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 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.

Grim News from Kurdistan Read More »

Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 1)

Chapter Two:

How the Government of the United States Maps the World

Among all the global maps in circulation in the United States today, one has special status: the CIA’s map of the world. Endorsed by the government, handsome in design, comprehensive in coverage, regularly updated, and (most seductive of all) free to download, this digital map can be readily accessed on the website of the Central Intelligence Agency.[1]

At a glance, what this world-image conjures is an attractive vision of a stable international community, with sovereignty and representation for all. How exactly does it do this? For starters, the Agency’s (anonymous) cartographers, like almost all their contemporary counterparts, divide the land area of the globe into colored blocks that snap together cleanly at their borders. While obviously differing in size, these units are all depicted in the same way, implying that they are all the same species of thing: independent countries (or, in popular short-hand, nation-states). With just a few exceptions, generally noted in fine print, each territory shown is a sovereign state with voting rights in the United Nations General Assembly.[2]

On closer inspection, to be sure, a few anomalies crop up. The CIA does not actually depict all its puzzle-pieces as polities of the same kind, nor do all of them have seats in the UN.[3] Small-font labels signal a two-level hierarchy, distinguishing sovereign states from dependencies. Most dependencies are too small to be readily visible on the world map, and only become legible when one zooms in or looks at the more detailed regional maps found on the same website. We will look more closely at formal dependencies toward the end of this chapter, after considering a number of other geospatial categories that go unmarked altogether.

The main reason for this extended critique of the CIA world map is straightforward. Having seen how this document is routinely handled—cited and reproduced as if it simply translated an agreed-upon international order into visual form—I am convinced that a sustained critical conversation about its premises is overdue. To jump-start that conversation, the present chapter is structured as a guided tour of sorts, alighting on a succession of places where the contours of power on the ground belie the picture on the page. We begin with de jure countries that appear only on the map, followed by de facto governments that appear only on the ground. Zones of contested sovereignty come next, including a handful that are shown as well as more that are hidden. While scores of borders around the planet are contested, only a few of those conflicts surface on the CIA map—and when they do, the signaling is often ambiguous. Finally, we will examine entities that exercise territorial control without taking the form of sovereign states. Whether colonial remnants or military installations, these areas of para-sovereignty barely get a cartographic nod.

All of these slippages and oversights are well known to regional specialists and local journalists. What has been missing until now is a thorough-going critique of the map as a whole: a comprehensive overview of the anomalies that have accrued to it over time, and an assessment of the cumulative challenge that they represent to its image of the international community. Proceeding from presence to absence, we begin with visible puzzle-pieces that are not quite what they seem.

Quasi-states and Cartographic Figments

Some of the most striking anomalies in the CIA world map today are a product of inertia. Although the map is annually revised in minor ways (and occasionally in major ways, when newly recognized countries are ushered into the UN), the geopolitical model on which it is based is essentially stuck in the post-WWII settlement and the subsequent decolonization movement. A lot has happened in global geopolitics since then, but those changes have been only selectively sanctioned by the U.S. diplomatic establishment. As a result, by the early twenty-first century, a number of countries on the CIA map could no longer claim the integrity that they once took for granted.

Consider Somalia and Yemen. In the terms of political scientist Robert Jackson, both today are “quasi-states”[4]that have lost control over most of their putative territory. While it is theoretically possible for Somalia or Yemen to experience a renaissance in the coming years, that scenario seems unlikely. Somalia disintegrated decades ago, at the end of the Cold War in 1991;[5] since then, most of its territory has been under the control of autonomous regional governments, shifting separatist groups, clan leaders, and Islamist insurgents. Although Somalia periodically veers toward stability and reunion, such conditions have never lasted long; prompting firm opposition from the almost fully autonomous regions of Puntland and Jubaland.[6] Yemen fell apart more recently, but its situation is equally fluid. At the time of writing, Yemen’s nominal territory was effectively divided among half a dozen factions: Houthi rebels (backed by Iran), the Hadi-led government (backed by the Saudis), a secession-minded Southern Transitional Council (supported by the United Arab Emirates), and various tribal coalitions and Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda and ISIS. Nonetheless, both Somalia and Yemen continue to occupy the seats in the United Nations that were assigned to them decades ago. Likewise, both continue to be mapped by the CIA as though they controlled lands that their current governments can only dream of regaining.

Iraq and Syria are also cleaved by governmental rivalries that remain invisible in the cartography of the CIA. In Iraq, the Kurdish northeast remains a land apart, its people overwhelmingly devoted to independence[7] and its military force, the Peshmerga, refusing to take orders from Baghdad. In Syria, ISIS has essentially been extirpated, and although other Islamist groups in the interior northwest hold substantial territory, their days seem numbered. But Turkey maintains its own zones of occupation in this area, confounding hopes for easy unification. More significant, northeastern Syria seems firmly detached from the rest of the country. Outside the Turkish “security belt,” the northeast is mostly controlled by Kurdish-led forces who have declared the de facto autonomous area of Rojava. Rojava is governed under markedly different principles from the rest of Syria: an unusual amalgam of libertarian-socialist principles (originally espoused by Brooklyn-born Murray Bookchin[8]) along with the Kurdish feminism (jineology) of Abdullah Öcalan (the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Considering the Kurds’ military prowess – theirs was the primary force that defeated ISIS in Syria – it is unlikely to be vanquished any time soon by the Assad regime. Rojava’s leaders advocate a united Syria governed under their own framework of socialist decentralization,[9] a vision that effectively precludes accommodation with the Damascus regime.

A handful of other countries have serious gaps in their territorial sovereignty that the CIA map similarly passes over. Consider the interior of Africa. Central African Republic (C.A.R.) is a large but notoriously weak state, roughly half of whose lands lie beyond the scope of its struggling government. As of 2019, ten percent of the population had been internally displaced, while another fifteen percent languished in refugee camps beyond its borders.[10] If the CIA were to publish an empirically accurate map of territorial control in C.A.R., its lawless zones and refugee encampments would need to be marked. Neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R. Congo) is also severely compromised. Having temporarily lost control over half of its territory in the 1990s and early 2000s – much to forces from little, genocide-wracked Rwanda – D.R. Congo has again been threatened with meltdown in the last few years. Some 1.4 million of its people were forced to flee their homes in the diamond-rich Kasai region in the summer of 2017, yielding an alarming total of 3.8 million displaced persons in the country as a whole.[11] Kasai continues to suffer from the so-called Kamwina Nsapu Rebellion, marked by campaigns of ethnic cleansing. Throughout eastern D.R. Congo, ethnic violence and warlord-led resource conflicts remain rife. In the first seven months of 2019, this region experienced more than 200 attacks against clinics and health workers struggling against Ebola.[12]

Equally troubling is the armed conflict in the adjoining state of South Sudan, which was granted independence in 2011. Split between the closely related Dinka and Nuer peoples, South Sudan has been so plagued by ethnic conflicts that it ranked in 2018 as the world’s most fragile state.[13] In the area where it converges with the C.A.R. and the D.R. Congo, so little formal governmental authority is exercised that the infamous warlord Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, has been able to shelter there for years, protected by as few as 100 soldiers.[14] Here is a stark case of what Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart call the “sovereignty gap”: “the disjunction between the de jure assumption that all states are ‘sovereign’ regardless of their performance in practice — and the de facto reality that many are malfunctioning or collapsed states … .”[15]

It is possible that some of these countries will be patched back together in the coming years or decades. Whether such reassembly will prove enduring is another matter, as evidenced by Libya. For a decade after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya was wracked by civil war. From 2014 to 2020 it was geographically split between the UN-supported Government of National Accord (backed primarily by Turkey and Qatar) and so-called Tobruk Government (supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia), with remnant Islamists and tribal militias contending for power as well. In early 2020, a ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia collapsed within hours. But in December of the same year, a “permanent” ceasefire agreement was signed, followed by the creation of an interim unity government in March 2021. Two months later, militants stormed the hotel used as the Presidential Council’s headquarters.[16]

The post-“Arab Spring” chaos in Libya attracted mercenaries and militants from other countries, destabilizing its geopolitical neighborhood. Chad saw the battlefield death of its long-serving President, Idriss Déby, an almost unimaginable event in the modern world. Déby was killed by forces of the Chadian rebel group FACT that had just surged out of their haven in southern Libya, protected by Libya’s Tobruk Government. In subsequent fighting, FACT forces were apparently rebuffed, although the rebel group did proclaim the independence of the Tibesti region of northern Chad,[17] a proclamation that was barely noticed by the global press.

If fractured countries like Libya can sometimes be reassembled through negotiations, seemingly stable countries can collapse with alacrity. In 2019, Ethiopia was a rising star of economic development, its prime minister (Abiy Ahmed) awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for patching up relations with neighboring Eritrea. A mere two years later, a prominent U.S. political journal warned that Abiy’s actions against the restive Tigray region had “condemned Ethiopia to dissolution.”[18] At the same time, an opinion piece in al Jazeera claimed that Ethiopian and Eritrean forces were jointly “engaged in systemic ethnically cleansing, rape, starvation, and massacres on an unprecedented scale” in Tigray.[19]


[2] International law goes further, granting each the status of personhood. As is spelled out in Article One of the influential Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (1933), “The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” The full text of the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States can be found at:

[3] The CIA maps Kosovo as a sovereign state, but it is not recognized as such by the UN.

[4] Jackson 1990.

[5] Ahmed and Green 1999.

[6] “Why Is Somalia’s Political Crisis So Difficult to Solve?” by Corrado Cok. Fair Observer, May 24, 2021.

[7] In the 2017 referendum, the vast majority of voters in Iraqi Kurdistan opted for independence. See “More than 92% of Voters in Iraqi Kurdistan Back Independence,” by Martin Chulov, The Guardian, September 27, 2017.

[8] See “How My Father’s Ideas Helped the Kurds Create a New Democracy,” by Debbie Bookchin, New York Review of Books Daily, June 15, 2018.  How My Father’s Ideas Helped the Kurds Create a New Democracy

[9] As spelled out in preamble to The Constitution of the Rojava Cantons:

“In pursuit of freedom, justice, dignity and democracy and led by principles of equality and environmental sustainability, the Charter proclaims a new social contract, based upon mutual and peaceful coexistence and understanding between all strands of society. It protects fundamental human rights and liberties and reaffirms the peoples’ right to self-determination.

Under the Charter, we, the people of the Autonomous Regions, unite in the spirit of reconciliation, pluralism and democratic participation so that all may express themselves freely in public life. In building a society free from authoritarianism, militarism, centralism and the intervention of religious authority in public affairs, the Charter recognizes Syria’s territorial integrity and aspires to maintain domestic and international peace.)”

[10] “Central African Republic Situation,” UNHCR: Central African Republic situation

[11] “DC Congo Violence Displaces 3.8 Million: UN,” Al Jazeera, August 26, 2017. DR Congo violence displaces 3.8 million: UN | DR Congo News

[12] “An Epidemic of Violence: How do you reform a country where gunmen torch Ebola clinics?The Economist, August 3, 2019. Pages 35-37.

[13] Fragile State Index: (see data for South Sudan)

[14] “Uganda Ends Its Hunt for Joseph Kony, Empty-Handed,” by Zach Baddorf, New York Times, April 3, 2017:

In 1990, Robert Jackson (1990, p.149) portrayed neighboring Chad in even starker term, writing that it amounted to little more than a violent arena “where rival ethnic warlords preyed upon innocent bystanders and laid waste to the countryside in a perennial struggle to seize control of a nominal state represented by the capital city.”

[15] Ghani and Lockhart 2008, p. 21.

[16] “Libya: Gunmen storm hotel used as Presidential Council HQ,” al Jazeera, May 8, 2021

[17] See “Over 300 Rebels Killed in Northern Chad,” by Peter Kum and Rodrigue Forku. Anadolu Agency, April 19, 2021.

[18] “Abiy Ahmed Has Condemned Ethiopia to Dissolution,” by Michael Rubin. The National Interest. May 16, 2021.

[19] “The Tripartite Alliance Destabilising the Horn of Africa,” by Goitom Gebreluel. Al Jazeera, May 10, 2021.

Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 1) 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 »

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.


ISIS Advances and the Kurds Retreat In Northern Syria Read More »