocities committed, tens of thousands of Kurds are streaming into Turkey, which has recently opened a stretch of its border to Kurdish refugees. The situation on the Turkish side of the boundary, however, is evidently chaotic, resulting in clashes between the fleeing Kurds and Turkish police forces. Most Kurds do not trust Turkish authorities, who they believe are tolerating, if not actively collaborating with, the Islamic State. The recent release of Turkish hostages by the Islamic State feeds into such speculations. Some outside experts concur. As was recently reported in the Los Angeles Times:

“I think it’s self-evident that there was some sort of quid pro quo,” said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University in New York, speaking of the release. “I think what’s likely is Turkey gave some sort of guarantee that its actions against ISIS would be limited in nature and it wouldn’t play a primary role in any military coalition.”

Syrian Political Situation MapThe threatened Kurdish enclave in question forms one of three sections of the de facto Kurdish autonomous region of northern and Eastern Syria, known internationally as Syrian Kurdistan, but referred to in Kurdish as Rojava (“West”), or more formally Rojavayê Kurdistanê. This divided region declared its autonomy in 2012, and since then has been under the control of the People’s Protection Units, commonly called the YPG (after the Kurdish term Yekîneyên Parastina Gel). Turkish authorities tend to be highly suspicious of the YPG, which they view as the military branch of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which in turn is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish organization based in southeastern Turkey that was until last year engaged in an armed struggle against the Turkish state. Although YPG units have proved themselves militarily capable, in the Kobanê area they have not been able to withstand the onslaught of the much more effectively armed ISIS fighters.

Syrian Kurdistan Aspirational MapKurdish partisans claim all of northern Syria for their autonomous region of Rojava, as is indicated in maps that they have produced. Over the past two years, however they have controlled only three widely separated areas. According to most ethnographic maps of the area, the Kurdish-speaking region of Syria covers less territory than the envisaged Kurdish autonomous area, but more territory than the three disjointed areas currently under Kurdish control. These three zones Syrian Kurdistan Maphave each been organized as “cantons” by the Syrian Kurdish authorities. Of these, Cizîrê Canton in the east is the most secure, as it borders the Kurdish-controlled region of northern Iraq. Efrîn and Kobanê cantons, however, are relatively isolated, making them highly vulnerable. (Kobanê, it is important to note, is officially known in Syria under its Arabic name, Ayn al-Arab; both the Wikipedia and Google Earth use this term.)

Kurdish Language and Kurdish Control MapThe military forces of the Kurds in Syria have an interesting gender dynamic. Women warriors are well represented among the Kurdish Peshmerga of northern Iraq, but they are more common yet in the YPG. A recent BBC report claims that female fighters account for roughly a third of the organization, making it the most gender balanced combat force in recoded history. The BBC article goes on to claim that:

“Women are the bravest fighters,” says Diren, taking refuge from the scorching heat in the cool of an underground bunker. .. “We’re not scared of anything,” she says. “We’ll fight to the last. We’d rather blow ourselves up than be captured by IS.”

Like the followers of the Islamic State, most Kurds are Sunni Muslims. But that is where the similarities end. Diren says that, to the fanatics of IS, a female fighter is “haram”, anathema: a disturbing and scary sight.

Religious beliefs may play into fears generated by Kurdish female fighters among the ISIS militants, at least according to Ed Royce, chair of the US House International Relations Committee. As reported in The Telegraph:

“These Isil soldiers apparently believed that if they were killed in battle, they went to paradise as long as they were killed by a man,” he told The New York Post, citing reports of Kurdish female fighters laughing as they repelled attacks by the extremist group.

I find it intriguing and disturbing that the ISIS advance and the Kurdish retreat in northern Syria are receiving little attention from the U.S. media. I suspect that this lack of concern stems from the uncomfortable situation presented by the Kurdish militias in the region. The policy of the United States and its allies is based on the sacrosanct nature of official boundaries and geopolitical units in the region; Iraq and Syria must, according to this doctrine, be reconstituted as coherent nation-states. Kurdish aspirations, however, run counter to this idea. Whether the American policy in question is based on realistic assessments is another matter altogether. As I have argued elsewhere, the idea that these two countries can remerge as coherent, self-governing, non-autocratic states may be nothing more than a delusion. Will the Kurds be sacrificed to such a geopolitical fantasy? I hope not, but the events of this past week do not leave me feeling very optimistic.


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