Have the Politics of Territorial Influence Relegated Iraq and Kurdistan to Buffer States?

A Recap

This is the second part of my series on territorial disputes. Last time we looked at some of the territorial disputes across the world and focused specifically on territorial disputes that arose from national identity. Specifically, when members living within one entity identify with another.

Today’s post will continue looking at territory disputes, but these will be more preemptive and abstract in nature. They’ll involve more powerful nations directly  playing a heavy hand in the government of a less powerful state (or entity) in the name of protecting themselves before a threat is realized. We’ll investigate how Russia, Austria, and Prussia’s instincts to partition Poland as well as Rome and the Sassanids playing catch with Armenia closely mirror diplomacy today. Let’s see which disputes qualify:


Who Betrayed the Kurds and the Kurdish State?

A Kurdling Trust in Abbreviations

You’ve likely heard that America recently withdrew its troops from Syria, which Turkey, either honestly or deviously, took as permission to invade Kurdish controlled territory in northern Syria. As with all political events, there’s more nuance than “Turkish bad guys unapologetically  slaughter Kurdish good guys.”

The Kurds have sought to have their own state, Kurdistan, since the close of the First World War. In fact, it had even been promised to them as the Ottoman Empire was dissolved, but scrapped in the 1920 Treaty of Lausanne which defined modern Turkey’s borders. This left the Kurds stranded between five other nations, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and the southern tip of Armenia, relegating them to a minority status in all of them. The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (often referred to as the PKK) formed in the 80s with the goal of setting up a state for the Kurds. In doing so, they carried out attacks on Turkey as well as other nations. The US, the EU, and Turkey all classify the PKK as a terrorist organization.

The PKK however, is not to be confused with the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. The SDF primarily (but not entirely) comprises Kurds from the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. (Both the YPG and PKK take their abbreviations from the Kurdish names.) The YPG is the armed wing of another Kurdish party (the PYD). Turkey would have you believe that the PYD is just the Syrian branch of the PKK, but that’s an exaggeration at best. There are almost certainly links between the two, but how deep those links go is unknown. What is known is that the YPG seized territory for themselves in Northern Syria when the civil war broke out. The SDF (and the YPG by proxy) is who the United States was allied with during its fight against ISIS.

To clear that up a bit, the big takeaway is that the PKK is widely regarded as a terrorist organization that dates back decades. The SDF allied with the US to root out ISIS, and the Syrian Democratic Forces largely comprise Kurds from a group known as the YPG. Because the YPG has sought territory for themselves, Turkey would have you believe that the YPG and PKK are indistinguishable, and while they likely have some ties, it’s a stretch that they’re one in the same. Notably, the US does not support the YPG’s plans for autonomy.

Turkey invaded Syria’s Kurdish controlled territory with the intention of setting up a buffer zone between its own state and what it views as a terrorist state. It also plans to relocate 2 million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees into this buffer zone in a move that some claim mirrors the demographic engineering also occurring within Syria. This buffer zone, Erdogan argues, will help keep Turks safe from terrorist attacks.

When Did Iraq Become a Satellite State?

A Sunniset for Iraq

Both Iran and Iraq have been a defining topic in international news since the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 and even more so since the United States assassinated Iran’s Major General, Qassim Suleimani (I’m going with this spelling as it’s preferred by the Economist, New York Times, Guardian and Foreign Policy, but note that Google and Wikipedia both have it as Soleimani). Each country’s history goes back further, and is also tied with the as of yet non-existent Kurdistan. In fact, all of Iraq and some of Iran are where we find some of humanity’s earliest records and is sometimes referred to as the “cradle of civilization.” The Parthians, Achaemenids, Sassanids, Safavids, and Babylonians all ruled kingdoms or empires that comprised some, if not all, of the territory of both modern day states. While I won’t try to summarize some 6,000 years of history, note that both countries have a shared history and culture, perhaps not too unlike the United States has with the United Kingdom.

Iran’s modern government has been in place since its Islamic revolution in the late 70s, and Iraq’s established their republic in 1958 after overthrowing the Kingdom that the occupying British setup after dismantling the Ottoman Empire.

An Iranian Soldier Wears a Gasmask
An Iranian Soldier Protecting Himself from Chemical Weapons During the Iran-Iraq War

In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran sparking a devastating war that lasted 8 years. This is the war that Suleimani, and many of his contemporaries grew up in. Iraq invaded Iran citing a territorial dispute, but more likely capitalizing on a recently destabilized government and fearing a stronger Iran on the other side. The fear was well founded. Iraq beat the morale out of their own soldiers (literally) while significantly underestimating the resolve of the Iranians, who would purportedly throw their bodies onto barbed wire, so their compatriots could climb across it. As a result, despite the international weapons embargo levied on Iran for taking American diplomats hostage during their revolution (what the movie Argo is based on), Iran held its ground. A ceasefire was negotiated in 1988 by the United Nations after a million people had lost their lives and both countries were weakened and destabalized.

After the death of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent rise of Islamic State, Iran and Iraq’s relationship warmed. They had a mutual interest in keeping IS at bay, and as Iran’s various exports to Iran increased, neither wanted Iraq to destabilize again. However, following the US invasion in 2003, Iran also developed an interest in keeping Iraq weak, so that it could not threaten Iran again. The US and Iran are still competing for influence in Iraq, but the US has all but lost.

Iran’s increasing influence calls into question how independent Iraq truly is. On its face, Iraq is completely independent. It has diplomatic relations with several countries, has its own government, and of course, a sense of national identity. When you look a bit deeper though, the picture is a bit more complex. For example, Iran backed militias are now a permanent feature of Iraq’s military. That of course isn’t a situation unique to Iraq. The United States has provided scores of military personnel, equipment and funding for Europe, but that comes with influence, and just as NATO has helped spread liberal democracies across Europe, prevented further conflict in Europe and with the US, and established the dollar as a global reserve currency, so too has Iran’s military protection afforded safety and economic influence in Iraq.

Iran’s influence goes yet further. The local news projects Iran as the protector of Iraq; Iranian companies pick up the trash in Iraq; Iranian sympathizers get funding for political campaigns, and Iraqi banks are encouraged to hold their funds in Iran. Where the money goes, the power goes. It goes so far that when a member of the Qatar royalty was kidnapped in Iraq, Qatar called Iran to help, completely ignoring the Iraqi government. Iran’s influence is the cause of several protests rocking the country.

There’s a religious aspect too. Iranian’s Shiite Theocracy may come into conflict with Iraq’s significant Sunni minority, which could have many parallels to some of the Protestant-Catholicism conflicts we looked at before, particularly for the Sunni Kurds who operate out of an semi-autonomous region of Iraq, the closest thing the Kurds have gotten to their own state.

This religious aspect is significant as it’s another reason for why Iran is attempting to exert so much influence on Iraq. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been jockeying for the position of regional dominance since Iran’s Revolution, and much like the French Revolution, Iran would like to expand its ideas beyond its borders. This brings it into a conflict with Saudi Arabia, who is the traditional regional power, and is ruled by a Sunni majority. Both nations have engaged in several proxy wars, most notably the Syrian Civil war (along with Turkey and Russia, one of the reasons the quagmire has gone on so long). Influence in Iraq makes Iraq a buffer state between Iran and the Saudis should their proxy-rivalry turn to direct blows.

With Turkey and Iran trying to setup buffer zones and claiming territory, either directly or through severe influence, I wanted to look at some similar instances throughout history and learn how they turned out.

The History

Ancient Arguments around Armenia

That’ll Cost you an Arm-en-a Leg 

Armenia is one of the world’s oldest countries, and has been ruled by more countries than most. It was conquered by the Greek’s Alexander the Great, the Persian’s Cyrus the Great, Rome’s Trajan, the Mongols, the Parthians, the Ottoman Empire, the Russians, the Soviets and was its own kingdom and country. The Armenians most recently got their independence in the collapse of the Soviet Union in what was their second republic, and who knows how many times they’d been independent at that point.

Today I want to focus on the ancient Armenian Kingdom and its relationship with the surrounding powers. Armenia switched its allegiance six times in 46 years. It was nominally independent, but defining independence is a little dicey considering that Armenia had its leader installed by either Rome, Pontus, or Persia for several decades.

Our story here will start with Tigranes the Great. Tigranes came on the scene around the time the Roman Republic was transitioning into the Roman Empire. In fact, he began his reign within a few years of Julius Caesar being born.

A painting of Armenian King, Tigranes the Great - King of Kings
Tigranes the Great of Armenia, King of Kings

Tigranes had actually been taken hostage by the Parthians as a child in 120BCE to put space between the Parthian Empire and subject Armenia as a buffer state between the two. This would be their “Rome strategy” until the end of their dynasty. Tigranes was eventually released and appointed King of Armenia in 96BCE, effectively making him a vassal. Even so, Tigranes greatly expanded his empire and even began calling himself King of Kings, which leads several historians to believe he let conquered monarchs continue to rule their land as vassals making himself literally a king of kings. He also allied with the Kingdom of Pontus by marrying the king’s daughter, Cleopatra. No, not that Cleopatra.

To give you an idea of where exactly in the world we’re talking about, the Kingdom of Pontus was mostly part of modern day Turkey, the Crimean Peninsula and Russia. The Parthian Empire was modern Iran (somewhat literally), but with territory extending into modern Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Armenia was, well, Armenia. Its borders extended significantly farther than present day, and it sat north of the Parthians and east of Pontus bordering the Caspian sea. I made a rough (really rough) sketch of the borders at the time to help illustrate where we are and why Tigranes might seek an alliance with Pontus. It should also help show how important Armenia would be for both Rome and Parthia once Pontus and Egypt became part of Rome:

Middle East Roughly 70BC

In 87BCE Rome began a war with the Kingdom of Pontus who continued to aggravate the Romans by annexing its territory in Asia Minor. These are known as the Mithridatic Wars named for the ruler of Pontus, Mithridates VI. Mithridates had secured an alliance with Tigranes by marrying his daughter to him. In 62BCE, Pompey the Great of Rome invaded Armenia assisted by Tigranes’ own son. Tigranes quickly surrendered and offered huge amounts of wealth in exchange for letting Tigranes continue to rule Armenia, but this time as a client state of Rome. Tigranes would rule until his death in 55BCE having ruled Armenia for 40 years and lived for 85.

Succeeding Tigranes the Great was his son, Artavasdes II. Artavasdes would flip flop between supporting Rome and Parthia several times in his 18 year reign – mostly out of necessity. When Crassus invaded Parthia and was completely defeated, Artavasdes was up against an invading Parthian force. After all, Armenia had allied Rome. This forced Artavasdes to secure a peace, and thus alliance, with Parthian King Orodes. Eventually, Mark Antony would invade Armenia in an act of revenge at Artavasdes’ betrayal, capturing him and his three sons. Antony then marched Artavasdes back in golden chains. Cleopatra (Yes, the famous Cleopatra) executed Artavasdes in 31BCE.

One of Artavasdes II’s son, Artaxias II, managed to escape and fled to Parthia. Parthia’s king then installed Artaxias II on the throne, thus gaining Armenia’s allegiance. Artaxias would rule for 13 years before his death. Artaxias, however, proved to be an unpopular leader, and before long, supposedly, the people of Armenia petitioned Augustus to install another leader into Armenia, and so Augustus installed Tigranes the III, still being held prisoner from Antony’s expedition, after Artaxias’ death. This of course flipped Armenia’s allegiance back to Rome.

Rome would continue to appoint leaders until the death of Augustus in 14CE. In fact, appointing leaders was the duty of future emperor Tiberius. Even so, several of these leaders would be dethroned as the result of native rebellions funded by Parthia. At this point it seems like the record dries up a bit with limited information other than name. The record picks up again with the war of Armenian succession in 58 where one of the weirder agreements over Armenia takes place. Going forward, the king of Armenia would be a prince of Parthia, but the ruler had to be approved by the Romans. This agreement is one of the reasons emperor Nero was so reviled by contemporary Romans. Well, that and the whole burning Rome to the ground thing. Tiridates would be the ruler of choice from 62CE (as a result of the war) to 88CE.

This would be the status quo until Roman Emperor Trajan invaded Armenia because the Parthians installed a king whom the Romans did not approve of. Trajan annexed Armenia in 113, only to have it be relinquished by his successor, Hadrian, just a few years later.

Around this point the Parthian Empire began weakening and the crisis of the third century was just around the corner for Rome. Even so, Armenia would be a point of contention for the successor states of the Byzantine and Sasanid Empire. Armenia underscores how vital a buffer state can be, and how two powers can jockey over position just to fend off the fear of an invasion. Jockeying for influence in Armenia draws parallels to Iran and the United States. It’s a form of politics as old as politics itself.

The Partitions of Poland

We Came, Warsaw, We Conquered

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was once a world power and geographic juggernaut comprising the modern states of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, and parts of Moldova and Estonia.

Their famous Winged Hussars once beat a Russian army that out-manned the Polish 5 to 1 in the Battle of Klushino in 1610, but in just over 100 years, the state would literally be erased off the map and wouldn’t reappear for almost two hundred years.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a dual state. The king of Poland also served as the Grand Duke of Lithuania and had done so for a hundreds of years starting with the marriage of Polish Queen Jadwiga to Lithuanian duke Jogaila in 1386. As time marched forward, this multi-ethnic behemoth of a country began to see its power wane as the power of Russia, Austria, and Prussia began to grow, and by the early 1700s, something had to give.

Polish-Lithuanian at its height
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s borders transposed onto current borders.

Polish-Lithuania’s government at the time could be described as both forward thinking and laughably naive. Their easily corruptible government utilized something called a Liberum-Veto. The idea is that all laws must be passed by the Sejm (effectively their parliament) unanimously. Any single member could strike down an entire piece of legislation. As you can imagine, their Sejm was made up of nobles with a wide variety of sometimes conflicting interests. As time passed, the strength of a veto got even stronger. It would no longer just apply to a law, but it could suspend an entire session, and any legislation that had already passed would become null and void. Foreign powers, particularly Russia, would often bribe members to vote no on any resolution they didn’t particularly care for. Before long, Poland’s central government had lost all its power, and its nobles were bought out by foreign interests. Any attempts to reform and strengthen the country would be vetoed. This lead to an inability to defend themselves, and ultimately the total partition of the state.

The once mighty military of Polish-Lithuania was destroyed in a string of wars with Sweden known as The Deluge in the late 1650s. These wars devastated Poland, literally killing up to a third of the country’s population. While Poland struggled to recover, its neighbors, Austria, Prussia, and especially Russia, strengthened. Peter the Great had modernized Russia and its rise was tipping the balance in Europe.

A series of Cossack rebellions in modern day Ukraine further hindered Poland’s economy and stability, and the subsequent treaties lead to territorial loss, and increased Russian influence when the Cossacks pledged allegiance to the Russian Czar in 1654.

A Winged Hussar flies into battle
The feared Winged Hussars

In 1733 the first war of Polish succession broke out when Augustus the II died. Russia and Austria initially opposed Augustus the III’s ascension, but Augustus the III secured their support by promising Russia and Austria further influence. Specifically, he agreed to install a Russian as a fief and recognize an Austrian treaty that recognized Livonia as Austria’s and confirmed Maria Theresa’s right to rule. Augustus the III fulfilled his promises, and when he died in 1763, Austria and Russia formed an alliance not only to secure the next ruler of Poland, but to limit who could rule and change the laws in Poland. A guy named Stanislaw (whose last name was also Augustus despite bearing no relation to his predecessors) came to the throne who would seek support from France to try to rekindle his country. Stanislaw had been one of Catherine the Great’s many lovers. She’d installed Stanislaw onto the throne because she thought he could easily be manipulated into doing Russia’s building. Ironically, Stanislaw attempted several reforms to strengthen the Polish government, but this resulted in a civil war known as the War of the Bar Confederation and further weakened the state.

France had historical interests in keeping Poland safe from aggressors. In fact, three Polish kings married a French princess, and Henry the III actually ruled Poland for the year of 1573. However, France was careening towards its infamous revolution following their losses in several wars combined with an impending financial collapse. Thus, their interest and ability to protect Poland eroded.

In 1773, Prussia’s Frederick the Great was wary (and by wary I mean paranoid) of the shifting balance of power in Europe against him. Specifically, he feared what an Austrian-Russian war could mean for Prussia. He, somewhat brilliantly, directed their aggression towards Poland. Frederick exhibited extreme distaste for Poles referring to them as “slovenly Polish trash.” In other words, he was super racist. Frederick engineered an agreement for all three countries to simultaneously invade and annex parts of Poland in what’s known as the first partition of Poland (though it’s not clear whether it was initially Frederick’s idea; his brother, Prince Henry’s idea; or Count Lymar’s idea).

Once they invaded, Poland could do little to stop them. Threatened with the utter desolation of their state, the Sejm agreed to the territorial concessions in 1775 causing about 2 million Poles (or about 1/4 of the country’s population) to become Russian, Prussian, or Austrian. This put Stanislaw under greater pressure and further divided opinion of him when he attempted reforms again. Poland managed to sneak in a Sejm when all of Poland’s neighbors were at war. They adopted a new constitution that strengthened and hoped to revive the Polish-Lithuanian State. However, Prussia and Russia feared exactly that, and this caused another invasion in 1793 that lead to the 2nd partition. A rebellion in 1794 against the occupiers lead to the third and final partition. Poland would cease to exist as a sovereign state for 123 years.

After the Napoleonic wars following the French Revolution, Napoleon briefly resurrected the “Duchy of Warsaw,” which was a client state of France in 1807, but after his defeat, the duchy was partitioned again in 1815. Poland would not reemerge until 1918 in the aftermath of World War 1 where Woodrow Wilson advocated for the establishment of a Polish state in his Fourteen Points – a document that would be the basis for the Treaty of Versailles. It was reestablished out of humanitarian concerns, but unfortunately with little concern to strategic geography, which made it easy pickings for the German and Russian invasion of Poland in the second World War. An event that some have called the 4th Partition.

From Poland we see that not only can territorial disputes last centuries, but also that they often can be the result of Imperialism. We also diplomacy as a way to check another nation’s power. Due to the sense of the Polish national identity, we also see that a nation’s borders are sometimes defined by the nationalities residing there than the sovereign state that rules over it, which has ramifications for how we view the Kurds and their quest for Kurdistan.

This is a lot of history for stuff that may only seem tangentially related, but these long-winded stories remind us that territorial disputes almost always have long and complex histories. An aggressor’s intentions might be more nuanced than evil for evil’s sake. Some may be preemptive strikes to reduce the influence of a perceived enemy as we saw with Poland and Armenia, and the Kurds. Others are the results of nationalities lumped together against their wish as we see with the Irish and Kashmiris. I also wanted to illustrate that territory can be effectively seized while leaving the current systems and government in place as we saw with Armenia and initially with Poland. That influence directly mirrors what we’re seeing with Iraq, and the justification is similar to that of Turkey – even if the methods aren’t exactly the same.

Territory isn’t always about imperialism. Sometimes it’s a boundary for an adversary, but of course, that comes at the cost of the right to self determination for a group of people. Might the Kurds still one day see their nation? It took the Poles over a hundred years. The Kurds may still be next.

Further Reading

On the Partition of Poland

On Iran’s Influence in Iraq

On the Benefits of NATO

On the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry

On General Suleimani

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