The end of National Sovereignty in the Middle East? Iraqi Kurdistan sends troops into Syria

By Juan Cole:

Al-Manar reports that the legislature of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (a super-province of Iraq) has voted to send Kurdistan forces to the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane to help it fight off a concerted attack by ISIL. The vote opens the way for Iraqi Kurdistan to intervene in the Syrian civil war. Turkey is alleged to have agreed to let the Peshmerga cross Turkish territory which is quite remarkable.

I am linking to the al-Manar article on all this because it is the organ in Lebanon of Hizbullah, the Shiite party-militia that has also intervened in the Syrian civil war, on the side of the government of Bashar al-Assad.

One of the peculiarities of Syria is that it is seeing paramilitaries of sub-state governments getting involved in its war.

Does this development tell us something about the contemporary Middle East? In global law since the Peace of Westphalia, states are supposed to rule specific territories and to be inviolable in those territories. Max Weber, writing in the early 20th century, saw the state as having a monopoly on the use of force.

But in Lebanon the government and its military are dominant only at the national level, whereas Hizbullah is recognized as the national guard of the south of the country (to forestall further Israeli occupations.) Hizbullah intervened in Syria at Qusayr, without any consent from the Lebanese government.

Likewise, the Iraqi constitution recognizes Kurdistan as nearly autonomous (but not quite). It has its own armed forces, the Peshmerga, and it forbids central Iraqi government troops from setting foot on the soil of Kurdistan. Now the Kurdistan paramilitary plans to fight in a hot war in a neighboring country, with no authorization from the Iraqi government.

Moreover, there are multiple layers of governance in Syria itself, such that these sub-state interventions are even possible.

So the states of the Middle East have substates, and these substates are semi-autonomous in their international decision-making, and are virtually autonomous in their military interventions.

It would be like Montana sending National Guard units over into Canada to stop a feud there.

National sovereignty is severely challenged in the region today, with semi-autonomous regions and even political entities fighting in other countries’ civil conflicts.


Reuters: “Homesick and horrified – Syrian Kurds watch Kobani burn”

29 Responses

  1. More like the beginning of national sovereignty for Kurdistan. Seems about time.

  2. What is going on with the Turkish government’s attitude both to ISIL and the KRG? It seems deeply inconsistent and changing on an almost daily basis?

    • You certainly need a 9-dimensional roadmap to follow it. I think it’s something like – Turkey hates and opposes the Kurds. Turkey also is occasionally attacked by ISIL, whom they oppose as well. If Kobane falls it’ll be bad for Turkey, so even though it’ll help the Kurds, Turkey wants Kobane not to fall. Turkey doesn’t want to help directly, but they’ll let someone else help.

      Or perhaps that’s not right at all. My head hurts.

    • I’ll give it a shot…

      Last weekend, Press TV’s Serena Shim reported ISIS fighters were using World Trade Organization trucks to travel from Turkey into Syria. Press TV is Iran’s English news broadcaster. Later on Sunday, Shim was killed in a traffic accident under murky circumstances. Some time later, Erdogan said Turkey would allow Kurdish Peshmerga fighters to cross from Turkey into Kabane so they could fight ISIS.

      Iran suspects Turkey’s odd moves are really aimed at taking down Assad, not defeating ISIS. So, Iran countered Turkey’s moves by proposing an alliance with Lebanon and SYRIA to fight ISIS. That way, Iran protects Assad while claiming to fight ISIS.

      The Persians did invent chess. Iran ALWAYS has one more move.

        • Something to remember, as we personify and attribute personalities to nations/states as entities that we glibly attribute as acting as some unitary thing: Whether it’s our Empire, with all its little active violent greedy parts (CIA, individual armed service “intelligence” and special ops, the pieces of the State Department, the “White House”, corporate grasping and killing, etc.) or “Pakistan” with all its separate conflicting also idiotic actors, or broken geographies like “Iraq” and “Syria” and soon “Israel,” let’s remember that it’s not just “Iran,” with the many parts that make up its rulership and effectives, that can and always do play several games at once. Reductionist attributions of simplistic motivations to fit an equally simplistic Game of Risk! ™ model don’t do us much good in trying to understand the flow and complexity and figure out how to protect our simple ordinary selves from being trampled.

          Too bad the moving forces that determine the direction of play and display and determine the aim of the game have little to nothing to do with stability, sustainability, decency and the welfare of all us general ordinary schmucks that fund all the Really Serious Peoples’ idiocies.

        • JTMcPhee, your post detailing Serena Shim’s reports of ISIS fighters using WTO trucks from Turkey as well as her subsequent fatal car accident were key factors.

          Shim worked for Iran’s Press TV.

          Today, there are reports of ISIS using chemical weapons in Kobani. The Guardian posted some pics of the victims. Politicos and the media might have a field day with this.


  3. Sykes-Picot remains a huge part of the problem, and is on its way to a richly deserved end. There will be a long and terrible period of “house-sorting”. If only global and regional powers could address this and other key issues rather than constantly attacking symptoms with the bluntest tools, maybe we would see some progress.

  4. Elie Elhadj

    Wahhabism radicalized Islam.
    Religious & sectarian tolerance evaporated.
    Needed: New states based on ethnic & sectarian borders.

  5. Oh Great…More heavily armed tribal warlords on the move…A true ” path to peace “…The Levant…Where the eighth century never ends…

    • The way the Iraq Kurds organized their sub-state they are a far cry from just another bunch of warlords.

  6. There is a big difference between sovereignty in law and in reality. In theory, international law requires that a sovereign state effectively control its territory. In practice, many “states” are recognized that have no such effective control, while many states that do control territory go unrecognized. Put another way, the law defines a state by recognition by other states, whereas political science defines it as any entity having an actual, effective monopoly on violence within a particular area. As a political fact, there has been no state of Syria since 2011, and no state of Lebanon since the seventies.

  7. The idea of substates sending militas into other countries to conduct wars does not sound like a step forward.

  8. Dr. Cole,

    I’m not sure if you’re aware of the various theorists about fourth-generation war (with the beginning of the first generation marked at the Peace of Westphalia), like Martin Van Creveld, William S. Lind, etc. They enjoyed a surge of popularity (in some circles) after Sep 11, and particularly after the Iraq war tuned into a guerrilla conflict.

    One of the hallmarks of fourth generation war is that it is often conducted by non-state forces such as militias, gangs, terrorist groups, etc. Martin van Creveld positions this within a general “decline of the state.”

    One of the predictions that came out of that camp is that, having destroyed the Iraqi state, it would be very difficult for anyone to put it back together again. Obviously, recent events have provided dramatic support for these theories.


  9. The end of national sovereignty didn’t begin with the Kurds. ISIL has been operating with no regard for sovereign borders for some time. (And I seem to remember an invasion in 2003 which had little regard for Iraqi sovereignty.)

  10. The US, and our huge corporations, ignore or recognize national sovereignty at their arbitrary pleasure. So do all the other players. Nations form and dissolve all the time. link to Czechoslovakia? the Soviet Union? Ukraine? Almost, even, the United States? There’s nothing apparently sacred or reliable about nation-state-ery, nor any protections in that legalism for ordinary people just trying to make their way in an increasingly dangerous world.

  11. Of course your basic premise in nonsensical. What we are seeing in ME is the end of STATE sovereignity, not NATIONAL one; since neither Iraq nor Syria are nations. They are in fact oppressive states where some national groups (Kurds) are oppressed by others (Arabs, initially Sunni, nor Shi’ite).
    On the other hand, the involvement of Kursdish troops from Iraq in aid of their national compatriots in Syria speaks, to the contrary of your premise, to establishment of national (in this case Kurdish) sovereignty across artificial borders, lines in a sand which are a relic of colonialist machinations.

  12. I agree. It reminds me of the so-called “Great African War” involving Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Angola, etc and various militias in said countries.

    It would be interesting in using the progress and aftermath of that war as a possible future for the middle east. Congo is still weakly governed, and its resources were widely looted by militias and foreign soldiers.

  13. Sorry, hit “Post Comment” a bit early. Just wanted to add that a small UN force successfully oversaw the withdrawal of foreign troops from Congo, and to this day, the UN force has been relatively successful in bringing security to Eastern Congo. Maybe someday the UN can bring peace to the Middle East.

    • UN troops to take down IS would require a fighting mandate, don’t see how this could get through the security council. Although it would be great if this could be accomplished.

      • Sorry, but I think you misunderstood. There was never a question of the UN going into the African War and somehow taking a side. Once the sides wore themselves out, the UN was welcomed. The parties involved agreed to have the UN monitor the withdrawal of foreign troops. Subsequently, UN troops were used to monitor human rights, militias etc. The UN has been relatively successful in protecting civilians from militias and sometimes even taking on militias. They were able to do all this despite having limited air support, less than 25,000 soldiers drawn from a multitude of nations, without heavy equipment. It has been estimated 3,000,000 civilians (!) died in the Great African War.

        Fighting ISIS is a Western obsession. Again, using the lesson of the African War, trying to classify one side as the “bad guys” is naive. Although some parties in the African War were more vicious than others, viciousness knew no side. And MILLIONS died with barely a mention on your nightly news.

        The Syrian and Iraqi conflicts are civil wars. Civil wars are routinely vicious, with civilians being the major victims. There is little new in this conflict. In the last 25 years, there were vicious civil wars in Turkey, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied territories all claiming 10s of thousands of lives.

        There was an article in the Dec 2013 Current History called “Can Iraq Avoid a Civil War?” ISIS may have surprised the US admin and press, but it did not surprise experts on the region. ISIS is the culmination of Sunni resentment over being ruled by non-Sunnis. They are vicious, but the vicious tend to do well during civil conflicts.

        Remember the Khmer Rouge? Their viciousness was legendary, and their path to power was paved by foreign (US and Vietnamese) interference.

        • Back to differ. Assad is just another dictator fighting to retain power, while the Kurds fight to gain national sovereignty.

          Only IS made it clear that they intent the genocide of the Yezidi people (as well as the murder of all Shia they encounter).

          As a German I take it serious if some political actors announce a planned genocide, and have the means to accomplish this. All too often they tend to follow through.

          If you take this as a Western obsession I’ll happily subscribe to it.

  14. National sovereignty is not just dying there. A recent poll shows secessionism growing in the USA:

    link to

    A substantial number of Americans will never accept sharing real power with people of other races, religions or gender orientations. And that implication that secession is necessary to protect “real” Americans is really the implication that the only real nation is a “pure” tribe; the rest of us are just conquered subcreatures fit only to serve.

    They, like their jihadi counterparts, are fighting to undo the Age of Reason. At least nationalism gave us a legitimate basis to evolve democracy. Without it, even the slender fantasy of equality between peoples goes down the toilet. The last time democracy failed, it took 2200 years to get it going again.

  15. Hello all,

    Sorry for being a little off topic but with regards to the need to help the Yazidis and free their women and girls enslaved from the cruel militia ISIS, please note that there is a demonstration at the White House today at 2 pm. I just saw tweets by Matthew Barber @Matthew_Barber Please see below and convey to all and please retweet this.

    Matthew Barber @Matthew__Barber · 7h 7 hours ago
    Please RT: Everyone concerned for #Yazidi future—& women enslaved by #IS—can join tomorrow’s (Fri 24) demonstration at the White House, 2 pm
    0 replies 30 retweets 19 favorites
    Reply Retweet30 Favorite19
    Matthew Barber @Matthew__Barber · 7h 7 hours ago
    Yazidis will demonstrate at the White House at 2:00 pm tomorrow to call for protection for #Sinjar & action to free enslaved women
    0 replies 28 retweets 16 favorites
    Reply Retweet28 Favorite16

  16. So has the plan of the PNAC crowd always been to destabilize the region? How has Israel played a role in Kurdistan’s power growing as a sub state? Oil pipelines?

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