Does Syrian Sovereignty Exist?


August 12th map, from Wikipedia, most recent I can find. How is a state supposed to come back from this?

BBC: Syrian rebels, backed by the Turkish military and US air cover, say they have taken the town of Jarablus from jihadists of so-called Islamic State.

The assault began at dawn when Turkish warplanes, tanks and special forces personnel crossed the nearby border.


Reuters:  Turkey sent more tanks into northern Syria on Thursday and demanded Kurdish militia fighters retreat within a week as it seeks to secure the border region and drive back Islamic State with its first major incursion into its neighbor.

There is a lot– a lot– to unpack here. Obviously, Turkey is interested in stopping ISIS, but more so, as the Soufan Group points out, in making sure that the Kurdish Syrian rebels don’t have a swatch of territory that is contiguous with Turkey, for fear of linkage with Turkey’s own Kurdish population.

The Turkish incursion is a significant event in the conflict, as it highlights the lengths that Turkey will go to prevent an autonomous Kurdish region along its southern border. Perhaps more significantly, the assault also made clear the limits of U.S. support for the Kurdish rebel forces that have been the most effective ground troops in the fight against the Islamic State. Calling the operation to retake Jarablus ‘Euphrates Shield,’ Turkey’s stated goal was to push back the Islamic State as well as the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD); Ankara views the latter, along with Turkish Kurdish groups, as a far greater threat than the Islamic State.

So, then: Turkey has sent troops and tanks and planes into Syria in order to dictate the future of the local Kurdish population in a post-ISIS region, which puts it in conflict with US designs, all of which will complicate Iraq (and its Kurds). Meanwhile, Turkey is playing around with Russia, which had been bombing Syria from Iran until that relationship went pear-shaped.

All of this is to ask a question this blog has been asking all year: what is Syria, anymore? Does it actually exist, or is it just a name on a map, lines that we all know so we still vaguely recognize? Does it actually have any sovereignty, and if so, who is in stewardship of that sovereignty? Is it Asad? That seems unlikely. Is it any of the rebel groups, including ISIS? What does it mean to own territory? What, ultimately, does it mean to be a nation when the nation has fallen apart, been vivisected, torn up, divided? And what does that mean for the future of the nation, and of the region?

I don’t have answers to these, but they are what we need to explore. As we’ve argued here before, the map is being rearranged. I don’t think there will be a recognizable “Syria” coming out of this in five, ten years. It’s the end of a long historical process starting with the fall of the Ottoman Empire (or at least the end of this phase, if there is one thing history teaches us, it is that eras never truly definitively end, and it is foolish to make predictions). I don’t think we’re really reckoning with what is going to come next, and what a possibly stateless future means. But as Turkey shows, there are many games being played here with future borders and future ideas of sovereignty, whether it is a UN-recognized map or the Iraq-like de facto states of ferocious Kurdish independence. I feel that until we come to terms with the sure and certain knowledge that what comes next is going to be very different than what came before, we won’t be able to encourage even least-bad outcomes.

Sins of the Fathers: East Chicago’s Poisoned Water and The Weight of History


East Chicago, 1972, around when the present began to crumble. Image from

East Chicago is one of those strange places that most of us only glimpse while driving past it, along its southern end, on a road trip that takes us through the rundown broken-factory grime of northwestern Indiana. If we’re going toward Chicago, it’s the last in a string of scary and polluted cities before you approach the rusted majesty of the Skyway, looming at imposing and strange angles, like a bridge out of Hell. More recently, East Chicago is the home of a booming casino. You get off 90 to get there, on what is essentially a designated highway, skirting the town itself. East Chicago just exists as a string of industrial lights and smoke glowing through the darkness.

It isn’t that, of course. It is a real city, where people live. It’s still a fairly-thriving Lake Michigan port, a beneficiary of this vast body of water, so crucial to the American experiment. It’s proximity to the lake, and to the Calumet and Chicago rivers, gave East Chicago some prominence in the steel industry, and its factories provided jobs and a living, even if a dirty and difficult one. Other industries bloomed in the area, in the days where Gary was a town to behold. But that legacy crumbled, leaving poison in its wake. This poison is metaphorical, but also terribly literal: East Chicago is facing a massive crisis in its drinking water, the weight of the past seeping into the present and darkening the future. It’s a reckoning with which we all have to deal.

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