The Conflicted Geography of ISIS

John Pinkerton, Wikimedia Commons

In the last 18 months, the jihad waged by ISIS has altered the political, social and religious makeup of the Syrian and Iraqi steppe. In turn, news agencies and media organisations, NATO members and intelligence organisations, have produced a number of maps each designed to demonstrate, with an equally devastating accuracy, the most recent shifts and changes in key areas on the ground — the least sensitive of which are free to view on any Internet search engine.  These include battlefronts, conquered cities, vandalized antiquities and the migration of majority and minority groups. To what extent are these maps accurate representations of political activity on the ground?

Aside from the civil war in Bosnia and the genocide of the Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda in the early 1990s, rarely has a regional conflict exerted such a grinding attrition against established social and cultural systems, which, in their time, have written themselves into the landscape. The peoples of what were once northern and western regions of Iraq have, since falling into the hands of ISIS, seen the mutation or extinction of their local, civic affiliations, or the co-opting of their political authorities. Administration of those lands is no longer in the hands of local civil organisations responsible to national governments in Damascus or Baghdad, but rather a system of ad hoc military courts guided by an extreme interpretation of Sharia law. Indeed, this view of Sharia law is now the principle of social organization in these lands. Those Syrian or Iraqi citizens, Muslim or Christian, who are not in agreement with the social policy promulgated by ISIS, have either been killed or have moved into refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon or Turkey. Others are presently making the journey to Europe. One would imagine that without a total victory over ISIS by a coalition of the region’s military forces, there seems little present hope that those lands would ever again make up what might be described as “Syria” and “Iraq.”

However, the maps produced suggest otherwise. According to their authors, the territorial expansion of ISIS is written against the background of a drawn Syrian and Iraqi border, which continues to endure, at least symbolically, whilst conditions on the ground are reordered around religious and tribal affiliations. Maps produced by the BBC and CNN, The Guardian newspaper and The Atlantic show ISIS as a coloured shade lying to the north west of Euphrates line between Aleppo/Ra’qaa and Baghdad.

This tone remains in sharp relief to the lime green reserved for the Kurdish enclave that abuts territories controlled by ISIS to the northeast. The Independent newspaper shows ISIS as a network, a warp and weft of reds corresponding to the network of roads that crisscross the steppe. The nodal points for each bisection contain a town or city. However, these maps remain little more than teleological constructs, assuming that not only Syrian and Iraqi borders continue to exist but that their internal state organization will continue to operate in the manner that they were able under the rule of Saddam Hussein and the Assads. This is the assumption: behind all the maps, ISIS has been defeated. The shading spreading across this map might be interpreted as reflecting IS black flags were it not juxtaposed by the green signifying Iraqi Kurdistan.

The value judgment is plain but appears sanctimonious — there have never been calls for an independent Kurdistan in either the western media or politics in general. Moreover, success of ISIS in Iraq points to another conclusion.

It is certain that ISIS has exploited what is a fundamental geopolitical fact of the Middle East and other arid regions like it; that the long arm of the state significantly weakens when stretched across steppe and semi-desert. Here, the state is not only a system of bureaucratic hierarchy, but can be seen as the effect of authority on a population. A state is not only a system of administration but also a compulsion to conform. However, it seems in arid regions of the world, compulsion has geographical limits. In our area of geographical interest, the state comprises a city and its immediate hinterland. Beyond this, the friction of distance, topography and aridity limits the extent beyond which the state cannot effectively exert its influence.

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When it does, as in Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds of Hallabjah in 1988, the effects on local people are often brutal and catastrophic. Therefore, those dwelling in areas marginal to agriculture or industrial production are effectively beyond the reach of centralized authority for the majority of the time, but must endure brutal subjection periodically.

In regions such as this, politics is not dominated, as it is in Europe and eastern China, by a compulsion to follow rules laid down by distant governing elites, but by local systems based upon kinship, tribal affiliations and dialect, and differentiated by religious persuasion or attachment to ritual. In small populations numbering tens or thousands or less, these elements are always subject to change and development.

Although, undoubtedly, many sheiks in small rural communities owed genuine allegiance to the Alawite sponsored regime in Damascus or the al-Tikriti faction governing in Baghdad (both Ba’athists), many surely did not. Missile systems and military aircraft allowed both regimes to dominate the steppe and semi desert of their respective states.

Ibn Khaldun stated, “Arabs can only gain territory over flat territory.” Meaning, their cavalry based armies were most effective where horses could be used to their best advantage. Upland and mountainous areas effectively placed limits on the political reach of Arab rulers, as horse cavalry were limited in their efficacy by high relief and a lack of available water and forage. Of course, these elements placed limits on the range of infantry of foot, too, and so, within a general panorama of Arab domination areas beyond the rule of government were able to flourish with little interference from tax collectors and military service. Even today, these lands are out of the reach of conventional armies and are penetrated only by special forces and by drones.

James C. Scott describes these areas as, ‘Zones of Refuge’, areas beyond state control, who, over the years collect people who wish to escape the depredations of state authority including slavery, religious orthodoxy or political subjection in the flat lands. The steppe of northeastern Syria and north western Iraq constitute a ‘zone of refuge’, not unlike Jean Michaud’s Zomia, which constitutes, as he saw, almost the entirety of upland southeast Asia. Far from being areas left behind by technological development and social evolution, which, seen from the perspective of those who live in them, almost always results in the state or nation state, these were areas inhabited by people who would rather reject the relative material wealth and comfort found in towns and cities if it meant dishonor through their own subjection to a lord. The relative deprivation that can characterise transient pastoralism and the upland villages could be endured if it meant that dialects could be spoken, religions and unorthodox rituals practiced and the honor of independence maintained. Mt Lebanon is perhaps the most famous example of these zones of refuge in the Levant.

In Syria such areas cover perhaps approximately 50% of the country. A similar breadth of area or more is covered in Iraq, if it exists today at all. The function of this region as a geographical zone, comprised of people and social systems set in opposition to the state, followed the failure of Nouri al Malaki in Baghdad to develop a government of national unity. The Sunni dominated rural populations of northwestern Iraq were alienated and the ground was effectively laid for an uprising against the apparatus of authority emanating from Baghdad. They were naturally suspicious of what they saw as an attempt at national cultural domination arising from the city of Najaf.

The failure of a popular government to emerge following the withdrawal of Coalition forces was but the straw that broke the camel’s back in Iraq. In Syria, the marginalization of tribal groups in eastern Syria by the Ba’ath party and overgrazing and unsustainable water abstraction in the steppe regions which further weakened and undermined the lifeways of tribal groups in the area are highlighted in important articles by Haian Duhan in Open Democracy and GianLuca Serra in The Ecologist.

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Sera’s article characterises the root cause of the present Syrian conflict as being that of overgrazing and desertification of the eastern Steppe lands. He argues that these lands had been grazed for many years by transhumant pastoralists (Bedouin) who had employed methods that allowed the grasslands to regenerate. This method known as hema ensured that certain recently grazed areas were left free of herds allowing grasses to seed and flower. In so doing, this method ensured a diversity of nutritious grass species that could be grazed by their herds. The mobility of the Bedouin ensured a similar level of exploitation of water drawn from hand dug wells.

These methods allowed the Bedouin, and pastoralists like them, to lead lives of relative independence from aggressive city states for perhaps 6,000 years. This sustainable system was broken, Serra points out, following the adoption of a Soviet inspired policy in 1958 that effectively nationalised the eastern Steppe lands.

These areas were opened up to ‘affluent urban investors’ who were encouraged to develop large herds to graze the lands with no care for traditional land access rights. The now unprotected steppe was freely grazed to destruction by herds under an industrialized ranching system, and the Bedouin became an increasingly marginalized ethnic group inhabiting poorer areas of the eastern cities. Therefore, it was through ranching that the Syrian state sought to control the ‘zone of refuge’.

Moreover, water abstracted from aquifers beneath the steppe was consumed at an alarming rate by intensive agriculture. Both pastoralists and ranchers were forced to dig deeper and deeper wells to reach diminishing sources. Without water the whole ecosystem was pushed towards the edge of disaster.

Although, when it came, the disastrous drought of 2006-2010 was ultimately caused by the natural alternation of wet and dry periods, its effects on people was profoundly exacerbated by the mismanagement of resources of the Steppe. Sera regards the over exploitation of resources in that region as the principal cause of the civil conflict now taking place in Syria.

Rebellion in Iraq may have been contained by Baghdad were it not for the collapse of authority in Libya and the unwillingness of NATO to intervene there.  This factor enabled the trafficking of arms eastward across the Mediterranean, through Turkey and finally into the Syrian steppe. In a region already convulsed by war, it was internal al Qaeda conflict over direction that finally enabled ISIS to emerge.

Haian Dukan provides a welcome insight into the tribal dimension of the Syrian conflict. He points out that whilst some tribal sheikhs benefitted from connections between the Ba’athist Assads in Damascus, many did not. He specifically points to herders without access to work, healthcare or education , displaced to cities, such as Deraa, Homs, Hama, Palmyra and Deir Ezzor who were keen to become part of a wider protest movement, but were forced into ‘military action in self defence against the brutal Syrian regime’. We cannot, at this remove, accurately judge the political motivations of village headmen in areas now under the control of the ISIS. We can however, begin to provide some explanation of the success of the ISIS by observing them through what is known of the sociology of the region.

Far from being passively ‘traditional’, the herders of the steppe had actively chosen the life to escape the depredations of the state; and since the 1950s, the depredation had begun again. Suppression and drought had further alienated the herders forcing their hand toward violence, but weakening their political position at the same time. What strengthened was their own social solidarity.

Moreover, the relative deprivation of steppe or semi-desert would lead to more stringent social organization. Cousin marriage, and in particular parallel cousin marriage, characteristic of the region, is in part quite likely to be an ecological adaptation to prevailing climatic conditions, but is more likely to be used as a particularly effective method of maintaining social solidarity. Parallel cousin marriage, the marriage of sons to a brother’s daughters in particular, is a practical way of maximizing the access of closely related members of a social group to resources such as wells, and actively not developing alliances outwith that would put kin members under obligation. The maintenance of acephalous political systems is therefore more likely to be a social adaptation practiced to keep the statists at bay. Ladislav Holy has pointed to they way the region’s populations ensure affinal relations are those of blood has weakened the basis upon which nation states may be built. Social solidarity is not felt toward those outside blood relatives.

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Ibn Khaldun freely provides the word “asabiyyah” to those in the Humanities who are willing to listen. Ibn Khaldun used “asabiyyah,” or group feeling, according to Ed West, in two ways. The first described the strength of feeling amongst the kin structured groups of the nomadic Bedouin and in the weakening bonds of feeling felt for each other by those in the towns and cities. For Ibn Khaldun, shared blood ties or strong group bonds built with religion, whereas in the increasingly differentiated social context of the cities, asabiyyah was felt to be weaker. In the cities, population size, cosmopolitanism and religious decline leads to cultural and social degeneration. In the world of the fourteenth century, cities from the Atlantic coast of Africa to China prospered on local agricultural produce and the caravan trade. Wealthy cities were able to maintain asabiyyah through hard headed business sense, others sunk in luxury were easy prey to the nomadic groups of the steppes and the deserts, who would take over trade and the tribute that came with it, via their strong sense of asabiyyah engendered by their blood relations and their religion.

This final characterization provided by a historian distant in time is perhaps too broad and inexact to really capture how the steppe lands of Syria and Iraq have been lost to ISIS. What is clear is that they are perfectly capable of organizing and leading lives without interference from powers located in distant Damascus or Baghdad. In this sense alone, Syria and Iraq no longer exist; brute exploitation of resources and degrading of the environment saw to that, rather than Islamic fundamentalism. Islamic State’s dark acts then may be seen as revenge taken by rural peoples on their urban oppressors — revenge taken for the marginalization and destruction of their lifeways and for horror of ecological catastrophe. How the west must now yearn for enlightened Third World Marxists!

Our final questions should be, ‘How far has ISIS hijacked the politics of the steppe, and, to what extent are the herders there employing the violence of radical Islam to rid themselves of an aggressive and overweening state?’ The employment of religion by ISIS allows for the purification of politics and society in the way it did for the Afghani Taliban. Many disparate groups are united under one common cause. Perhaps, in this manner the herders are finally getting rid of the Ba’athists, or looking to take control of the states of Iraq and Syria for themselves? However, there is very little evidence coming out of the ISIS to suggest whether this is a fair hypothesis or not.

What can be said, is where a strong state has guided the ‘development’ of the countryside and is located within a climatically arid zone, if that state were to collapse, then we should expect a hyper migration of the type seen leaving the steppe and attempting to enter Europe from Syria and Turkey. We should look to the Central Asian states and to China with concern.

About the author

Gareth Matthews-John

Hi, I am a geographer and educator attempting to change minds regarding consumerism and food growing. Interested in ecology, politics and belief, labour organisation and green futures.

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The Conflicted Geography of ISIS

by Gareth Matthews-John
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