Kurdistan

Grim News from Kurdistan

Recent news from Kurdistan – often regarded as forming the world’s largest “nation without a state” – has been bleak. Protesting Iranian Kurds have been under attack from their own government, as have many other Iranians. Iran has also launched assaults on the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, which it accuses of harboring Iranian Kurdish insurgents in the rugged borderlands between the two countries. The Turkish government has been attacking its own Kurdish insurgents in the same mountains. These strikes are not precisely targeted and have killed a number of civilians. Turkey (Türkiye, officially) has also been launching attacks against Kurdish forces in the Kurdish-led autonomous region of Rojava in northeastern Syria, and has been indicating for some time that an outright invasion might be forthcoming.

The situation in Rojava is becoming precarious. Rojava, an autonomous region that is nominally part of Syria, is a unique experiment in political organization. It first emerged in 2012, just after the “Arab Spring” uprisings, and gained control over substantial territories a few years later as its militias drove out the forces of ISIS (ISIL/Daesh), with help from the U.S. military. Although largely Kurdish-led, Rojava is an explicitly multi-cultural and multi-linguistic polity, with Kurmanji Kurdish, Arabic, Syriac, Turkish, and Adyghe (or West Circassian) all serving in an official capacity in all or part of the region. Rojava is highly decentralized, divided into seven semi-autonomous regions, or cantons. Its governance is based of what might be called “bottom-up libertarian socialism.” As the Wikipedia article on the region notes in one breathless sentence:

The supporters of the region’s administration state that it is an officially secular polity with direct democratic ambitions based on an anarchist, feminist, and libertarian socialist ideology promoting decentralization, gender equity, equality, environmental sustainability, social ecology and pluralistic tolerance for religious cultural and political diversity, and that these values are mirrored in its constitution, society, and politics, stating it to be a model for a federalize Syria  as a whole, rather than outright independence.

This unparalleled political system is based on the ideas of Murray Bookchin, an American environmental writer and political theorist who died in 2006. Bookchin’s theories were adopted and reinterpreted in the early 2000s by Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant organization of Kurds in Turkey, officially classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU, and the United States.) During the Cold War, Öcalan and his followers adhered to Marxism-Leninism and sought to create an independent Kurdish state. After abandoning authoritarian leftism, Öcalan turned instead to the equally left-wing but decidedly libertarian vision of Bookchin, melding it with several reformulated traditional Kurdish socio-cultural practices. At the same time, the PKK abandoned its goal of outright independence, seeking instead mere Kurdish political autonomy. Many experts think that it has also rejected the tactics of terrorism, and hence no longer deserves the “terrorist” designation.

Whether Rojava’s idealistic system of governance can work in practice is an open question. I was certainly skeptical when I first learned of its existence. But the leaders of Rojava have been employing it for a decade, and evidently with some success. To be sure, they have been subjected to harsh criticism, with some writers claiming that they have authoritarian tendencies of their own and favor Kurds over members of other ethnic groups. The “Libertarian Communist” website libcom.org goes so far as to condemn Rojava as a fraudulent revolutionary organization that has allied itself with the Syrian Assad regime, Russia, and the United States – viscously attacking it, in effect, for doing what has been necessary for its own survival. Overall, what I find remarkable is how little actual reporting has been done on this intriguing political experiment. Considering Rojava’s de facto alliance with the United States, the possibility of an ISIS resurgence in the region, and the existential threat to region’s autonomy posed by the Turkish military, one might expect Western journalists to be keenly interested in what is happening there. But this is not the case. The world at large seems oddly unconcerned about Rojava and its travails.

Rojava’s leaders are worried that their regional autonomy and security might be sacrificed by the United States in the interest of maintaining its own alliance with Turkey, a fellow NATO member. As they point out, Rojava already lost a large strip of land after the Trump Administration acquiesced to the Turkish military occupation of part of northeastern Syria in 2019. A weakened Rojava was also forced into a power-sharing arrangement with the official Syrian regime over most of its northern lands (see the map below). This could hardly have been an easy compromise: in earlier years, Syria’s Assad regime had denied citizenship to many if not most of the country’s Kurdish residents, based on its ideology of Arab nationalism and supremacy.

Although the United States has condemned recent Turkish incursions into Rojava, many residents of the region feel betrayed by the U.S. and the West more generally. As Nadine Maenza recently tweeted, “Turkey is targeting the very people that destroyed the ISIS caliphate, losing 11,000 lives so the United States did not have to put boots on the ground.” This sense of betrayal is a common motif in Kurdish historical thought – and for good reason. As early as 1919, U.S. diplomats offered some support for Kurdistan, including a proposal for an autonomous and eventually independent Kurdish state in what is now southeastern Turkey (see the map below), but they have never followed through. Since 1991, the Kurds of Iraq have generally upheld American political interests in the region, sacrificing many lives in the process. Although a few U.S. politicians, including New York Senator Chuck Schumer, have offered some support for Kurdish independence, the State Department remains deeply hostile to the idea, and the U.S. government more generally prioritizes its alliance with Turkey.

One of the biggest problems confronting Kurdish political aspirations has been their own lack of unity. Although the Kurds of northern Iraq have their own autonomous region that verges on independence, it remains geographically divided along the lines of political party, clan leadership, and dialect/language. In the mid 1990s, the Talabani-led, Sorani Kurdish-speaking Patriotic Union of Kurdistan fought a civil war against the Barzani-led, Kurmanji Kurdish-speaking Kurdish Democratic Party (see the maps below). Although this division was soon patched up, with U.S. help, the two sub-regions of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish polity often find themselves at loggerheads. In 2017, the Kurdish peshmerga military had to retreat from Kirkuk, a city commonly deemed the “Kurdish Jerusalem,” and allow the Baghdad government to regain control. This humiliating withdrawal reportedly occurred after the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan covertly pulled out from the operation, reportedly in connivance with Iran. In the process, the Iranian position in Iraq was strengthened, harming U.S. interests. As the Institute for the Study of War reported at the time,

The Iraqi Government and Iran likely signaled their intent to use military force to compel the Peshmerga withdrawals in those provinces, if necessary. The Kurdish retreat is a win for both the central Iraqi government and Iran, whose proxies have seized new key terrain and consolidated control over previously contested cities. Iran has downplayed the role of its proxies in order to legitimize them as instruments of the Iraqi state. Western media coverage and statements from US officials have assisted Iran with this deception by denying the role of Iran’s proxies in Kirkuk.

The deeper problems in Iraqi Kurdistan these days seem to stem more from political corruption and mismanagement than from internal conflict. A hard-hitting article from Kurdistan Source focuses on the recent surge of migrants out of Iraqi Kurdistan, blaming it largely on misgovernance. As the author writes

The new model [of governance] is premised on high taxation, aggressive privatisation, authoritarian governance, and eliminating nearly all social welfare. Since 2019, while household income and industrial output have stagnated, the government has increased taxes and service bills by 400% to over 1000%. This has led to nearly 70% of the region’s factories closing within just two years. While on paper, the new model is supposed to encourage private-sector driven growth, in reality, most entrepreneurs and private enterprises are driven out of business by the creation of hurdles. The majority of businesses I have talked to believe the government wants to drive them out of business to help certain companies monopolise each sector. These potential monopolies are often owned by members of the two ruling families* or people close to them.

The Kurdish tragedy will be explored in more detail in coming posts.

 

* Meaning the Barzani and Talabani clans.

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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.”

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