Schrodinger's Kurds: transnational Kurdish geopolitics in the age of shifting borders.

AuthorUnver, H. Akin

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.


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 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 influence of Moscow over the Syrian Kurds, all follow a certain geographic structure. Similar geopolitical continuities factor into how Turkey and Iran cooperated or conflicted 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 weakening in Syria and Iraq, which subsequently allows the Kurds to get chances in statehood 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 influences 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 first 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 politics through the use of geographic designations has become somewhat of a regular practice.

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 unification attempts in the succeeding century. Still, the geopolitical approach towards studying the transnational Kurdish awakening may be criticized for various reasons. First, geopolitics may be interpreted as geographic determinism and thus be criticized as disregarding the impact of agency of the Kurdish question. Second, a geopolitical approach may be considered to be "buried in the 20th century," reflecting 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-identified 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 influence 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 [section]erko Bekes (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 murdered, a month whose week was murdered, a day whose hours were murdered. 'The Cross, the Snake, the Diary of a Poet (2) [FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Another famous Kurdish poet, Abdullah Goran, also frequently defined 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 silvery twilights Reflecting on evening snows, My ears are habituated to the music of your waterfalls Pouring down from high quarters above snow to green landscapes. My tongue bloomed with your beautiful speech, With words of your mountain songs, The words of folk tales told around fireplaces, The words of your children's lullabies. When blood stirs in my veins, It does so under the power of your love, I know. (3) In traditional geopolitical view, the Kurds are connected to and identified 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 flatland 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 formation of principalities and emirates that have come under the control of, or became part of the rivalry between, larger power sources in surrounding flatlands: 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 Ozoglu, Janet Klein, and Ebru Sonmez, 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 flatlands. 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 Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub (1174-93) could be considered the first attempt to bring Kurdish tribes together, this was short-lived. Rather, the polarization of the Kurdish homeland assumed a more structural character first, when the Kurdish homeland was divided between the Ottoman and Safavid Empires following the Battle of Chaldiran in the 16th century.

The Ottomans in turn established the...

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