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As the Middle East goes through one of its most historic, yet painful episodes, the fate of the region’s Kurds have drawn substantial interest. Transnational Kurdish awakening—both political and armed—has attracted unprecedented global interest as individual Kurdish minorities across four countries, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, have begun to shake their respective political status quo in various ways. It is in Syria that the Kurds have made perhaps their largest impact, largely owing to the intensification of the civil war and the breakdown of state authority along Kurdish-dominated northern borderlands. However, in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran too, Kurds are searching for a new status quo, using multiple and sometimes mutually defeating methods. This article looks at the future of the Kurds in the Middle East through a geopolitical approach. It begins with an exposition of the Kurds’ geographical history and politics, emphasizing the natural anchor provided by the Taurus and Zagros mountains. That anchor, history tells us, has both rendered the Kurds extremely resilient to systemic changes to larger states in their environment, and also provided hindrance to the materialization of a unified Kurdish political will. Then, the article assesses the theoretical relationship between weak states and strong non-states, and examines why the weakening of state authority in Syria has created a spillover effect on all Kurds in its neighborhood. In addition to discussing classical geopolitics, the article also reflects upon demography, tribalism, Islam, and socialism as additional variables that add and expand the debate of Kurdish geopolitics. The article also takes a big-data approach to Kurdish geopolitics by introducing a new geopolitical research methodology, using large-volume and rapid-processed entity extraction and recognition algorithms to convert data into heat maps that reveal the general pattern of Kurdish geopolitics in transition across four host countries.
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Spring/Summer 2016 | 65
Journal of International Affairs, Spring/Summer 2016, Vol. 69, No. 2.
© The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York
H. Akın Ünver
As the Middle East goes through one of its most historic, yet painful episodes, the fate of the
region’s Kurds have drawn substantial interest. Transnational Kurdish awakening—both
political and ar med—has attracted un precedented global inte rest as individual Kurdish m inori-
ties across four countries, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, have begun to shake their respective
political status quo in various ways . It is in Syria that the Kurds have made perhaps their largest
impact, largely owing to the intensication of the civil war and the breakdown of state authority
along Kurdish-dominate d northern borde rl ands. However, in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran too, Kurds
are searching for a new status qu o, using multiple and so metimes mutually de feating methods.
This article looks at the future of the Kurds in the Middle East through a geopolitical approach.
It begins with an exposition of the Kurds’ geographical history and politics, e mphasizing the
natural anchor provided by the Taurus and Zagros mountains. That anchor, history tells us, has
both rendered the Kurds extremely resilient to systemic changes to larger states in their environ-
ment, a nd also provided hin dra nce to the materiali zat ion of a unied Kurdish political w ill.
Then, the article assesses the theoretical relationship between weak states and strong non-states,
and examines why the weakening of state authority in Syria ha s created a spillover effect on all
Kurds in its ne ighborhood. In addition to discussing classical ge opolitics, the article als o reects
upon demography, tribalism, Islam, and socialism as additional variables that add and expand
the debate of Kurdish geopolitics. The article also takes a big-data approach to Kurdish geopoli-
tics by introducing a new geopolitical research methodology, using large-volume and rapid-pro-
cessed entity extraction and recog nition algorithms to convert data into heat maps that reveal
the general pattern of Kurdish geopolitics in transition across four host countries .
No historical period since the end of World War I has been so transformative for
the Kurds as the events that unfolded during the Syrian Civil War in 2011. The
civil war created multiple ripple effects across Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, disrupting the
fragile social contract these countries had with their respective Kurdish populations.
The subsequent disruption of the status quo allowed Kurds in four host countries to
get opportunities in various degrees of independence, autonomy, or self-rule that they
Akın Ünver is an assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul , special-
izing in energy and politics, conict psycholog y, a nd radicalization sociologie s.
h. aKin Ünver TranSnaTional KurdiSh poliTiCS
Spring/Summer 2016 | 67
66 | Journal of inTernaTional affairS
would not have otherwise. Even though the process hasn’t united the Kurds into a
singular political consciousness of state formation, it has nonetheless united them in
a centrifugal force away from their respective host countries, in varying intensities.
How this centrifugal force interacts with its periphery, namely the countries that
encircle the Kurdish habitus (Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria), as well as within itself
(relations between different Kurdish factions), presents us with certain continuities
and historical patterns that allow us to predict and explain the Kurdish political
behavior. These continuities and patterns, such as the Russo-Persian Battle of Ganja in
1804 and the subsequent opening up of the Kurdish homeland to Russia, the current
Russian military presence in Syria, and the resultant inuence of Moscow over the
Syrian Kurds, all follow a certain geographic structure. Similar geopolitical conti-
nuities factor into how Turkey and Iran cooperated or conicted in history, through
almost exact geographic formations that form the Kurdish habitus.
It is this re-emergence of historical-geographic fault lines that cause state weak-
ening in Syria and Iraq, which subsequently allows the Kurds to get chances in state-
hood that they otherwise did not have. Furthermore, the Syrian Civil War changed
the conventional wisdom that a hypothetical Kurdish state would be landlocked, and
be at the mercy and goodwill of its neighbors. The rapid expansion of Kurdish gains
in northern Syria rendered the possibility of acquiring Mediterranean access more
plausible than it has ever been in history, giving a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the
carving-out of a Kurdistan with naval access. However, among the analytical toolbox
of geopolitics, rising Kurdish youth demographics and the looming “youth bulge” are
perhaps the most important determinants of the Kurds’ future.
Geopolitics study how human and physical geography inuences regional
and international politics. In studying political power and decisions in relation to
geographic space, geopolitics follow a deterministic view on human and political
behavior. Whether it focuses on physical geography (mountains, rivers, terrain,
climate) or human geography (demographics, population, identity), geopolitical study
aims to offer a historical and predictive analysis of political units. Especially famous
in late-19th century and through the Cold War, geopolitics has been an integral part
of policy planning and forecasting. Mark Sykes (of the Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916)
conducted one of the rst formal anthropological studies of the Kurdish tribes in the
Ottoman Empire, which formed the basis of his later geopolitical negotiations with
French diplomat Francois Picot.1 Since then, identifying and predicting Kurdish poli-
tics through the use of geographic designations has become somewhat of a regular
It is perhaps one of the most fascinating paradoxes of world history that Mark
Sykes went onto craft the agreement that would divide the Kurdish homeland across
four countries and become the single-most spell of doom over Kurdish unication
attempts in the succeeding century. Still, the geopolitical approach towards studying
the transnational Kurdish awakening may be criticized for various reasons. First, geo-
politics may be interpreted as geographic determinism and thus be criticized as disre-
garding the impact of agency of the Kurdish question. Second, a geopolitical approach
may be considered to be “buried in the 20th century,” reecting too much Cold War
thinking to be useful in modern politics.
Geography has been one of the most frequently used disciplines in studying the
Kurds in history and contemporary politics. First, the Kurds themselves have self-
identied through geographic designations such as mountains and rivers in their own
literature and poetry. They have consciously used the mountains in history to exert
disproportionate inuence over strategic considerations of much larger powers such
as the Ottomans, Safavids, or Russians, and in turn, found refuge and shelter from
these much larger powers. This led to Kurds embracing their geographic situation, as
well as their buffer role between greater powers, both as a strategic tool and as a way
of life. As the famous Sulaymaniya-born Kurdish poet Şêrko Bêkes (1940–2013) wrote:
My name is a dream, I am from the land of magic, my father is the mountain, and my mother the
mist, I was born in a year whose month was murde red, a month whose week was murdered, a day
whose hours were murdered.
-The Cross, the Snake, the Diary of a Poet2
Figure 1. Mapping Kurdish tribes in the early 20th Century.
[Source: Mark Sykes, “The Kurdish Tribes of the Ottoman Empire,” Jour nal of the Royal Anthropolog ical
Institute of Grea t Britain and Ireland 38 (July-December 1908), 451-86.]
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TranSnaTional KurdiSh poliTiCS
h. aKin Ünver
Another famous Kurdish poet, Abdullah Goran, also frequently dened
Kurdishness in geographic designations:
I have been nurtured by these valleys, summits and hummocks, My breath is full of the fragrant
breeze of your highlands, My lips are satiated by your snow waters, My gaze is used to the sight
of your silver y twilights Reecting on evening snows , My ears are habituate d to the music of
your waterfall s Pour ing down from high qua rters above snow to green landsca pes.
My tongue bloomed with your beautiful speech, With words of your mountain songs, The words
of folk tales told around replaces, The words of your children‘s lullabies. Whe n blood stirs in my
veins, It does so under the powe r of your love, I know.3
In traditional geopolitical view, the Kurds are connected to and identied by the
Zagros and eastern Taurus Mountains. Yet rather than these mountains facilitating
Kurdish unity, they have ended up preventing it, as rugged terrain forced the Kurds to
live in cut-off, isolated tribal structures. The political expression of such geographical
impositions conform to similar state-society relations in Scotland: fragmented tribes,
mixed resistance against nearby atland culture (England, or Switzerland), and a
fragmented political system in the form of increased local administration and canton
formations. The impact of geography on Kurdish politics has been a systemic forma-
tion of principalities and emirates that have come under the control of, or became part
of the rivalry between, larger power sources in surrounding atlands: the Iranian
Plateau, Upper Mesopotamia, and Anatolia.
Second, geography has been an important perspective on the study of Kurdish
politics from a historical point of view. Scholars of Kurdish history, such as Hakan
Özoğlu, Janet Klein, and Ebru Sönmez, converge on the observation that Kurdish
political history was shaped by their buffer status between empires, which in turn
was imposed on them by their geography.5 Clustered around distant and cut-off
administrative centers, they were ultimately unable to unite against empires that
come from atlands. This has contributed to the fragmenting of Kurdish political
sociology into different administrative units competing against each other, under the
control of the empires that they reside in. While the rule of the Kurdish ruler Saladin
Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb (1174–93) could be considered the rst attempt to
bring Kurdish tribes together, this was short-lived. Rather, the polarization of the
Kurdish homeland assumed a more structural character rst, when the Kurdish home-
land was divided between the Ottoman and Safavid Empires following the Battle of
Chaldiran in the 16th century.
The Ottomans in turn established the formal structure of their internal rela-
tions with the Kurdish tribes through İdris-i Bitlisî (1452–1520), a Kurdish statesman
of the Ottoman administration. According to Bitlisî’s policies, Kurdish tribes were
formally taken under Ottoman defensive structure to act as borderland irregulars
and tribal patrol units, retaining their autonomy and gaining Ottoman ofcial titles
and prestige in return. The Kurds and the mountains they inhabit were both used
as frontier defense against the Safavid Empire and as domestic policing outposts
against Ottoman Kızılbaş, Alevis, long considered a threat to domestic stability.6 Thus
began a more than two centuries-long rivalry between Ottomans and Safavids over
the Kurdish tribes and emirates—the mountains being the primary ashpoint in the
rivalry. During the entire span of this competition, according to Özoğlu, “The beys of
frontier regions enjoyed greater autonomy than the beys who ruled sanjaks closer to
the Ottoman center. In Kurdistan, a frontier region, one can observe this administra-
tive variation very clearly.7 Kurds’ consolidation under Ottoman rule was a relatively
easy choice, given the amount of persecution they faced under the Safavids (especially
during Shah Tahmasp period of 1524–76), which became a permanent and brutal
imperial state policy.8
The second most profound change in Ottoman–Kurdish relations came with
the Tanzimat (Reform) Period from 1839 to 1876. In hopes of centralizing a stagnating
empire for more efcient administration and in order to compete with highly cen-
tralized European states, Ottomans had engaged in a number of sweeping state
restructuring reforms, ending up creating a successfully centralized core, yet a far
weaker hold over their hinterland. The Kurds’ relationship with the Ottoman state,
which was structured on the very idea of autonomy, was being threatened as Ottoman
centralization attempts began to disturb the existing sanjak (can ton) structure.9 In
tandem with these centralization movements, an expansionist Russian Empire came
into contact with various Kurdish tribes, as a product of its war with the Persian
Qajar Dynasty and Russian expansion in the Caucasus. The Battle of Ganja (1804),
which resulted in Russian victory against Qajars, thus opened up the door to Kurdish
homeland to northern invaders and enabled Russians to enter into the historic com-
petition over Kurds between Turks and Persians. The Treaties of Gulistan (1813) and
Turkmanchai (1828) moved the Russian border at the expense of Qajars as far down
to include modern-day Azerbaijan, reaching the northern hinterlands of the Kurdish
homeland. In addition, by the mid-19th century, the Kurds were also coming under
increasing pressures of the Russian Orthodox and European Catholic and Protestant
missionary inuence in terms of their relationship to the Armenians—which both
sides aimed to bolster, for various reasons.10
Increasing secularization of Ottoman imperial administration as a result of
Tanzimat left a void in its relations with the Kurds, which was structurally based
on a religious understanding. When Tanzimat secularization weakened that link,
the Kurds grew disconnected from the imperial core against what they felt to be
a growing Christian involvement adjacent to their homeland.11 This call for pan-
Islamism, against non-Muslim inuence, would later be answered during Abdulhamid
70 | Journal of inTernaTional affairS
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Spring/Summer 2016 | 71
TranSnaTional KurdiSh poliTiCS
II’s tenure (1876–1909), when the Ottoman state effectively resurrected İdris-i Bitlisî’s
16th-century social contract with the Kurds. The result was the Hamidian Brigades,
an irregular Kurdish cavalry modeled after Russian Cossack regiments.12 Just as the
Kurdish cavalry of the 16–17th centuries patrolled the Ottoman-Persian border, simul-
taneously maintaining domestic stability (at the expense of occasional massacres
against the Kızılbaş), the Hamidian cavalry of the late-19th century patrolled a trou-
blesome Ottoman-Russian border, simultaneously cracking down on the Armenians
domestically, playing a major role in the Armenian massacres of 1894 to 1896 and the
genocide in 1915.13
It could be argued that the strategic rationale for the Armenian mass deportations
was the major disruption of the Russo-Ottoman border, whereby Ottomans’ main line
of defense, the Third Army, was broken during the Sarıkamış Battle in December 1914
to January 1915. Once the entire Kurdish–Armenian homeland became vulnerable to
Russian invasion (Russians did indeed capture as far as Erzincan and Van in 1918), a
Russo-Armenian , making a unied Orthodox Christian front against East Anatolian
Muslims, became a major driving rationale for the genocide. Yet, regardless of such
brutal and extreme measures, and even though the Kurdish tribes prevailed over
Armenian nationalists, the empire lost the war. Michael Reynolds argues that Kurdish
support for the Ottomans was not unilateral, as Russia did manage to charm an inu-
ential Kurdish notable, Abdürrezzak Bedirhan, into cooperating against Ottoman
interests.14 Following the total Ottoman defeat in World War I in the Middle Eastern
Front, the Kurdish homeland was rst split between Great Britain and France; and
later, between Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. This split is widely recognized as the
main reason for the unforthcoming resolution of the Kurdish question and becoming
one of the most protracted questions in the Middle East. Yet, the Kurds, bound to
their geographical homeland, continued their historical mission in competing border-
lands. Even during the Cold War, separated between four states, the Kurds continued
to act as a buffer between four major systems: The Arab world, NATO, the Warsaw
Pact and the Central Asian bloc.
The geo-historical account of superpower/imperial competition over the Kurds
should not be understood as geographic determinism, but as an attempt to draw a
geographic historiography of the Kurds, for the sake of perspective. Although geopoli-
tics may be seen as a Cold War relic, the power relations the Kurds nd themselves
within today is very similar to the region’s systemic setting in early 20th century.
Exactly a century later, the regional and global implications of Syria render it as the
world powers’ high school reunion of the First World War After all, both Iraq and
Syria are perhaps not signicantly different, or worse off, in terms of state structures
and intermediary institutions than how both states left of World War I as Ottoman
vilayets (provinces). It is this state weakening that puts the Kurds, not as a unitary,
but as a vertically competing, transnational entity, into the driving seat of their own
fortunes for the rst time since the end of World War I.
Robert I. Rothberg states that when a weak state becomes a failed state, it also
causes ripple effects across its neighborhood, both in terms of further destabilizing
existing weak states, and in terms of intensifying underlying discontent in those
countries.15 A state’s failure thus increases the decay of adjacent weak states and
exports the type of discontent that has caused the state to weaken and ultimately fail
in the rst place. Anthony Vinci, on the other hand, demonstrates how armed groups
that emerge as a result of domestic anarchy and state failure connect to the regional
and international system through “mixed
security dilemmas” that arise “vertically”
within a territorial entity, and “horizontally”
between adjacent territorial entities.16 This
explains how state weakening in Syria and
Iraq creates competing armed groups that
intensify the interaction between vertical
competition, such as that between ISIS and
YPG (People’s Protection Units of Kurdish
Syria, a home-grown ghting force of mostly
Kurds); and horizontal competition, such as
between ISIS and Iraqi Armed Forces, or YPG
and Turkish Armed Forces.
In May 2015, Aaron Lund asked a critical question: “What if no one is winning
the war in Syria?” In other words, what if the state is not failing and will not fail, yet
will continue to be unable to establish control over its territory or eliminate vertically
competing armed groups?17 His answer was “the Somalization of Syria” and its descent
into a prolonged conict between a weakened state, foreign powers, and nonstate
armed groups. Michael J. Mazarr questioned the concept itself in his 2014 article,
“The Rise and Fall of the Failed-State Paradigm,” in which he compares Francis
Fukuyama’s 2004 observation that failed states would be the biggest problem in world
politics, with Stephen Krasner and Carlos Pascual’s statement that failed states pose
the biggest threat to global security.18 Mazarr concludes that it is not weak states
per se that generate problems, but the involvement of the outside superpower that
exacerbates the problem in weak states. His argument follows that without external
involvement, the states are eventually capable of resolving their internal crises.
What if the state is
not failing and will
not fail, yet will con-
tinue to be unable
to establish control
over its territory?
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Spring/Summer 2016 | 73
TranSnaTional KurdiSh poliTiCS
The scholarship on weak and failed states has grown considerably cautious since
the inception of the Syrian Civil War; a far cry since Gerald Helman and Steven
Ratner wrote a blueprint article in 1992 on how the United States could “put back”
together failed states.19 With the academic and policy wisdom shifting away from
favoring intervention, the combined systemic shift and state weakening in Iraq and
Syria may well generate a bloody, yet long-term opportunity for the transnational rise
of Kurdish nationalism. Even though the effects of Kurdish nationalism will not be
transformative in strong states like Iran and Turkey, it will nonetheless have long-
term implications where there are strong Kurdish actors in weak states such as Iraq
and Syria. Mikaelian and Salloukh use the Hezbollah in Lebanon as such a case study,
whereby strong non-state actors within weak states lead to quasi-statelets and parallel
decision-making bodies.20
Indeed, with regard to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, which
already has an autonomous, functioning proto-state, even though it is dependent on
outside help to nance itself, and the Syrian-Kurdish groups such as the Democratic
Union Party (PYD) and People’s Protection Units (YPG), it is possible to talk about
such strong non-state actors versus weak state competition. Mikaelian and Salloukh
indicate that this competition does not always lead to the emergence of new states—
and if the competition becomes protracted and unresolved, it may lead to localized
legitimacies within a single state. If the competing strong non-state actor can build
sufcient inroads into the state security apparatus, it may as well hijack the apparatus,
or certain aspects of its decision-making. Such aspects may either relate to security
enforcement towards a particular geographic unit, or a particular identity.
While this article focuses on the post-Syrian Civil War Kurdish awakening, it
is important to put things into perspective. The Kurdish awakening happened in
Iraq a decade ago, in the 2003 war, after which Iraqi Kurds succeeded in establishing
relatively successful KRG. It built upon the Kurdish statebuilding efforts that began
after the Gulf War in 1991. Such an autonomous entity was previously interpreted as
a national security issue by Turkey, Iran, and Iraq itself, fearing that it would gen-
erate the kind of horizontal competition Syria witnesses today and cause a combined
Kurdish revolt. What rendered KRG a reality was in fact outside intervention—
namely, the presence of overwhelming U.S. forces that could impose such autonomy
upon neighboring countries like Iran and Turkey.21
Turkey, for its part, chose to transform this unavoidability into a lucrative busi-
ness opportunity, and Turkish companies began investing heavily in Erbil and Kirkuk,
as construction cooperation gradually evolved into energy partnership.22 It was also
easier for Turkey to accommodate an autonomous KRG in Iraq as Ankara’s long
nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was forced into interregnum following
the capture of its founding leader, Abdullah Öcalan, in 1999. With Turkey’s own
Kurdish question coming under control, dealing with a neighboring Kurdish autono-
mous region posed few threats for Ankara.
For Iran, KRG’s rise was much less of a cause for celebration, since the Iraq War
that brought about such rise was seen as threatening for Iran—especially after U.S.
president George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, which dened Iran as a potential
target for the U.S. military.23 Simultaneously, however, Iran supported federalism in
Iraq in order to end the country’s recent history of acting as Iran’s western barrier to
Middle East access.24 This was legally facilitated in Iraq’s 2005 Constitution, in which
Iran recognized Iraqi Kurdistan as a federal entity within Iraq, and this was followed
by the KRG opening up a “coordination and representation ofce” in Tehran in 2007.25
Yet even though Iran and Erbil moved closer after the Iraq War, KRG had nonetheless
moved along a narrow limit, as Tehran and Washington have been suspicious of each
others’ motives on Iraqi Kurds. A similar suspicion existed between Turkey and Iran,
in relation to the KRG, as both sides attempted
to inuence KRG elections, while simultane-
ously cooperating against a resurgent threat
from PKK and its Iranian wing, PJAK.26
The major geopolitical competition sur-
rounding the KRG during that period was
twofold. The rst was resource geopolitics;
namely, how to institutionalize KRG’s vast oil
and gas elds. More specically, the debate
orbited around the extraction and export
rights of KRG’s natural resources and revenue-
sharing between the Iraqi and KRG govern-
ments. For a long time, Baghdad rejected the
idea of a separate oil and gas policy in KRG,
viewing it as a sign of further dissolution of Iraq as a unied state. Until the expansion
of ISIS forced Baghdad into signing the revenue sharing agreement with the KRG in
November 2014, such resistance remained.27 The second geopolitical contestation was
related to the status of Kirkuk—both as a cultural/historical landmark, and as an oil-
rich city. A referendum to determine the status of Kirkuk was planned in November
2007, but was delayed on the grounds that Saddam-era depopulation campaigns have
disrupted the “natural demography” of the city.28 While these two simultaneous issues
went on, the fallout of the Syrian Civil War changed this serious, but sustainable com-
For a long time,
Baghdad rejected the
idea of a separate
oil and gas policy in
KRG, viewing it as
a sign of further dis-
solution of Iraq as a
unied state.
74 | Journal of inTernaTional affairS
h. aKin Ünver
Spring/Summer 2016 | 75
TranSnaTional KurdiSh poliTiCS
One of the most critical precursors of the post-Syrian Kurdish awakening was
the Arab Spring. As the old regimes and their hegemonic status quo crumbled, different
analyses pointed to different causes for the surge in youth movements, including
economic, historical and demographic. Among the demographic causes is the “youth
bulge”—dened as the expanding population pyramid, in which rapid birthrates and
increases in child survival causes disproportionate swelling of the younger segments
of a population. This explanation of the Arab Spring has been particularly inuential
in Washington, with two seminal analyses, Jack Goldstone’s Revolution and Rebellion
in the Early Modern World (1991) and Gary Fuller’s CIA report (1995), discussing how
youth bulge demographics eventually lead to either external war, internal violence, or
a revolution.29 Gunnar Heinsohn expanded on the argument in 2004 by elaborating
on how excess young-adult male population causes a number of security problems,
including riots, revolts, and war.30
The Kurds responded to the aftershocks and ripple effects of the Arab Spring in
various ways. The KRG, for example, was uneasy with the domino effect of the Arab
Spring, as protests from February to April 2011 rocked the legitimacy of the govern-
ment, accusing it of corruption, nepotism and social injustice.31 It was effectively sup-
pressed, both due to security measures, and accommodating political response.32 Iraqi-
Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, for example, emphasized that
protests were a democratic right, and their main complaint is legitimate.33 Turkey has
also experienced Kurdish protests. There were sporadic Kurdish riots within Turkey
from March 2011 to November 2012, with different complaints: Turkey’s Kurdish pro-
tests rather focused on repression, racism, discrimination, and ban on Kurdish parlia-
mentarians. Another specic source of unrest was the Turkish military airstrike on 34
civilians in Uludere district.34 In response, the Turkish government lifted the ban on
certain Kurdish political candidates, paid compensation to the families of 34 victims
of the airstrike, and passed a law paving the way for Kurdish-language education in
Iranian Kurds did not rise up in riots, like they did in Iraq and Turkey, but the
attacks of PJAK against Iranian military targets intensied after the Arab Spring.
Following PJAK attacks against Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in
Sanandaj and one police outpost in Marivan in March 2011, hostilities ared, resulting
in extended ghting between the IRGC and PJAK.35 In July, PJAK followed up by
blowing up the Turkish-Iranian natural gas pipeline.36 Finally, in Syria, the February
2011 killing of Kurdish leader Mashaal Tammo and the subsequent ring upon on the
crowd at his funeral, the Syrian-Kurds have systemically moved into the Syrian oppo-
sition and launched the Kurdish rebellion.37 By late-2011, Kurds in all four countries
were undergoing profound transformation—or preparing for one.
The simultaneous awakening of the Kurds can both be explained through their
persistent tensions with their host governments, as well as the “youth bulge” argu-
ment discussed in the rst paragraph of this section. Coupled with perceived discrim-
ination, political mismanagement, and corruption or repression, booming Kurdish
youth populations manifested as successive protests in all four host countries.
In Iraq, the median age of Kurds is estimated at just over 20, with more than half
under 20 years of age. The KRG’s average age is 26 years old.38 In Turkey, the predomi-
nantly Kurdish southeast region sees the highest birthrate in the country, with an
average 4.2 median births per household. According to the Turkish Statistics Institute,
both the lowest percentage of old populations and the highest percentage of youth
population are concentrated in the Kurdish southeast, with Hakkari, Şırnak, Van,
Siirt, Bitlis, Muş and Ağbeing the youngest cities.39
Lack of infrastructure, low levels of youth unemployment, poor upward mobility,
and existing identity problems with the central governments have all contributed to
radicalization of Kurdish politics along the theoretical lines of the youth-bulge litera-
ture. Unable to earn a living and depart from nuclear families, Kurdish youth come
under increased traditional, religious, and tribal pressures. This has traditionally been
one of the main drivers of PKK recruitment, especially among Kurdish young women
who have ed their tribes and families in order to pursue a more gender-equal, albeit
physically difcult, life in the mountains.40 Furthermore, the youth pressure against
traditional and religious families has enabled Kurdish youth movements to develop a
secular, or even anti-religious rallying ideology, pushing them closer to the Marxist-
Leninist discourse of the PKK.41 Such youth-related population pressures and their
ideological spillover effects were diagnosed both by Turkey and Iraq by 2012, but a
proper policy to address such diagnosis has been unforthcoming. 42 The resulting
population pressure and youth bulge is one of the biggest structural elements that
enables and strengthens a major shift in transnational Kurdish nationalist movement
in its four host countries.
The abundance of a radicalized youth population is the PKK’s urban-centered
“revolutionary people’s war” (devrimci halk savaşı) tactic, imported from Maoist lexicon
into PKK literature by Abdullah Öcalan and recently refurbished in 2011 by one of
PKK’s senior founding commanders and the chairman of the Group of Communities
in Kurdistan Murat Karayılan.43 The revolutionary people’s war aimed to tap into
Kurdish urban youth grievances towards both the state and the traditional family
structures they were born into. Outlined in detail in PKK’s media outlet, Serxwebun,
in April 2015, this strategy aimed to cultivate the youth bulge in two ways: rst,
by recruiting them into the Qandil headquarters for training and later deployment
as militias against Turkish military or against ISIS in Syria.44 Second, the strategy
employed “city defenses,” urban resistance units made up of teenagers. Suitable
76 | Journal of inTernaTional affairS
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TranSnaTional KurdiSh poliTiCS
demography, along with sufciently intensied grievances benet PKK’s strategy and
became one of the main reasons why PKK was able to expand its inuence and control
over the Syrian Kurds, and why PYD and YPG were able to coordinate with the PKK
so effectively.
As much as population and demographic trends are key to for geopolitical anal-
ysis, it is incomplete without a structural reading of its geographic access points and
barriers. The intersection between a nation, its geography and its cultural self-percep-
tion can be referred to as Lebensraum, a late-19th century term which followed a rather
problematic political expression in the rst half of the 20th century. In Friederich
Ratzel’s conception of Lebensraum, a society is likened to a biological organism, which
expands and contracts depending on its natural habitat.45 Although the very concept
of Lebensraum is quite a dreaded one due to its connections to the National-Socialist
ideology in Germany and other racist strands across Europe, a non-aggressive under-
standing of the Kurdish Lebensraum could be adopted with regard to its historical-
geography. There are two Kurdish Lebensräume—urban and rural. Kurds’ urban
Leb ensraum primarily includes Diyarbakır, Erbil, Kirkuk, and Sulaymaniyah, with
signicant middle and upper-middle class and relatively higher levels of education, as
well as urban culture. Smaller and competing extensions of this urban consciousness
exist in Iran in Mahabad and Sanandaj, and in Syria in Rojava. It is also a paradoxical
but important point that the highest concentration of the Kurdish population is in
Istanbul, around 3 million, and Germany, around 800,000, shifting the balance of
Kurdish urbanization into somewhat disconnected territorialization.46 It is however,
the rural Kurdish Lebensraum, which is also its literary and historical habitat, that gives
it a coherent, geopolitical form.
As elaborated earlier, this rural Lebensraum has become the main lens through
which the Kurds have been viewed by outside powers, as well as how the Kurds
themselves have self-dened in their literature. The Zagros and Taurus Mountain
systems anchor Kurds geographically, whereas the Tigris river system sets its western
Iraqi barrier with the recent Kurdish expansion in Syria, this was moved as far west
to the Euphrates river. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers, both major sources of water
originating within Turkey, have been key geopolitical assets Turkey used in the past
to control the ow of water to Syria and Iraq through the Southeast Anatolian Project,
or Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi (GAP). While the Tigris enters Iraq through the pro-
Turkish KRG territory, the ow of water has not been a geopolitical contestation in
recent years.47 However, as the Kurdish expansion towards the Euphrates river in
Syria has been dened as a security threat by Turkey, their liberation of the Tashrin
Dam from ISIS in January 2016 renders them able to control Turkey-origin water into
the rest of Syria, thereby rendering PYD and YPG with signicant strategic gain.48
Controlling the southbound ow of both the Tigris and the Euphrates result in the
structural expansion and consolidation of the rural Kurdish Lebensraum. At the time
of writing this article, a Kurdish canton existed in Afrin, but it was still cut off from
the rest of Rojava. In order to prevent this, Turkey proposed a “safe zone” into which
Turkish troops would be deployed, clearing the area from ISIS, as well as preventing
Kurdish cantons from uniting along the Turkish border. 49
The southern reaches of the Kurdish Lebensraum have historically been dened in
relation to its distance to the Zagros and Taurus mountains. After World War I, the
negotiated space between the Kurds and their respective host states Iraq and Syria
took place as a result of how far away from those mountains Kurdish insurgencies
could survive against standing armies. In Iraq, for example, the Dohuk, Erbil, Kirkuk–
Sulaymaniya line became the Kurds’ natural defensive line against Saddam Hussein’s
forces, largely owing to their proximity to the mountains that offered shelter. It is for
the same reason that Kirkuk, as a historically Kurdish city that is a bit more distant to
mountains, was relatively more vulnerable for Saddam’s Arabization campaigns popu-
lation displacement and resettlement compared to other three main Kurdish cities. 50
In Syria, the Kurds haven’t been separated from the Damascus core through a geo-
graphic barrier; their territorialization rather owes to their sheer distance to the coun-
try’s administrative core in the southwest. Despite Syrian Arabization policies in
Figure 2. Topographic map of Asia and Asia Minor, with Taurus-Zagros mountain
corridor highlighted.
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TranSnaTional KurdiSh poliTiCS
the 1970s similar to Saddam Hussein’s, an Arab cordon (Hizam Arabi) was established
along the Turkish border, pushing the Kurds into the country’s northeastern fringes.51
The northern and eastern borders of the Leben sraum have been negotiated largely
by the PKK, or its more recent Iranian wing, PJAK. Both Turkey and Iran have been
unable to extinguish the territorial challenge mounted by the militant insurgency,
although they have been able to localize and contain it. To that end, the mountains
once again emerged as the Kurds’ natural habitat as both the PKK and PJAK oper-
ated in close proximity to Qandil mountains. In Turkey, PKK’s area of activity directly
corresponds to the region’s topography as the mountainous and Kurdish-dominated
Hakkari, Şırnak, Van, Batman, Bitlis, and Bingöl provinces became synonymous with
insurgency. In the east as well, PJAK’s attacks against the IRGC took place along the
eastern reaches of Mount Qandil and into Mahabad, Urumia, Marivan, and Sanandaj,
beneting from the rugged terrain that makes surprise attacks easy and defense
against standing armies much less costly. Mount Qandil has also proven as a safe
refuge against airstrikes as both PKK and PJAK learned to dig into Afghanistan-style
cave networks that are immune to aerial bombing.
The Syrian Civil War and the rise of ISIS changed the southern and western
extent of the Kurdish Lebensraum in two ways. First, ISIS’ replacement of Syrian and
Iraqi Armed Forces near the Kurdish areas has eliminated standing militaries as a
legitimate form of barrier that prevented Kurds push further south. Second, ISIS’
security challenge, both against Damascus and Baghdad, weakened the states and pre-
vented them from exerting the kind of pressure that kept the Kurds pushing further
south. Seizing on the opportunity, the PYD, for example, has emerged from its under-
ground role and established itself as a competent administration, rallying other Kurds
in the region against ISIS. Unable to carve self-administering regions from their pow-
erful neighbors, PKK branches in all four countries began to join PYD’s war against
ISIS, hoping to create a self-administering Syrian Kurdistan within Syria in Rojava.
The war against ISIS was internationally legitimate and thus became a national lib-
eration war of sorts for the Kurds. The left-wing, socialist nature of Rojava campaign
naturally made it a rival to KRG, which was a good ally of Turkey and the proponent
of the idea of Islamism as a common bond.52
Increasingly frustrated with the conservative state ideology and accompanying
repression of Turkey, Kurdish youth within Turkish borders also went to Rojava to
create an autonomous Kurdistan there.53 However, the reverse migration, Syrian Kurds
eeing Rojava, must also be mentioned in addition to the fact that the migration issue
is a source of friction between the KRG and Rojava.54 Once Syrian government forces
withdrew from Kurdish-dominated areas in 2012, these regions consolidated as self-
ruling cantons Afrin, Jazira and Kobani in November 2013, under the banner of the
Kurdish Supreme Committee, and Desteya Bilind, a Kurd. However its subsidiaries,
both the PYD and its militant wing YPG have been accused by the Turkish govern-
ment as being the extensions of the PKK, while the PKK leader Cemil Bayık denied
direct links, but found their struggle “legitimate and worthy of support.55 It is this
relationship with the PKK that Turkey also dened PYD and YPG as “terrorist organi-
zations.56 Yet, it is also these groups’ battleeld utility against ISIS that has prevented
Ankara from selling the idea to its NATO allies.57 Together with the U.S airstrikes,
YPG was instrumental in
breaking ISIS defensive posi-
tions near Rojava and clearing
the Turkish border from ISIS
No particular event or
place reinforced the idea and
ideology of the newly emerging
Rojava more than the defense
of Kobani, Ar. Ayn al-Arab,
from September 2014 to March
2015, as well as cementing
security cooperation between
YPG and PKK. While having
minor strategic importance
as a small town overlooking
Turkish border, its main impor-
tance was ideological and his-
torical. Kobani was the entry
point of PKK’s founding leader
Öcalan to Syria from Turkey
in 1980, following the military
coup, thereby relocating the
PKK into Syria.59 For a long
time, Kobani in particular has
been dened by the PKK as
the “little south” or “leadership
area”, where Öcalan ran direct
grassroots organization and
mobilization. Militants recruited
from this area joined PKK ranks
through the 1990s and the 2000s,
Figure 3. Syrian-Kurdish control of territory. Note
the rapid unication of Kurdish cantons (purple)
in the north from May to December 2015.
TranSnaTional KurdiSh poliTiCS
October Incidents,” spread across Turkey, leading to 46 deaths, 682 injuries and 323
arrests, substantially changing the course of state-society relations between Ankara
and the Kurds. While the peace process was already in ruins, the PKK dened the 6-9
October incidents as the singular act that has effectively “buried the process.”66 After
that, the PKK began preparing for its urban defensive campaign in major Kurdish
The defenses in Kobani ultimately held, aided by U.S. airstrikes, providing the
Kurds with the psychological victory. This gave the necessary push to the develop-
ment of Rojava, both through increasing the number of recruitment and youth migra-
tion there and through consolidating the security partnership between PYD, YPG,
and PKK. After Rojava, the Kurds continued pushing westward, gradually clearing
the Turkish-Syrian border from ISIS, and thus signicantly validating Turkey’s main
strategic nightmare: an uninterrupted Kurdish belt, beginning from Kars and span-
ning through Turkey’s entire eastern border, connecting to the Qandil mountains
and arching westward, through the KRG and reaching into Rojava. 68 While the Iraqi
segment of that belt, namely the KRG, would be closer to Turkey, the rest of the belt
would include PKK and its local fractions or allies—a geopolitical reality which rein-
forces Turkey’s sense of being isolated from the Sunni-Arab sociology with a clear and
uninterrupted Kurdish belt.
In traditional Kurdish geopolitics, a hypothetical Kurdistan would be completely
landlocked and would be at the mercy and goodwill of its neighbors for trade and sur-
vival. The Syrian Civil War changed this thinking. Once ISIS was defeated at Kobani,
the Kurdish cantons of Afrin, Kobani and Jazira would unite along the border, cre-
ating a singular territorial reality, resting at the edge of Turkey’s Hatay province –
which would be the only gap that would prevent a unied Rojava from accessing the
Mediterranean Sea. Not only would the Kurdish belt’s access to the Mediterranean
would be an immense geopolitical goal that would render unication and state-
building, it would also open up KRG oil elds to naval export without having to
deal with neighboring Turkey, Syria, Iraq or Iran. A key detail about the Syrian
Democratic Forces, SDF—a renamed version of YPG—is that its ofcial ag is a map
of Syria, which contains Turkey’s Hatay province; however, several Syria experts this
author interviewed noted that the same map of Syria is used by the majority of fac-
tions ghting in Syria, including those supported by Turkey.69 Kurdistan, which has
a geographic-defensive core, the Qandil mountains; southbound control of two of the
largest rivers in the region; the Tishrin, Gomaspan-Bastorah, Dukan, Darbandikan
and Duhok dams; extensive oil and gas reserves in KRG; and Mediterranean access
through Rojava belt; would not only strengthen its bid to become a state, but it would
also increase incentives for the unication of Kurdistan—whether in federative,
canton, or unitary form.
Spring/Summer 2016 | 81
h. aKin Ünver
ghting both Turkish military forces and other rival Kurdish militant groups. Kobani
recruits of 1980s, namely Bahoz Erdal, Nurettin So, and to a lesser degree Murat
Karayılan rose up in PKK’s ranks over time, becoming its main militant commanders.
Kobani was also a key location in 1998, when Turkey’s pressures forced Hafez al-
Assad’s Syrian government to expel Öcalan from his refuge in Damascus. In October
1998, before eeing Syria, Öcalan held his nal meeting in Kobani, ordering a group
from town’s political network to make preparations for the establishment of a political
party in Syria. While this rst attempt had failed due to the success of the Syrian
intelligence, the second attempt in 2003 succeeded and led to the creation of the PYD.
Citing a PKK source close to Öcalan during the 1998 meeting, BB C Tu rki sh claimed
that Kobani was then planned as Öcalan’s revenge against the Assad government for
“backstabbing” him by forcing him away from Syria. Despite its military-strategic
insignicance, Kobani was of gargantuan importance for the PKK with immense ideo-
logical and historical baggage. It was also the pilot area for an Öcalan-style adminis-
tration and the blueprint of a future Öcalanist Kurdistan. For the same reason, Kobani
was also the key connector between PKK, PYD, and YPG.
That’s why the defense of Kobani was of vital importance for the Kurds—and it
was also why ISIS targeted the town in order to deal a coup de grace against the Syrian-
Kurdish nationalist movement. The U.S. strategy, too, was developed on this impor-
tance. Having as many ISIS forces and supplies as possible clustering around Kobani
was an excellent way to divert its attention.60 While ISIS’ focus was on Kobani, it was
easier for the U.S. to develop defenses and organization in other parts of the frontline,
especially in Iraq, while dealing a psychologically signicant amount of aerial damage
on ISIS concentrated around the town. Although the U.S.-supported Kurdish defense
held against a numerically superior ISIS attack, Turkey’s ambivalent stance towards
the town’s relief became a major threshold in changing the relationship between
Turkey and its Kurds.61 Protests in Turkish cities erupted after Ankara’s inactivity
on helping the relief of Kobani—rst by preventing YPG militants from crossing
the border into Kobani to defend the town and then after President Recep Tayyip
Erdoğan’s October 2014 statement on the imminence of the town’s fall to ISIS’ hands.62
The Turkish ofcial view was that Kobani was essentially outside of Turkey,
which doesn’t render Ankara responsible for its defense; and that Kobani was PKK’s
problem and it was unclear why Turkey should help its nemesis in defense of an
external territory.63 For critics, however, the complaint was two-fold. First, Ankara’s
inactivity was causing a major rift with its Kurdish population and preventing a
unied resistance against ISIS that could later become the foundation of permanent
peace in Turkey.64 Second, such inactivity was interpreted by the Kurds as tacit
support for ISIS, which they believe was using Ankara to extinguish the emerging
Kurdish nationalist awakening in Syria.65 The resultant riots, known as the “6-9
80 | Journal of inTernaTional affairS
At the time of writing this article, the SDF was pushing further south, taking
Jarablous and Qarah Qawzaq bridges along with the October (Tishrin) Dam.70 The
territorial shift of focus of this hypothetical Kurdistan would help alleviate the
existing Kurdish tensions in Turkey and Iran, as Kurds unhappy with the existing
status quo in those countries would likely search for a future in this new and more
sustainable territoriality. Following the collapse of Turkey’s peace process and the
subsequent launch of anti-PKK operations had an adverse effect on Kurdish civilians
as large scale migrations began in December 2015.71
In order to identify trends and shifts in the Kurdish Lebensraum, I have utilized
a map-based “big data” approach. For this study, I use the Viktor Mayer-Schönberger
and Kenneth Cukier denition of “big data:” “The ability of society to harness infor-
mation in novel ways to produce useful insights or goods and services of signicant
value” and “…things one can do at a large scale that cannot be done at a smaller one, to
extract new insights or create new forms of value.” I thereby depart from the original
1997 NASA term or more recent, widely quoted 2011 McKinsey study that focus on the
sheer size of the data, rather than the novelty on how it is used.72
In partnership with EQLIM Risk Intelligence Data Analysis, I have specied an
event set, which included the main actors, armed groups, key locations relevant to the
transnational Kurdish movement. Then, these variables were input into the EQLIM
engine, which processed large-volume, open-source data points into heat maps based
on a large number of activities, including terrorism, riots, sabotage, armed conict and
smuggling. The heat maps (Figures 4, 5, 6, 7) show these incidents from 1 February
2014–2 February 2016, over six-month intervals..
The heat maps reveal a number of key trends on the shifting focus of the transna-
tional Kurdish movement. Through February 2014 to August, main armed events are
scattered across mainly Iraq, and less so in Syria and Turkey and follow no particular,
united trend. Sporadic incidents in Diyarbakır, Elazığ, and Van in Turkey; Mosul
and Kirkuk in Iraq; and Aleppo in Syria can be observed. Then from August 2014 to
February 2015, there is a substantial clustering of incidents along Iraq-Turkey Pipeline
(ITP) and the new KRG-Turkey natural gas pipeline that is under construction. In
Syria, Aleppo remains as a ashpoint and Kobani emerges as a new zone of conict.
Lesser incidents can be observed in Diyarbakır and Van. Through February 2015 to
July Tel Abyad, A’zaz and Hasakah become key conict zones in addition to Aleppo
and Kobani in Syria, whereas Kirkuk and Mosul remain ashpoints in KRG. In this
period, Kurdish involvement in Turkey is minimal, with the exception of isolated inci-
dents in Diyarbakır. Finally, through August 2015 to February 2016, Kurdish armed
TranSnaTional KurdiSh poliTiCS
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Spring/Summer 2016 | 8382 | Journal of inTer naTional affairS
Kurdish control of
dams will inevitably
lead for calls to
establish a common
water policy
between Syrian and
Iraqi Kurds, and will
bring them together
on issues related to
water security.
incidents cluster within Turkey in an unprecedented way, covering a large swath of
Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish areas. In Syria, the Aleppo conict intensies, with a
lesser prole in A’zaz, whereas smaller-scale incidents go on in KRG.
There are a number of observations that can be made through this “big data”
approach to Kurdish armed movement. First, this kind of large-volume, extended-
period overview of the Kurdish incidents validates our basic geopolitical premise: that
the Kurds are deeply anchored to the Taurus and Zagros Mountains and are heavily
involved in and around the area between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. To that end,
Figure 2 gives a near-perfect overlap between
2014 and 2016 activity heat maps and the
Taurus-Zagros mountain corridor. Second,
operating from the rugged and defensible
nature of this corridor, the Kurds have secured
southbound control of the Euphrates and
Tigris rivers, gaining a historic geopolitical
advantage against their Arab neighbors in the
south. To that end, Kurdish control of Tishrin,
Mosul, Badush, Bastora, and Dukan dams will
inevitably lead to calls to establish a common
water policy between Syrian and Iraqi Kurds,
and will bring them together on issues related
to water security. Similar advantages are
gained through the control of Jarablus and
Qarah Qawzaq bridges that will enable Syrian
Kurds to unite an uninterrupted territorial belt along Turkish border.
Third, Kurds now have control of both Iraqi and Syrian oil elds and estab-
lish control over Kirkuk, Mosul and Rimelan reserves. From a purely geopolitical
reading—and excluding culture-specic factors—this may bring Iraqi and Syrian
Kurds together over a central administration of oil policy. One key variable here is the
entry of Russia into Syria and from the Latakia port, the closest access point for the
Syrian Kurds into the Mediterranean. Due to increased Russian support for PYD and
YPG, it is safe to assume that Moscow will enable and facilitate the Kurds’ access to
the Mediterranean. In that, the Kurds need not acquire a coastal territory to access
Latakia port; rather, Moscow can offer this access either through its own base in
Latakia, or through facilitating a deal between Damascus and PYD. Syrian Kurds’
access to the Mediterranean will inevitably draw a wedge between KRG and Turkey
in terms of exporting oil and gas. With a Mediterranean access route, even through
Russian or Damascus-controlled coastal territory, Kurds may indeed choose to sideline
84 | Journal of inTernaTional affairS
Figure 4. Heat map of main Kurdish armed events and main geographic faultlines (1 February 2014 to 31 July 2014).
Source: The author.
Figure 5. Heat map of main Kurdish armed events and KRG-Turkey oil and gas infrastructure (1 August 2014 to 31 January 2015).
Source: The author.
Spring/Summer 2016 | 85
TranSnaTional KurdiSh poliTiCS
h. aKin Ünver
Figure 7. Heat map of main Kurdish armed events and main military air bases in the region (1 August 2015 to 2 February 2016).
Source: The author.
Figure 6. Heat map of main Kurdish armed events and main Kurdish oil elds (1 February 2015 to 31 July 2015).
Source: The author.
86 | Journal of inTernaTional affairS Spring/Summer 2016 | 87
TranSnaTional KurdiSh poliTiCS
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TranSnaTional KurdiSh poliTiCS
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Spring/Summer 2016 | 89
88 | Journal of inTernaTional affairS
Turkey and work on a direct pipeline export option that remains south of the
Turkish border.
Finally, the establishment of the Russian Khmeimim Air Base and the American
Rimelan Air Base in two ends of Syrian Kurdistan divides Kurds’ aerial demarcation
along eastern and western control zones. While the Russian–Syrian control zone in
the east is currently closed to Turkish ights, it is unclear whether the U.S. Air Base
in Rimelan will also ban Turkish or Iraqi military ights into Rojava. This may mean
that northern Syria will be a de facto no-y zone, potentially protecting Kurds against
Turkish and Iraqi jets. These two newly-established air bases in northern Syria are an
indicator that both Moscow and Washington are invested in the future of the Syrian
and Iraqi Kurds.
Natural resources are another signicant variable in geopolitical analysis. While
an abundance of natural resources is regarded as a geopolitical advantage, oil-pro-
ducing countries have demonstrated radically different performances in terms devel-
opment, growth, and statebuilding. The “rentier state paradigm,” a terminology within
Marxist lexicon, asserts that if a country earns the majority of its revenues through
the sale of an indigenous resource to outside interests, such as the sale of oil, gas, gold,
or diamonds to international companies, and if the size of the workforce involved in
the production of the exported product is small so that they cannot unionize, then the
state develops an authoritarian character and engages in economic waste. Severing the
link between taxation and representation, rentier state paradigm asserts that strategic
commodities such as oil and gas can have negative impacts on democracy and eco-
nomic development in a country, especially if governance was undemocratic when the
resources were discovered.
Both KRG and Rojava are simultaneously blessed and cursed by abundant oil and
natural gas elds. The KRG has an estimated oil reserve of approximately 50 billion
barrels and a natural gas reserve estimated between 5.7 and 9 trillion cubic feet (tcf),
with Sulaymaniya holding “almost 80 percent of that gas reserve.”74, 75 This renders
KRG the world’s eighth largest oil reserve holder, whereas more appraisal study is
needed to properly situate the region in global gas reserves. Syria’s oil reserves are
much smaller, at 2.5 billion barrels, with a fraction of it sitting in reserves around
Qamishli and Hasakah, within Rojava’s Jazira canton. While the natural gas reserve
balance is tipped strongly in favor of KRG, if Rojava succeeds in carving out an
opening into the Mediterranean, it will allow KRG to export to European markets
directly, without passing through Turkey, or the rest of Iraq, into Basra. As this will
create a mutual dependence, it may increase the incentive for KRG–Rojava unication.
However, there are fundamental cultural differences between KRG and Rojava
in terms of their administrative structures, their approach to religion and their global
orientation. According to Serhat Erkmen, the KRG has “undergone the nation-state
process by incorporating tribalism into a monopolized governmental institution,
while on one hand also protecting the chieftains.”76 In contrast to KRG, the PKK and
KDPI leadership, according to Ofra Bengio, were “not tribal, but urban,” implying how
the founding leaders of both groups were urbanized and educated, instead of coming
to leadership positions directly from tribal structures.77 This is indeed a controversial
statement, given how the KRG’s current state is urbanized and is well-structured,
whereas PKK still operates from the rural. Yet, it is important to highlight that Bengio
was referring to the background of the founders of the PKK and KRG, not their
current state. Indeed in the past, Turkey’s Kurdish tribes have been an ally of the state
against the PKK, serving both as irregular “village guards” and as ideological support
against the military campaigns against the PKK. 78 This is also why the KRG and
Turkey’s Kurdish tribes have been closer to Turkey’s position, rather than the PKK,
demonstrating a case where traditional and Islamic power relations trump ethno-
linguistic ones.
This difference in the Kurds’ approach to religion is one of the reasons why the
PKK has emerged both as a reaction against Turkish state, but also against the tribal-
religious pressures within the Kurdish society. Güllistan Yarkın argues, “When
founded in 1978, the PKK dened itself as a socialist movement aiming to create a
classless society through the formation of a new state-power,” largely owing to the
main political alternative source of support of the time being the Soviet Union.79 The
resultant ideology—an amalgam of Marxist-Leninism and Kurdish nationalism—was
instrumentalized by Öcalan as “Apoculuk” (Apoism) and was dened as a “Kurdish
proletariat-revolutionary movement” and a “national liberation struggle.” In this
context, Aliza Marcus argues: “The PKK, despite its Marxist-Leninist ideology, never
took an open stand against Islam,” and later asserted that the PKK’s Fifth Congress
“issued a statement afrming that Islam was not contrary to Kurdish nationalist
goals.”80 Öcalan himself claries this, indicating that it is not Islam per se, but the
Middle East’s “inability to criticize religion,” as “a great deciency for the Islamic
world.” In addition, Öcalan’s critique of religion stipulated that “Phenomena brought
[sic] about by class society, like power, state and monarchy, became most articulate in
religious monotheism.”81
It has been further argued that the PKK’s relationship with Islam was mostly
about its social, economic and political power relations, its alternative being a new
form of egalitarian power relations, rather than the abandonment of religion alto-
gether. From this point of view, Öcalan’s understanding of religion is in fact secu-
larism, which supports state’s control over religion, but the latter surviving as a
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Spring/Summer 2016 | 9190 | Journal of inTernaTional affairS
While the KRG
seems to be better-
off nancially, due
to its oil reserves,
the inevitable effect
of rentierism and
tribalism nonetheless
renders it dependent
on the goodwill of
external actors.
personal and spiritual function nonetheless. From this point of view, Apoculuk—with
a hefty dose of controversy—may be likened to Kemalism of the 1920s, and even 19th-
century Ottoman secular thought that aimed to re-operationalize religion, rather than
abandoning it altogether.
Thus emerged two different religious identities in the Kurdish Lebensraum: the
tribal/conservative strand, which today dominates the KRG and Turkey’s Kurdish
rural hinterland; and the secular/socialist strand, embodied within the PKK and
its variants. The role of religion and communalization mechanics in both identities
allow analysts to forecast their statebuilding styles and also how these identities will
interact with their respective natural resources.
In Marxist theory, “rentierism” is dened as the monopolization of access to a par-
ticular resource and its utilization without beneting the society itself. The concept
was taken into the international relations literature by Hossein Mahdavy in 1970 and
was further developed by Hazem al-Beblawi and Giacomo Luciani as a type of state
structure, whose economy is dependent on the sale of natural resources to external
clients.82 In cases where the economy is dominated by the sector associated with the
natural resource, where no other competing industry exists and when the state is the
primary recipient of the revenue originating from the sale of resources, the “rentier
state paradigm” emerges, leading to corruption, under-development, and economic
stagnation. This renders state revenues dependent on uctuations of the global price of
the commodity that is subject to rent and may lead to economic collapse once the com-
modity is sold at below-production prices.
Especially in oil politics, rentierism is an oft-cited byproduct. In assessing rentier
oil policy, the state’s discovery of oil before or after its switch to a more representative
system is usually considered as an important threshold. After all, Norway, Canada,
Saudi Arabia, and Iran are all oil producers, but the effect oil had on all four economies
is largely dependent on whether they were democratic, authoritarian or tribal at the
time of their discovery of reserves.
David McDowall asked in 2004 whether KRG was a democracy or neo-tribalism.
He argued that although Kurdish tribalism disappeared in the 1970s “as the prime
form of socio-political organization,” it nonetheless reappeared in the 1990s as a form
of “neo-tribalism” in which “two major confederations competed for hegemony in Iraqi
Kurd istan.”83 Although the PUK later embraced socialism, KDP nonetheless hung onto
tribal structures as a way of statebuilding. This, in turn, rendered its institutions
weak and subject to nepotism and favoritism.84
Such an approach to resource management worked ne while global oil prices
were high and the revenue generated from rent still compensated for the lack of ef-
ciency of the KRG economy. This picture changed in the second half of 2015 and still
continues at the time of writing this article, as oil prices fell down to a historic low of
$30 (U.S.) per barrel. Even before, the Iraqi government had stopped budget payments
to the KRG starting in February 2014, as a rebuttal of KRG’s unilateral handling of
its oil policy, which the Baghdad government interpreted as a form of “separatism.”
With two blows coming simultaneously, the KRG’s nances grew exceedingly thin,
to the extent that it was unable to support and pay its Peshmerga forces, functioning
through cash injections from Turkey.85 This means that while the KRG seems to be
better-off nancially, due to its oil reserves,
the inevitable effect of rentierism and trib-
alism nonetheless renders it dependent on the
goodwill of external actors—be it the United
States or Turkey—unable to dominate or
pacify other Kurdish actors in its vicinity, such
as the PKK and its local variants.
This begs the question: Can the Rojava
avoid falling into rentierism? Is secular/
socialist communalization a better form of
government for the Kurds compared to trib-
alism? While Rojava has been able to protect
itself and self-administer through the concept
of “radical democracy,” which Öcalan imported
from Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, it
has so far been dependent on nationalist mobi-
lization and the threat of ISIS to continue to
act as a rallying point.86 The model was also criticized for being a “delayed Soviet one-
party experiment.87 While the constant alertness and self-sacrice required as part of
the war against ISIS have proven important in sustaining the basis of statebuilding,
it is unclear how the experiment will unfold once the war ends and Rojava starts
building a peace-time administrative system.
Will socialism or radical democracy fare better in mobilizing and directing the
resources of a new state once the rallying and unifying threat is gone? Or will com-
peting religious/conservative movements emerge in peacetime, similar to the urban
and conservative-modernist approach similar to Turkey’s AKP? If Rojava’s experience
in democratic confederalism and canton-style political structures prevail in peace-
time, will this spillover into the KRG, or will both Kurdish enclaves remain cultur-
ally opposite and irreconcilable in their worldview? Also in terms of their diplomatic
orientation, will they ally with the same external power (such as the United States) or
will they sit at the opposite ends, as KRG stays with the U.S. and Rojava comes under
Russian inuence?
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92 | Journal of inTernaTional affairS
This article discussed history, geography, demography, access to waterways, and
oil as some of the key drivers of the Kurds’ near future. Among these drivers, age and
youth are perhaps the most important and will likely to be the most transformative.
The next several decades will witness a global “age divide,” in which rapidly aging
advanced countries will be rendered globally insignicant by the rise of robust man-
power growth in low-income countries. Around the Kurdish Lebensraum too, this age
disparity is fast emerging. As birthrates in Kurdish-dominated regions increase the
youth population in neighboring Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, it brings a number of poten-
tially transformative developments in the form labor and capital relations, political
preferences and state-society relations.
Kurds’ future will remain rmly anchored to their geographic relationship to the
Taurus and Zagros mountains, with the wars in Iraq and Syria enabling them control
of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, thereby rendering the Kurds in charge of how much
water will ow to their Arab neighbors to the south after it passes from Turkey. This
will signicantly increase the Kurds’ bargaining power in Iraqi and Syrian futures. In
terms of resources, while the KRG has politically meaningful amounts of oil and an
exciting natural gas future, its ability to export them depends hugely on Iraqi govern-
ment’s will and which neighboring country will take the risk of exporting it at the
expense of deteriorating relations with Baghdad. So far, this has been Turkey, but once
Rojava unites into a single territorial entity, and reaches the Mediterranean, this may
no longer be required and KRG may choose export its resources through northern
Syria. This, however, depends entirely on whether KRG’s ethnic kinship to Rojava will
trump its Islamic understanding with Turkey.
In terms of how intra-Kurdish rivalries will develop, tribalism, Islam, secularism
and socialism will be the main drivers of political identication and two different
experiments in statebuilding. While the tribal-religious foundations of the KRG made
it a good Turkish and Saudi ally, the same tribalism has prevented state reform and
seen the region slip into a rentier economy. During low oil price periods, KRG will
nd it difcult to sustain itself economically, growing even more dependent on Turkey
or another neighboring country to survive. Rojava, on the other hand, emerged with
the ideal of a more egalitarian and progressive society; yet it is unclear whether these
ideals can be translated into statebuilding and daily administration of its territories
during peace time, much less be sustainable as the responsibilities of standing admin-
istration began to weigh heavily. These two types of Kurdish statebuilding will be the
main source of contestation in the near future.
In Turkey, a collapsed peace process will see a return back to military–PKK con-
ict, whose end is currently unforeseen. While the Turkish government has suggested
the possibility of a return back to the peace process, it is unclear how that will unfold,
or whether it will resume in a way either side expect it to. Most importantly, following
the civilian toll of the security operations, the Kurds in Turkey may grow irreversibly
suspicious of future peace processes and offer more political resistance towards the
type of resolution offered by Ankara. With the Peace and Democracy Party (HDP)
sidelined both by Ankara and the PKK, a political bridge that can legitimately voice
the grievances of the Kurds may be long unforthcoming. This in turn will continue as
an unresolved crisis, with its demographic aspect a ticking time bomb.
Iran will emerge as the least affected country from the new Kurdish awakening.
While PJAK attacks have been easily contained locally in the past, Tehran doesn’t have
substantial defensive vulnerability against the group. Although the Mahabad riots of
May 2015 reminded Iran that its Kurdish question hasn’t yet been resolved fully, with
Iran’s improving international image, there will be much less global interest over Iran’s
Kurdish question. To that end, even though Tehran may choose to brutally suppress
any Iranian Kurdish uprisings and riots, it will either be kept away from the eyes of
the media, or will be overlooked by the world’s diplomatic focus. Moreover, Tehran
may clandestinely choose to support both the PKK and Rojava, given the united
agenda of ghting ISIS and disdain towards Sunni inuence in the region. A Kurdish
belt under Iranian inuence will remain Turkey’s nightmare and will continue to
negatively impact Turkish-Iranian relations. That said, such negative impact has been
going on since the 16th century.
Iraqi Kurds are largely faced with an internal administrative problem, rather than
an external one: how to escape rentierism and tribal politics, moving towards a reform
and progress-oriented future? While KRG is the best-established of all Kurds, with an
autonomous administration, oil reserves and the protection of Turkey and the United
States, it is still not fully on its own feet and will require continued external help and
risk becoming a colony or protectorate. In addition, its future with the Iraqi govern-
ment is in serious question over oil production and exporting rights—a problem that
will likely continue longer. Syrian Kurds, on the other hand, are in great ux, having
carved a larger portion of territory than they historically occupied in Syria. While
Rojava has been a success story in terms of its victories against ISIS, these came at
a very high human and material cost. Unless Rojava fails in uniting its cantons and
push for a Mediterranean opening, it will be a socialist version of the KRG, minus oil
reserves, rendering it weak and externally dependent in the future.
The arrival of Russia into Syria is the main wild card in this calculus. Together
with the Syrian government forces, Russia has been able to weaken the mod-
erate Syrian opposition, which is supported by Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
Territorially, weakening the moderate opposition allows for the uniting of the Rojava
cantons, although it is currently unclear whether Russia will sponsor such a unica-
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tion militarily. Nonetheless Russia, in alliance with Iran, will likely become the main
protectors of Rojava, and by extension, the PKK, YPG, and PYD, including their off-
shoots. With the support of these two regional powers and the relative apathy of the
United States and Europe towards the Russian-Iranian support for Rojava, this may in
fact allow for an autonomous Kurdish statelet in Syria. Whether such support
will include an opening into the Mediterranean remains the biggest question
of them all.
1 Mark Sykes, “The Kurdish Tribes of the Ottoman Empire,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological
Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 38 (July–December 1908), 451-86.
2 Amir Shari, “A Tribute to Sherko Bekas, The Kurdish Poet of the Century,” Rudaw, 12 September
3 M. M. Karim (ed.), Dîwanî Goran: Collection of Poems (Baghdad, 1980).
4 For one of the earlier works that discussed empires and their geographies, see John Pinkerton, Moder n
geography: a description of the empire s, kingdom s, states, and colonies, (John Conrad & Co. Publishers,
180 4).
5 Hakan Özoğlu, Kurdish Notables and the Ottoman State: Evolving Identities, Competing Loyalties,
and Shifting Boundaries, (SUNY Press, 2004); Janet Klein, The Margins of Empire Kurdish Militias in the
Ottoman Tribal Zone, (Stanford University Press, 2011); Ebru Dönmez, İdris-i Bidlisi, Ottoman Kurdistan
and Islamic Legitimacy (Libra, 2014).
6 This policing duty, however, ended up creating the dreaded Alevi massacres and persecution during
Sultan Selim I period (1512–1520). On this, see Matti Moosa, Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects,
(Syracuse University Press, 1987) and Hakan Özoğlu, Kurdish Notables and the Ottoman State: Evolving
Identit ies, Competing Loyalties, and Shif ting Boundaries, (SUNY Press, 2004).
7 Klein, 53.
8 Mehrad R. Izady, The Kurds: A Concise Handbook, (Routledge, 1992), 102-4.
9 Carter Vaughn Findley, Turkey, Islam, Nationalism and Modernity: A History (Yale University Press,
2011), 78-81.
10 Klein, 88-9.
11 Hakan Özoğlu, “Nationalism and Kurdish Notables in the Late Ottoman–Early Republican Era,”
International Journal of Middle East Studies 33, no. 3 (August 2001), 383-409.
12 Klein, 103-4.
13 Fatma Müge Göçek, Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present, and Collective Violence
against the Armenians, 1789-2009 (Oxford University Press, 2014), 131.
14 Michael Reynolds, “Abdürrezzak Bedirhan: Ottoman Kurd and Russophile in the Twilight of Empire,”
Kritik a: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 12, no. 2 (Spring 2011), 411-50.
15 Robert I. Rotberg, When States Fail: Causes and Consequences, (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 2003), 7-11.
16 In terms such as ‘horizontal’ or ‘vertical competition,’ I refer to ‘societal security dilemma’ – under
the scope of the Copenhagen School and rst mentioned in Paul Roe, Ethnic Violence and the Societal
Security Dilemma (Routledge, 2014); Anthony Vinci, “Anarchy, Failed States and Armed Groups:
Reconsidering Conventional Analysis,International Studies Quarterly 52, no. 2 (June 2008), 295-314.
17 Aaron Lund, “What if no one is winning the war in Syria?” Carnegie Endowment for International
Peace, May 28, 2015.
18 Michael J. Mazarr, “The Rise and Fall of the Failed-State Paradigm: Requiem for a Decade of
Distraction,Foreign Affairs, January/February 2014; Francis Fukuyama, “The Imperative of State-
Building,” Journal of Democracy 15, no. 2, April 2004; Stephen D. Krasner and Carlos Pascual,
“Addressing State Failure,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2005.
19 Gerald B. Helman and Steven R. Ratner, “Saving Failed States,” Foreign Policy, June 2010.
20 Mehran Kamrava et al., “Fragile Politics: Weak States in the Greater Middle East,” Working Group
Summary Repor t No: 11, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Qatar, 2014.
21 “US reinforcements arrive in Kirkuk,” CNN, War in Iraq Special Report, April 11, 2003.
22 Bill Park, “Turkey, the US and the KRG: Moving Parts and the Geopolitical Realities,” Insight Turkey
14, no. 3 (2012), 109-25.
23 Frances Romero, “George W. Bush and the Axis of Evil,” Time, January 25, 2011.
24 Lionel Beehner, “Iran’s Goals in Iraq,” Backgrounder Report, Council on Foreign Relations, February
23, 2006,
25 Bayram Sin kaya, “Iran–K RG relations within the grip of distrust,” ORSAM Foreign Policy Analysis,
July 2015,
26 Kamal Chomani, “Turkey, Iran inuence Iraqi Kurdistan politics,” Al-Monitor, November 22, 2013;
Soner Çağaptay and Zeynep Eroğlu, “The PKK, PJAK and Iran: Omplications for US-Turkish Relations,”
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policywatch no. 1244.
27 Michael Knights, “Making the Iraqi Revenue-Generating Deal Work,” The Washington Institute for
Near East Policy, Policywatch no. 2341.
28 “Center for Kirkuk Referendum Operations,” Georgetown University,
29 Jack A. Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World, (Oakland: University
of California Press, 1991); Gary Fuller, The Demographic Backdrop to Ethnic Conict: A Geographic
O ver vi ew,” The Challenge of Ethnic Conict to National and International Order in the 1990s, (CIA,
1991), 151–54.
30 Gunnar Heinsohn and Otto Steiger, Witchcraft , Population Catastrophe and Economic Crisis in
Renaissance Europe: An Alternative Macroeconomic Explanation, (University of Bremen, 2004) and
Gunnar Heinsohn, Söhne und Weltmacht, Terror im Aufst ieg und Fall der Nat ionen, (Orell Füssli, 2005).
31 “Iraq: Protests Spread to Kurdistan,” Inter Press Service, February 17, 2011,
32 Nicole F. Watts, “A Sulaymaniyah Spring,” LSE Blogs, June 14, 2012,
33 “Talabani acknowledges protesters and MP vote on their demands,”, March 18, 2011.
34 Kadri Gürsel, “The Arab Spring, the Kurdish Summer,” Hurriyet Daily News, April 11, 2011.
35 “Iranian troops attack Kurdish PJAK rebel bases in Iraq,” BBC News, July 18, 2011.
36 Chris Zambelis, “The Factors Behind Rebellion in Iranian Kurdistan,” Combating Terrorism Center,
West Point, March 1, 2011.
37 Assad ordered killing of Kurdish activist Mashaal Tammo: Leaked Files,” Al Arabiya News, October
10, 2012.
38 Rezhen Harun, Iulia Mureşan, Felix Arion, and Diana Dumitraş, “The State Fact of the Rural Area of
the Kurdistan Regional Government, Bulletin UASVM Horticulture 72, no. 1 (2015).
TranSnaTional KurdiSh poliTiCS
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39 “İstatistiklerle Gençlik (Youth in Statistics),” Turkish Statistical Institute, 2014,
40 Çiçek Tahaoğlu, “Metina Kampında Bir Gece,” Bia Haber Merkezi, Mayıs 15, 2013,
41 David Romano, The Kurdish Nationalist Movement: Opportunity, Mobilization and Ident ity (New
York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 129.
42 Tarhan Erdem, “Türkiye’li Kürtler Ne Kadar?” Radikal, Nisan 18, 2013,
yazarlar/tarhan-erdem /turkiyeli-kurtler-ne-kadar-1130023/; “Kurdistan Region of Iraq 2020: A Vision for
the Future,” Ministry of Planning, Kurdistan Regional Government, September 2013,
krd/resources/MoP%20Files/ Newsletter/kurdistan_region_of_iraq_2020_new.pdf.
43 “PKK’nın yeni stratejisi: Şehir gerillacılığı,” Timeturk, Eylül 8, 2015,
44 “Dördüncü Stratejik Mücadele Dönemi – 3: Devrimci Halk Savaşının Güç Aldığı Koşullar,”
Serxwebun, 2010,
45 Friedrich Ratzel, The History of Mankind, (London: MacMillan, 1896).
46 Eren Pultar, “Türkiye’de Kaç Kürt Yaşıyor?” T24, January 31, 2011,
kac-kurt-yasiyor,124914; Birgit Ammann, “Kurds in Germany,” Encyclopedia of Diasporas (New York:
Springer, 2005), 1011-19.
47 Joost Jongerden, “Dams and politics in Turkey: Utilizing water, developing Conict,” Middle East
Policy XVII, no. 1 (Spring 2010).
48 “Davutoğlu’ndan Fırat’ın batısı açıklaması,” A-Haber, December 28, 2015,
gundem/2015/12/28/davutoglundan-ratin-batisi-aciklamasi; “Syria Democratic Forces Seize Over Tashrin
Dam And Prepares For Menbij Battle,” Qasioun News, December 26, 2015.
49 Jack Moore, “Turkey Proposes Syria Safe Zone in Returning for Cooperation with EU on refugee
crisis,” Newsweek, September 25, 2015.
50 “Forced Displacement and Arabization of Northern Iraq,” Human Rights Watch, August 2004, https://
51 Ismet Cheriff Vanly, “The Kurds in Syria and Lebanon,” in Philip G. Kreyenbroek and Stefan Sperl
(ed s.), The Kurds: A Contemporar y Overview (London; New York: Routledge, 2005), 123.
52 “Charter of the Social Contract in Rojava,” Kurdish Institute of Brussels, February 7, 2014, http://; Nuray Mert, “The Erdoğan-Barzani alliance: A
Turkish policy classic,” Hurriyet Daily News, November 18, 2013.
53 “MLKP de IŞİD’e karşı YPG saarına katıldı,” Milliyet, August 26, 2014,
54 Mutlu Çiviroğlu, “Rojava’daki kitlesel göç ve nedenleri,” Radikal Blog, August 26, 2013, http://blog.
55 “Davutoğlu: Bizim için PKK ile YPG ve PYD arasında fark yoktur,” Ulusal Kanal, January 26,
tur-h89824.html; John Beck, “Turkey’s Most Wanted: VICE News meets PKK leader Cemil Bayik,” Vice
News, January 22, 2016.
56 “Başbakan Davutoğlu: Terör örgütü PYD’nin masaya oturmasına karşıyız,” Anadolu Ajansı, January
25, 2016.
57 “Biden: PYD, PKK’den ayrı,”, January 22, 2016,
tu rkey/220120164.
58 Jeremy Bender, “Syrian Kurds are coordinating US-led airstrikes against ISIS with Google Maps and
Samsung tablets,” Business Insider, August 10, 2015.
59 Güney Yıldız, “Kobani, PKK ve barış süreci için neden önemli?” BBC Türkçe, October 1, 2014.
60 Frederich Wehrey, “The Battle for Kobani, Turkey and US Strategy against ISIS,”, Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace, October 13, 2014,
61 “Kobani protestoları: Olaylarda en az 12 kişi öldü,” BBC Türkçe, October 8, 2014.
62 It is the view of the author that the full text of the speech indicates that he was in fact criticizing over-
reliance on airstrikes without ground support as a problematic way of relieving Kobani. However, the tone
and style of the speech was rather perceived by the embattled Kurds as deliberate passivity and even as
tacit enjoyment from the fall of the town. Since President Erdoğan did not clarify this point later, the state-
ment is still seen as a support for the fall of Kobani, but the author partly disagrees with this view.
63 “Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan: Kobani’yle Türkiye’nin ne ilgisi var,” Radikal, October 11, 2014, http://
64 Cengiz Çandar, “Erdoğan’ın Kobani’de anlayamadığı, göremediği,” Radikal, October 25, 2014, http://
65 Yusuf Özkan, “El Kaide’ye silahın belgesi’ Hollanda Hükümetinde,” BBC Tü rkçe, January 17, 2015.
66 “Çözüm Süreci’nin Selameti Kobani’ye bağlı,” Al Jazeera Türk, October 2, 2014, http://www.
67 “Karayılan: Süreç Bitti,” Milliyet, September 23, 2014,
68 The PKK has in fact attempted to take a foothold in eastern Black Sea region, as a part of its so-called
‘Black Sea Initiative.’ In 2015, small groups of PKK militants reportedly clashed with the Jandarma forces
in Giresun and Tokat, eventually being killed or withdrawing from the region. PKK attempted a similar
territorial expansion in the late 1990s as small bands of PKK militants attempted to control and divert
Black Sea bound opium and heroin trade. For one of such reports, see: “Karadeniz’de PKK hareketliliği,”
Sabah, August 4, 2015,
69 Aron Lund, “Syria’s Kurds at the center of America’s Anti-Jihadi Strategy,” Carnegie Endowment
for International Peace, December 2, 2015; Aron Lund, “Origins of the Syrian Democratic Forces: A
Pr imer,” Syria Deeply, January 22, 2016,
70 Aron Lund, “Taking the October Dam: Syria’s Kurds Keep Hitting the Islamic State,” Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace, December 28, 2015.
71 “Operasyonların sürdüğü Cizre’den vatandaşlar kaçıyor,” Hürriyet, January 1, 2016. http://www.hur-
72 Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How
We Live, Work, and Think, (Eamon Dolan/Mariner Books: 2014), 2; Michael Cox and David Ellsworth,
Application-controlled demand paging for out-of-core visualization,” VIS ‘97 Proceedings of the 8th
Conference on Visualization, 199, 235; James Manyika, Michael Chui, Brad Brown, Jacques Bughin,
Richard Dobbs, Charles Roxburgh, Angela Hung Byers, “Big data: The next frontier for innovation, com-
petition, and productivity,McKinsey Global Institute, 2011.
73 Methodology of the heat map study: This study renders open source web-based content in Arabic,
Farsi, Kurdish, Turkish and English into coherent catalogued infor mation. In doing so, the EQLIM engine
handles a very large dataset and processes through a specially-designated software, along with hardware
that can handle the large dataset.
In this study we used the following variables:
Groups: Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) - Hêzên Parastina Gel, HPG
(People’s Defence Forces) - Yekîneyên Jinên Azad ên Star, YJA STAR (Free Women’s Units) - Koma
Civakên Kurdistan, KCK (Group of Communities in Kurdistan) - Teyrênbazê Azadiya Kurdistan, TAK
(Kurdistan Freedom Falcons) - Par tiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, PYD (Democratic Union Party – Syria)
- Tevgera Ciwanen Welatparêz Yên Şoreşger, YDG-H (Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement) -
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Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG (People’s Protection Units) - Yekîneyên Parastina Jin, YPJ (Women’s
Protection Units) - Yekîtiya Nîştimanî ya Kurdistanê, PUK (The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) - Partiya
Demokrat a Kurdistanê, KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) - Encûmena Niştimanî ya Kurdî li Sûriyê,
KNC (Kurdish National Council) - Peshmerga (Pêşmerge) - Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê, PJAK or
HRK (Party of Free Life of Kurdistan) - Hêzên Parastina Jinê, HPJ (Women’s Defence Forces) - Yekîneyên
Parastina Rojhilatê Kurdistan, YRK (East Kurdistan Defense Units) - Yekîneyên Berxwedana Şengalê,
YPŞ (Sinjar Resistance Units) - Parastin u Zanyari (Protection and Information – KRG ofcial intelli-
gence) - Quwwāt Sūriyā al-Dīmuqrāṭīya, SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces)
Names: Murat Karayılan - Cemil Bayık - Bese Hozat - Bahoz Erdal (Fehman Huseyn) - So Nurettin -
Zubeyir Aydar - Salih Muslim - Sipan Hemo - Giwan Ibrahim - Roshna Akeed - Masoud Barzani - Jalal
Incidents: aerial_attack, armed_clash, border_incident, chemical_attack, drone_strike, espionage, explo-
sion, military _exercise, military_operation, sabotage, shelling, shooting, curfew, protest, riots, road_
blockade, assassination, bomb_defusal, corruption, kidnapping, security _incident, security_operation,
smuggling, air_trafc_disruption, food_shortage, pipeline_damage, pipeline_shutdown, diplomatic_rela-
Date range: 1 February 2014–2 Februar y 2016.
74 This was increased to 60 billion barrels, although an independent verication is still not conducted.
“Country Analysis Brief: Iraq,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, January 30, 2015, https://www.
75 “KRG gas enough for needs of Turkey and Europe,” Hurriyet, November 29, 2015.
76 Serhat Erkmen, “Key Factors for Understandig Political Dynamics in Norhtern Iraq: A Study of
Change in the Region,” Uluslararası Hukuk ve Politika 8, no. 31 (2012), 83-102.
77 Ofra Bengio, “Introduction,” in Ofra Bengio (ed.), Kurdish Awakening Nat ion Building in a
Fragmented Homeland (University of Texas Press: 2014), 7.
78 Metin Gürcan, “Arming civilians as a counterterror strategy: The case of the village guard system
in Turkey,” Journal of Asymmetric Conict 8, no. 1 (2015); “120 aşiretten PKK’ya tarihi çağrı,” Milliyet,
September 1, 2015,
79 Güllistan Yarkın, “The ideological transformation of the PKK regarding the political economy of the
Kurdish region in Turkey,” Kurdish Studies 3, no: 1 (2015), 26–46.
80 Aliza Marcus, Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence (New York: New
York University Press, 2007), 244.
81 Abdullah Öcalan, Prison Writings: The PKK and the Kurdish Question in the 21st Century (London:
Transmedia Books, 2011), part 2, chapter 6.
82 Michael A. Cook (ed.), Studies in the Economic History of the Middle East (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1970); Giacomo Luciani (ed.), The Arab State (Oakland: University of Califor nia Press,
83 David McDowall, A Modern Histor y of the Kurds (I.B. Tauris, 2004), 385
84 Ayhan Üçok and Bryan Thomson, “The Kurdish Connection: The Iraqi Nexus and Regional
Implications,” Bipartisan Policy Center, September 24, 2015,
85 Amberin Zaman, “Is the KRG heading for bankr uptcy?”. Al-Monitor, January 20, 2016. http://www.
86 Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical
Democratic Politics, (London; New York: Verso Books, 2001).
87 Şener Aktürk, “The PKK and PYD’s Kurdish Soviet Experiment in Syria and Turkey, Daily Sabah,
January 27, 2016,
... The oil reserves in Rojava and the KRG are vastly unequal. Estimates put the amount of oil in the KRG between 30 and 60 billion barrels making it the eighth largest oil holder in the world (Khorshid, 2014;Ünver, 2016). According to the United States Energy Information Administration (2015), Syria has 2.5 billion barrels of oil under its ground. ...
... The Kurdish population lived in the borderlands of the Empire and were given their autonomy in exchange for serving as defense units. This formal autonomy as negotiated with the Ottoman Empire was structured through the Bitlisî policies (Klein, 2011;Ünver, 2016). The Bitlisî policies fell apart following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. ...
This paper argues that sociological analysis of social movements has undertheorized non/anti-state social movements. It is argued that an alternative modality of resistance to that of movements seeking reform through the state or the capture of state power through revolution is to exit the world-system and set up parallel structures of governance and production. A conjunctural inter-regional comparison is taken up in order to map the inter-scalar and historical causal factors that led to exit-with-autonomy in Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) and autonomy-without-exit in Iraqi Kurdistan (Kurdish Regional Government). The paper shows that in order to exit the world-system social movement actors in Rojava used strategic loyalty bargains and political voice at specific historical conjunctures in order to maintain their movement and seize on non-state political opportunities. These same non-state political opportunities were not available for the social movement actors hoping to exit the world-system in the Kurdish Regional Government.
... This strategic shift in the PKK's battlefield tactics reflected tensions between the armed and political wings of the broader Kurdish nationalist movement, as the former developed a sense of overconfidence due to its military successes in Syria ( Ercan 2019 ). This development greatly aggravated Turkish security concerns ( Parlar Dal 2016 ;Ünver 2016 ). In this context, the Turkish government perceived the formation of militant groups in Kurdish-populated cities as a possible rehearsal for PKK governance within its boundaries ( BBC 2014 ;ICG 2017 ). ...
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Under what conditions do states pursue counterinsurgency measures with little disregard for civilian life? This article argues that the states have an incentive to engage in group-selective violence involving disproportionate force when facing a local population sympathetic to an armed insurgent organization. Such a military strategy allows the state to punish the local population while claiming that civilian casualties are an unintended consequence of its counterinsurgency campaign. Using a nuanced measurement of civilian victimization that transcendences the dichotomous distinction between intentional and unintentional killings, this study focuses on the Kurdish conflict in Turkey. The empirical analyses, based on an original violent events dataset, demonstrate that the Turkish state’s counterinsurgency campaign involves group-selective violence characterized by disproportionate force that aims to neutralize domestic and international reactions, punishes dissident political mobilization, and brandishes the government’s nationalist credentials to the majority population.
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This essay focuses on the dynamic role of material culture in reflecting indi-viduals' identities. It aims to highlight the importance of making and remaking material objects and examines the emotional impacts of objects. It also places on the individual's identities by drawing on the interplay of "posthumanism" and "nonessentialist" standpoints. For this study, three research participants, two male and one female, narrated their stories and explained how their identities had been influenced by the objects they used and the places they visited. The analysis in this essay is part of a larger project that looks at identity negotiation and navigation within a group of Iraqi Kurdish migrants in the United Kingdom. The findings reveal a robust association between humans, material possessions, and places. Hitherto, neither persons nor objects can withstand alone since the two function together and are intertwined in many respects. They are associated with deep emotional investment and powerfully influence an individual's identity, emotions, and well-being. To the participants, objects are material capsules that make places "sticky"; they are a connecting product that links the feeling, sites, and landscapes from the past in establishing a better future.
A significant feature of Kurdish history over the last several decades has been the proclivity of the Kurds for ethnic mobilization. The socio‐political incentives that lead to the mobilization of different Kurdish sub‐groups are usually complex and occasionally serve ambiguous political aspirations. To unpack such complexities, as the title of this paper suggests, it is useful to add an additional analytical lens to the common centre‐periphery approach (i.e. state nationalism vs. Kurdish resistance) by focusing on the mobilization incentives within the local context. To do so, the paper presents an ethnographic study of the social processes that shape the dynamics of Kurdish mobilization in the multi‐ethnic city of Urmia in northwestern Iran, where Kurmanji‐speaking Kurds live together with Azerbaijani Turks and in close proximity to Sorani‐speaking Iranian Kurds. The paper argues that the mobilization incentives for the Kurmanji‐speaking Kurds in the local context of Urmia often serve contradictory political ends, ranging from denial of the Kurdish nation at the inter‐ethnic layer to dividing it at the intra‐ethnic layer, and romanticizing it at the transnational layer. The broader contribution of this paper is to elucidate how these different and sometimes contradictory forms of ethnic mobilization are able to coexist, given that they are all characterized by the same emancipatory force – ‘a politico‐symbolic struggle over power and prestige’, in Bourdieu's terminology.
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Kürt sorunu, hangi perspektiften bakıldığının önemi olmaksızın her şart altında bölgesel bir sorun olduğu hâlde, istisnasız hep devletlerin iç meselesi olarak görüldü. Bölgesel dinamikleri dahil etme çabalarında bile hakkında fikir yürütülen mesele çoğunlukla “dışarının içeriye etkisi” ile sınırlı oldu. Bu rapor, Kürt sorununun anlaşılmasının, sorunun jeopolitik, bölgesel ve küresel boyutlarıyla beraber tarihselliğiyle ele alınmasıyla, sadece siyasi aktörlerin değil etkilenen öznelerin ve toplumsal kesimlerin de hesaba katılmasıyla mümkün olabileceği savından hareketle yazıldı. Raporda, “Kürt siyasal alanı”nın iç dinamikleri ve bu dinamiklerin 2000’lerin başından beri nasıl bir dönüşüm geçirdiği, bu dönüşümün jeopolitik boyutları da hesaba katılarak tartışmaya açılıyor.
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Although the Kurdish question inarguably is a regional issue, regardless of whatever perspective we may take, it has invariably been considered as an internal matter of states. Even efforts to factor in regional dynamics have largely been limited to contemplating the “outside’s influence on the inside.” This report suggests that if we want to understand the Kurdish question it is necessary for us to consider its historicality in conjunction with its geopolitical, regional and global dimensions and take into account not only the political actors but also the subjects and social segments affected by it. From this vantage point, the report discusses the internal dynamics of the “Kurdish political space” and their transformation since the beginning of the 2000s, while also addressing the geopolitical dimensions of this transformation.
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Bu çalışma, Birinci Dünya Savaşı’ndan sonraki dönemde Iraklı Kürtlerin bağımsızlık arayışları sırasında karşılaştığı zorluklara odaklanmaktadır. Kürtlerin bu arayışları, Uluslararası İlişkilerde neden-sonuç odaklı analizlerde sıklıkla başvurulan anlatısal- açıklamacılık yöntemi kullanılarak dört ayrı dönemde incelenmiştir. Bunlardan ilki, Irak’ta İngiliz Manda yönetiminin egemen olduğu 1920’li yıllardan itibaren Baas rejimi hakimiyetinin konsolide edildiği 1970’li yılların sonuna kadar geçen dönemi kapsamaktadır. Bu dönemde Kürtler ilk olarak, İngiltere’nin daha önceki desteğinin aksine bağımsızlık yolundaki engellemeleri ile karşılaşmışlardır. 1930’larda Irak’ın Milletler Cemiyeti’ne üyelik sürecinde Bağdat, Kürtlerin haklarını tanıyacağı vaadinde bulunsa da kayda değer bir adım atmamıştır. 1950’li ve 1960’lı yıllarda ise muhalif gruplar, Irak’ta iktidarı ele geçirince Kürtlerle aralarına mesafe koymuşlardır. Kürtler son olarak, İran’dan destek almış fakat Bağdat ve Tahran arasında yapılan bir antlaşmayla bu destek sona erince, Irak Kürt hareketi dağılma noktasına gelmiştir. İran-Irak Savaşı ve Körfez Savaşı’nın yaşandığı 1980’ler ve 1990’lar çalışmada ele alınan ikinci dönemdir. Kürtler, İran-Irak Savaşı sırasında Tahran’ın desteğiyle bazı bölgelerde kontrolü ele geçirseler de Bağdat’ın bu işbirliğine tepki olarak başlattığı operasyonlar ve uluslararası toplumun bu operasyonlara yeterli duyarlılığı göstermemesi sonucunda ciddi bir yıkım yaşamışlardır. Her seferinde reel-politikle acı bir şekilde yüzleşmenin yol açtığı hayal kırıklıkları devam ederken Körfez Savaşı sonrası yaşanan gelişmeler, Iraklı Kürtlerin önüne fiili olarak özerk bir bölgeyi yönetme fırsatı çıkarmıştır. Ancak, yoğun Kürt nüfusa sahip bölge ülkelerinin reel-politik kaygıları ve Kürtlerin kendi içindeki rekabeti, daha güçlü bir statü elde etmeyi imkânsız kılmıştır. 2003’te Saddam Hüseyin’in devrilmesi sonrasındaki dönem, çalışmanın üçüncü bölümünü oluşturmaktadır. Irak Kürt bölgesinin anayasal bir nitelik kazandığı ve Kürt liderlerin başka ülkelerde diplomatik teamüllere uygun bir şekilde ağırlanmaya başladığı bu dönemde, merkezi hükümetle gelirlerin paylaşımı ve tartışmalı bölgelerin durumu konusunda yaşanan gerilimler, önemli bir sorun alanı olarak kalmıştır. Çalışmada son olarak 2014’teki DAEŞ saldırıları sonrası başlayan ve 2017’deki bağımsızlık referandumuyla sona eren sürece değinilmektedir. Uluslararası toplumun desteğiyle bu tehdinin bertaraf edilmesi, Irak Kürtlerini bağımsızlık konusunda cesaretlendirse de Bağdat ve bölgede etkin olan diğer güçlerin söz konusu referanduma karşı çıkmaları bu süreci akamete uğratmıştır. Tüm bu süreçler, bölge içi ve bölge dışı aktörlerin reel-politik yaklaşımlarının, Kürtlerin bağımsızlık taleplerinin gerçekleşmesinin önündeki en önemli engel olduğunu göstermektedir.
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The primary goal of the paper is to examine how the Turkish and Russian Governments are using the term terrorist in their diplomatic communication towards the Syrian conflict. Following the introduction, the study outlines the theoretical framework – namely the securitisation theory –, then presents a concept of terrorism, which is focusing on the instrumentalisation of the terrorist label in discursive processes. Henceforward, the paper attempts to accomplish the aforementioned goal by examining the Turkish and Russian security discourses on two interrelated issues of the Syrian war: Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring in October 2019, and the Russian–Syrian offensive codenamed Operation Dawn of Idlib between April 2019 and March 2020. Based on the detailed analysis of relevant speeches and articles given or written by high-ranking Russian and Turkish diplomats, the paper displays how the two states justified their military interventions, defined their own roles, and framed the non-governmental actors involved in the conflicts. According to the conclusion of the author, despite the numerous similarities in their discourses, Turkey and Russia define oppositely, who is, and who is not a terrorist in Syria, which constitutes a major collision point between their geostrategic perspectives.
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When founded in 1978, the PKK defined itself as a socialist movement aiming to create a classless society through the formation of a new state-power. In the 1990s, the ideology of the PKK began to change and this transformation became apparent in the 2000s. The PKK has since completely abandoned its statist Marxist-Leninist national liberationist ideology, and has instead proposed to build "democratic modernity" through the creation of an anti-capitalist, anti-industrialist, women emancipatory and ecologist "democratic confederalism" framework. This project defines the ecologist-rural communes grounded on food sovereignty as its basic economic units. This article argues that the transformation of the PKK's goals on the political economy of the Kurdish region is shaped by, on the one hand, the world systemic and internal restraints acting upon the PKK, and on the other hand, the ideological responses of the PKK to those restraints.
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The rural area of Kurdistan region has specific characteristics and faces many challenges. The rural space of Kurdistan is affected by poverty, and the farmers are dealing with many problems and they hardly survive. The Kurdistan Region is located SW of Asia and NE of Iraq and is composed of three governorates: Erbil (Hawler), Suleimani, and Duhok, located within the northern part of the Federal Republic of Iraq (Iraqi Constitution, Article 62). The aim of the paper is to analyze the current situation of the rural region of KRG (Kurdistan Region Government) in order to propose new solution for sustainable development of the area. For the purpose of the paper a survey was conducted during June-September 2012. The collected data were analyzed for each of the three governorates, and for each of the precipitation zones (A zone and B zone). The results of the field research show that the rural population of Kurdistan has an average age less than 26 years old. And at the same time is highly suffering from a lack of education which is higher in the case of older people. More than a quarter (28.45%) is illiterate, while almost 30% graduated only the primary school, meaning that they having the basic knowledge of reading and writing. The number of people not educated in zone B is one quarter higher than in zone A. The results of the survey revealed the necessity for improving the specific conditions for sustainable development in the research area.
In a remarkable turnaround, Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government have recently emerged as close partners in a region increasingly characterized by uncertainty. They share a discomfort with the centralizing inclinations of Baghdad's current government, a stake in seeing an end to the PKK's campaign of violence, and a preference for greater unity between the various forces opposing the Assad regime in Syria. Their economies are increasingly interlocked, and the KRG's emergence as a significant producer of energy is of benefit to both parties. Furthermore, the Ankara-Erbil relationship is one that serves Washington's regional interests and perspectives well. However, serious differences remain. Iraqi Kurds still aspire to incorporate Kirkuk, and support greater autonomy for the Kurds of Turkey and Syria too. Turkey's support for Erbil could unintentionally help produce greater Kurdish autonomy throughout the region. This article explores some of the possible ramifications of the burgeoning Ankara-Erbil relationship.
There are currently more than 60,000 Kurdish village guards in a system that has been fighting against the PKK in Turkey for almost three decades. This article offers the first evaluation of the effectiveness of the village guard system as a counterterror strategy. I argue that the village guards in Turkey proved their effectiveness as a deterrence-based and territory-focused counter-terror strategy between 1985 and 1999. From 1999 onwards, however, when the nature of the conflict changed, the costs of the village guard system in the political and socio-psychological domain have exceeded its value in the security domain. Evaluation of the village guard system in Turkey provides insights which may be useful in considering the formation of local militias in conflict zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
In today's interconnected world, weak and failed states pose an acute risk to U.S. and global security. Anticipating, averting, and responding to conflict requires more planning and better organization - precisely the missions of the State Department's new Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization.