Over the weekend, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) posted a letter on its web site from its president, Masoud Barzani. The message garnered little attention outside the region, but its content is significant.
In the message, Barzani announced that he was ordering representatives from Iraqi Kurdistan to travel to Syria in order to investigate reports that “terrorists of al-Qaeda are attacking the civilian population and slaughtering innocent women and children.” More significantly, he went on to promise that if the reports were found to be accurate, the KRG would “make use of all of its capabilities” to defend Syrian Kurds against this threat. (The letter was posted to the Kurdish and Arabic versions of the KRG web site, but not to the English version. Translated excerpts can be found here and here.)
Of course, this promise to make use of all KRG capabilities does not mean that an incursion into Syria by its organic military force, the Peshmerga, is imminent. But some sort of action is not as improbable as it might seem. To be sure, such action in the near-term is likely to be limited to issuing public statements like this one, or perhaps to boosting assistance to Syrian Kurdish refugees. But the KRG has been known to maintain Peshmerga forces beyond its borders in Kurdish-populated territory in Iraq, so the possibility of cross-border operations certainly exists. The underlying motivation that could lead to such an action is captured in a report on Iraqi Kurdistan’s security forces by U.S. Army Colonel Dennis Chapman. Peshmerga deployment outside the KRG’s formal area of authority, Chapman argues, indicates “an implied task of securing Kurdish communities not under the formal jurisdiction of the KRG where populations are deemed to be under threat.”
So what if this implied task is not limited to protecting Iraqi Kurds, but extends to Kurds in Syria, as well? Or those in Turkey and Iran, for that matter? The substance of Barzani’s message suggests that this is the case, and it exposes why an overemphasis on the “geo” component in geopolitical analysis can yield an inadequate conceptualization of world events. Geography does matter—particularly state borders. But so too do myriad other factors: ethnicity, religion, and language, to name but a few.
At first glance, the notion of an “implied task” to protect populations beyond the territory over which the KRG governs might appear to challenge a core principle of realism—that states are the principal actors in international affairs. But Barzani’s ostensible willingness to act on behalf of a foreign population does not suggest that ours is now a post-Westphalian world in which states no longer matter. It isn’t, and they do. States remain the primary actors both participating in and shaping world events. But the ways in which they perceive themselves and terms in which they define their interests matter. And these considerations are not driven exclusively by geography, particularly in the Middle East, which is marked by a pair of characteristics that diminish the relative influence of geography and borders on politics and regional affairs: (1) political boundaries do not reflect the realities of ethnic or religious dispersion across a region; and (2) citizenship of a particular state is only a peripheral component of individuals’ identity formation compared to those of tribe, ethnicity, religious sect, language, and other attributes.
The first characteristic is largely a function of the arbitrary borders left as a legacy of the colonial era. In fact, the incongruities of Middle Eastern borders are so fundamentally problematic that redrawing them to create states with generally homogenous populations has been mooted as a means of introducing stability into a region that has long lacked it. Of course, redrawing Middle Eastern borders on such a scale is unrealistic—little more than a theoretical exercise—but it demonstrates how geography’s explanatory capacity is limited in a region where the political geography itself makes little sense.
The second characteristic is most prevalent in places historically rife with conflict, during which ethnic, tribal, and religious associations are central because such relationships are counted on for security. These attributes unsurprisingly become a central component of identity formation. This helps explain the responsibility Barzani evidently feels for the protection of Syrian Kurds. A shared sense of historical persecution unites Kurds across a number of countries. It is only natural, then, that the leader of a state of which ethnicity is a defining component (Kurdistan) would define the responsibilities and interests of his state-like polity in terms heavily shaded by ethnicity.
Yes, geography is important. But so are other considerations. And because borders will not be redrawn, and ethnically and religiously driven conflict will remain common across large swathes of the globe, these other considerations will continue to be critical elements of any accurate understanding of international affairs. Geopolitical analysis can only go so far in making sense of the world, particularly complex regions like the Middle East.
John Amble is the Managing Editor of War on the Rocks.
Photo Credit: Chris De Bruyn