Category Archives: Iraq

Muslim Ban? Fragile States?


Here’s Trump’s list of banned Muslim countries in red, and the ones where he has business interests are in gold. The unlabeled one at the uper right is Azerbaijan.

Trump's Muslim Ban Countries

Trump’s Muslim Ban Countries

And here’s a fragile states index for the region.

Fragile States Worst

Fragile States Worst

The banned countries are places where the governments have basically collapsed. People are complaining about the relationship between Trump businesses and the presence or absence of a ban. I’m not justifying, nor am I criticizing, I’m just noting that here is some data that hasn’t commonly appeared in conjunction with the coverage of the issue.

This map originally appeared in Fragile States Index 2016.

Fragile States Index 2016

The Fragile States Index 2016 was just mentioned on beBee and I saw a nice dataset to visualize in Tableau. Here is the original high resolution image:


And here is the image that resulted from my very simple import of the data into a Tableau workbook:


The states of the Mideast, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa have been an interest of mine for the past several years. Here’s a nit with Tableau, but it’s probably a deficit on my part – the only way I could make Syria visible would be to suppress the appearance of Lebanon. Tableau also treats Western Sahara as Terra Nullius, when it’s an ongoing problem between Morocco which administers it and Algeria which hosts many refugees.


Here are the grimmest of the grim, seven states with fragility scores in excess of 110. Iraq is one bad summer away from joining them.


I’ve made a copy of the Fragile States 2016 workbook available. I really should start pulling in other data, but what I want here would be food and water security information, and that’s often scattered and dated.

Low Oil Prices, High Geopolitical Risk

There are times when an infographic is so compelling I take a screen shot of it. Previously such an image would have been the ‘seed crystal’ for an article here, but now I’ve found one I want to duplicate using Tableau. This came from a LinkedIn post entitled Welcome to the new normal. Clock’s ticking, Venezuela, by Eurasia Group.



So what are we looking at here? I see the following:

  • An X-Y graph of log population vs. years to deplete oil reserves AND sovereign wealth funds.
  • Pie charts of oil and other income per nation
  • Pies sized by government revenue in billions.
  • A dividing line separating those who are stressed from countries which are considered more robust.

There are some textual or implicit characteristics of this infographic:

  • Oil prices are $50/bbl over the long haul.
  • Each country’s break even cost per barrel known, but unstated.
  • Countries maintain export to internal use ratio, avoiding the Export Land Model trap.


There are some other issues that matter when considering the implications of $50/bbl oil. Sixteen years of oil prices and oil rig count are an instructive visualization.


The global oil industry has crashed hard, down to less than $30/bbl this spring. The reasons are more geopolitical than economic – Syria, Saudi Arabia, Russia – go nose around and see if you can detect the calculus behind prices and production volume.

Another interesting graph is the long term Baltic Dry Index, and we’re going to start watching the container oriented HARPEX, too. All we need for the moment is the BDI, which is a proxy for global trade. The DJIA is a measure of investor sentiment and we’ve all seen multiple bubbles in our lives, but it takes a really big one like 2008 to drag the BDI higher. As a rule, people don’t rent dry bulk freighters and pay in advance, hoping to rent them to others at a higher rate.



What does that infographic tell us? It separates those with small sovereign wealth funds OR oil that is costly to produce from those who are either savers or cheap producers. But I really question its accuracy, because …

  • Why is Libya in the safe zone, when it basically no longer exists as a country?
  • Oman’s government leans heavily on oil, but it’s diversified aggressively.
  • Why isn’t Algeria listed, because they’ve got ISSUES.

I’m not suggesting this is a bad infographic, to the contrary, it neatly sums up some serious issues from the perspective of an analyst that knows oil production. But it does show the hazards in trying to abstract nearly a dozen dimensions of information into a flat 2D representation.

My initial thought was to replicate this work, but having critiqued it, I’m not sure I’m willing to spend the time, given how quickly things are moving in the Ethereum realm.

Greater Iran’s Greatest Problem

The current political boundaries of the Islamic Republic are a fraction of what the Persian empire was at it’s peak. This map of Scythia & Parthia shows what have been fairly stable boundaries for Iranian culture – from the Tigris river in the west to the Indus in the east.

Scythia & Parthia 100BC

Scythia & Parthia 100BC

Geographically this area is known as the Persian or Iranian Plateau

Persian Plateau

Persian Plateau

The current nations within Greater Iran’s territory include Georgia, Armenia, Azerbijan, Iraq, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, Afghanistan, and portions of Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and the Uighur portion of China.

Greater Iran

Greater Iran

This area is not a contiguous plateau, but it’s all elevated, often rugged, and it lays between Anatolia to the west and the Hindu Kush to the east. I have previously written about Anatolia’s water problems in Losing The Euphrates.

This article, Iran Becoming Uninhabitable, contained this stark quote from a former agriculture minister.

Kalantari said that the “deserts in Iran are spreading, and I am warning you that South Alborz and East Zagros will be uninhabitable and people will have to migrate. But where? Easily I can say that of the 75 million people in Iran, 45 million will have uncertain circumstances.” Kalantari continued, “If we start this very day to address this, it will take 12 to 15 years to balance.”

Somalia, Afghanistan, and Mali each dried past the point of sustaining their populations, descended into chaos, and became havens for illicit networks and terrorist groups.

Iran has two and a half times the population of Afghanistan, it has direct access to the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Caspian Sea. Opium production in Afghanistan was curtailed by the Taliban, but since the U.S. led invasion ten years ago production has rebounded. The U.S. is leaving and if Iran collapses due to a mix of climate change and ill advised sanctions, western Europe’s heroin habit will fuel insurgency across the region, and sea access will facilitate that trade.

Afghanistan can convert fertilizer to explosives but they are otherwise almost entirely dependent for any military goods. Iran has its own internal industries making everything from bullets to ballistic missiles. Supply chain issues will hit systems that are large of complex in nature, but the AK-47s and RPGs will continue to flow, and these are the foundation weapons of any insurgency.

The U.S. presence in Afghanistan has destabilized Pakistan. Our presence in Iraq affected the whole region. Syria’s civil war has spread into Lebanon, Iraq, and it threatens Turkey. Libya’s revolution put a flood of weapons on the market. Egypt’s revolution replaced a stable strongman government with dueling factions, none of which can get along in a pluralist environment.

If the U.S. does not take the lead and back off Iranian sanctions, a sometimes belligerent rational actor will be replace by an ugly amalgam of all the things we have seen from the other interventions and revolutions I named. That outcome may be inevitable due to climate change, but rushing to it is a foreign policy mistake of a similar magnitude to what happened in the Balkans in 1914 or Czechoslovakia in 1938.

Lesser Syria, Greater Kurdistan, Armenia’s Mt. Olympus

Here in America it’s somewhat notable to meet up with someone who can identify all fifty of our states if presented with a national map that doesn’t have a legend. European weapons and European diseases made quick work of the native population and there are only a few areas where there is any political friction from the survivors, mostly remote places like Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

The ethnic, sectarian, and historical divisions of the Mideast are obscure and puzzling to us in general, and they remain puzzling to our policy makers. This is about expectations – the U.S. civil war was an anomaly. We had defined nation states, uniformed armies, a clear cut beginning, a fairly clean end, and while the meme has never died there hasn’t been any large scale violence since the cessation of the conflict, nearly 150 years ago. The Mideast is full and there are always tensions the likes of which we never experience here.

This being said, I am now going to put up a bunch of maps and engage in a bit of wild speculation about some things that aren’t all that likely to happen, but if they did … well … game changers.

French Syrian Mandate Territory Losses

French Syrian Mandate Territory Losses

I’ve written about the Ottoman empire enough that it has its own category here, so I won’t gum up this post with excessive maps. This is the French Syrian Mandate, created after World War I. Syria lost the Sanjak of Alexandretta, Lebanon, the Golan Heights, and it isn’t that much of a stretch to imagine the Kurds of Syria seeking freedom, which I wrote about in Funding The Syrian Insurgency.

Syrian & Iraqi Conflict Merging, Possibly Spreading and The Syrian Conflict Spreads contain grim news from credible sources, and the conflict is Spilling Into Lebanon.

Could the end result of Lesser Syria be Greater Kurdistan?

Kurdistan With Population By Country

Kurdistan With Population By Country

Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey all thwart the ambitions of the Kurds. But the Iraqi Kurds are in a position to tax an extractive industry, and that’s all that is needed to fuel an insurgency.

Iraqi Kurds & Oil Fields

Iraqi Kurds & Oil Fields

Even more touchy than oil is the subject of water. The Kurds dominate the mountainous part of eastern Turkey where both the Tigris and Euphrates originate. Control of the last onshore supergiant oil field in the world and the two largest rivers in the region? I think it is not a question of if, it’s a question of when things change for the Kurds.

Tigris Euphrates Watershed

Tigris Euphrates Watershed

Speaking of mountains …



Mount Ararat is a potent symbol for Armenian nationalists and a constant goad, visible from the capitol of Yerevan, but under control of Turkey. The Armenians do not forget the Ottoman genocide that wiped out a million of their people as ethnic Turks sought to maximize their territory in their empire’s final few years.

Armenia Genocide 1915 to 1923

Here’s the Google map of the region. The red letter A marks Ararat, the circular green dot nearby is Little Ararat, and there are a lot of lines on this map. The borders of Armenia, Azerbijan, Iran, and Turkey meet just to the east of the smaller mountain, and there are other, more serious territorial problems than the missing sacred mountain.

Ararat, Nakchivan & Nargorno Karabakh

Ararat, Nakchivan & Nargorno Karabakh

This map should make things a bit clearer. Armenia contains the ethnic Azerbijani enclave of Nakchivan, while Azerbijan contains the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nakchivan & Nagorno-Karabakh

Nakchivan & Nagorno-Karabakh

That map might make a bit more sense if you see how Nakchivan lines up against the ethnic makeup of northwest Iran.

Northwest Iran

Northwest Iran

We have had 365 years of Westphalian sovereignty, but the nation state is on the skids. Corporations are the obvious successors when the state’s grip slips in the west, but there are many parts of the world where ethnic and tribal loyalties have never faded. Afghanistan and Somalia are countries not due to their internal cohesion, but due to the boundaries their neighbors keep with them.

Syria and Iraq are already in trouble. Turkey is feeling the heat from the conflict next door. If there is some ill advised adventure by Israel and/or the U.S. against Iran, that would leave three of four Kurdish populations in an unsupervised condition. I lack the wisdom to do more than speculate here, but if the Turks can keep it together and provide a path to European markets for Kurdish oil, what are the odds we might see a coalition type regional power form between the two parties?

And if this does come to pass, could the Armenians get their sacred mountain back as part of the redrawing of maps??

Syrian & Iraqi Conflict Merging, Possibly Spreading

UN envoy: Iraq and Syrian conflicts are merging

That headline appeared in my inbox earlier and I have been dreading it. The Syrian civil war has spilled over into Lebanon, it’s encroaching on Turkey’s territory, and it’s set off troubles in neighboring Iraq, which are now merging into an end to end regional threat.

Let’s take a look at how things got this way. The Ottoman empire laid claim to Syria and Iraq between 1512 and 1566.

Ottoman Empire 1300 1683

And they lost control of the area as a result of picking the wrong side during World War I.

Ottoman Losses 1807-1924

The territory was divided between the English and French via the Sykes-Picot Agreement, with approval from the Russians.

Sykes Picot Partition Of The Mideast 1916

Sykes Picot Partition Of The Mideast 1916

The French Syrian Mandate broke up with the loss of the Sanjak of Alexandretta back to Turkey in 1939 and the independence of Lebanon in 1943.

French Syrian Mandate Territory Losses

French Syrian Mandate Territory Losses

The British Mandate of Mesopotamia became Iraq, an independent monarchy in 1932 and a republic in 1958. Today’s ethnic map is consistent with the boundaries of the original territory. Yellow is for Sunni Arabs, green is Shia Arabs, and the Kurds are in blue.

Iraq Ethnic Groups

Iraq Ethnic Groups

I have written quite a bit about Syria’s patchwork of ethnic and religious groups. Summarizing – yellow are Sunni Arabs in the interior the dun colored areas are Kurds. The coastal region of Syria and Lebanon are very diverse and intermingled.

Syrian Ethnic Groups - Detailed Map

Syrian Ethnic Groups – Detailed Map

The Syrian conflict triggered the troubles in Iraq and the U.N. envoy now reports the two conflicts are merging. I noted that this conflict was also Spilling Into Lebanon. Refugee flows are a big part of that, as they put a support load on their neighbors.

Syrian Refugee Flows

Syrian Refugee Flows

Immediately outside the troubled trio of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, are three regional powers vying for influence – Turkey, Iran, and the money men of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. I wrote about the underlying details in Today’s Tripolar Power Struggle.

Perians, Saudis/Qataris & Turks

Perians, Saudis/Qataris & Turks

Beyond the bounds of the regional players there are global concerns which include:

  • Israel’s ill advised obsession with Iran, somewhat backed by the U.S.
  • Russia’s longstanding relationship with Syria
  • Turkey’s membership in both the European Union and NATO
  • China and Russia’s disapproval of extreme sanctions against Iran
Mideast Regional Map

Mideast Regional Map

Let’s take stock of troubles in the region:

  • Egypt – military coup against Muslim Brotherhood, supported by democratic forces
  • Yemen – outright civil war
  • Bahrain – simmering discontent, sometimes violent
  • Syria – outright civil war
  • Lebanon – being sucked into Syria’s civil war
  • Iraq – being sucked into Syria’s civil war
  • Turkey – massive protests
  • Greece – bank crash, economic implosion
  • Cyprus – bank crash, U.N. brokered peace between Greeks & Turks
  • North Caucasus – long running insurgency, Chechen jihadis turning up in Syria
  • Iran – brand new government, same ol’ impossible sanctions

What, if anything, will the United States do about this?

The U.S. left Patriot missile batteries, F-16s, and 700 troops behind in Jordan this year after the annual Eager Lion exercise.

We seem to have just one aircraft carrier with its attendant carrier strike group in the region.

Information on the disposition of Expeditionary Strike Groups, which contain helicopter carriers, amphibious assault craft, and marines are not as readily available. I believe there is one on station at or near the 5th Fleet HQ in Bahrain and another active in the Mediterranean due to threats to diplomatic posts across North Africa.

We already have Bipartisan Opposition To Syrian Intervention. Today I saw further news to the effect that even the belated announcement we were going to arm the rebels faces Congressional disapproval.

President Obama is facing criticism for having an unclear strategy to resolve the Syrian conflict. Having spent the last ten years field testing neoconservative theories in the Mideast rather than applying pragmatic diplomacy, the White House’s apparent lack of strategy may be in and of itself a strategy. That last map and conflict list looks a bit like the Balkans a century ago, right before World War I engulfed Europe. Given our history in the region anything we attempt is liable to backfire badly.

The three regional powers I described in Today’s Tripolar Power Struggle each have a vision of what qualifies as good governance and only Turkey’s thinking would be vaguely familiar to American voters. “Bringing Democracy To Country X” sounds just grand, but in this part of the world we might want to substitute “a majoritarian blood bath” for the word democracy, and then see how palatable our plans sound. It’s time we listened to those who are there regarding what will and will not work.

Tigris & Euphrates River Basin Water Loss

Tigris Euphrates Water Loss

Tigris Euphrates Water Loss

From the beginning of 2003 to the end of 2009, portions of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria that lie within the Tigris and Euphrates river basins shed 117 million acre-feet of water. That’s roughly equivalent to the volume of the Dead Sea.

I was looking for region wide studies on water usage in the Mideast when this study using NASA’s GRACE satellite appeared. The volume certainly sounds impressive – an entire Dead Sea worth of water missing, but what does that mean?

This is clearly an important issue and I felt the Climate Central story did a great job of dramatizing it and a very poor job of putting it in overall context. New wells in Iraq, reduced rainfall, but the whole concept is left adrift. Is there some red letter day in the future if the rate doesn’t change? Is there a sense that this change accelerated in the seven year sample period?

The NASA story on this provided a few clues.

The findings, to be published Friday, Feb. 15, in the journal Water Resources Research, are the result of one of the first comprehensive hydrological assessments of the entire Tigris-Euphrates-Western Iran region. Because obtaining ground-based data in the area is difficult, satellite data, such as those from NASA’s twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, are essential. GRACE is providing a global picture of water storage trends and is invaluable when hydrologic observations are not routinely collected or shared beyond political boundaries.

The first comprehensive assessment of the Tigris & Euphrates basin plus western Iran? NATO member Turkey, Syria was a client of the Soviet Union, and Iran and Iraq have come to blows during the time we had the technology to do such an assessment. This is not an environment that is friendly to transborder statistical exercises involving something as touchy as the water supply.

This is the case in other areas as well. Part of the agreements on the Jordan river involves a calculation involving the flows of the Litani river in southern Lebanon. A recent study demonstrates that while they are very close geographically, the basins of the two rivers are separate. Applying this newfound fact someone will get less water, while someone else will get more. The overall size of the pie is shrinking at a time when populations are still expanding.

Here’s a map that shows the Kurdish population of the region. Not only are they blessed with control of most of the land atop the world’s last supergiant oil field in northern Iraq, they are also the dominant ethnic group of southeast Turkey, where both the Tigris and Euphrates originate. The Kurds have long fought the ethnic Turk dominated government from Ankara and they very nearly slipped from their grasp in the 1990s. The water and oil are geographically in the hands of an ethnic group that has been discriminated against by Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

Kurds, Alawis & Druze In  Syria, Turkey & Iraq

Kurds, Alawis & Druze In Syria, Turkey & Iraq

While possession is important, if the Kurds rise in any one area it brings the attention of the other three nations. The Assad regime very carefully dealt the Kurds out of the Syrian civil war by leaving them alone. Some reports indicate that Iran and Syrian arranged payback for Turkish support of the ouster of Assad by encouraging the PKK to again take up arms again inside Turkey.

Years ago I had an Egyptian room mate and students from around the region would congregate at our house for Ramadan. There were two older students, men in their thirties, one an Arab Iraqi, the other a Kurd. I remember the first time we met, when talk turned to the difficulties the U.S. faced there, the Arab fellow said “America was a frontier, it was empty. Iraq is full“, while his Kurdish countrymen silently nodded in agreement.

The complexity of ethnicity, sect, historical animosity, and national boundaries that define the cluttered foreign policy billiard table of the Mideast present a fascinating set of puzzles for those us inclined to look closely. I fear what I am seeing is a region that is full of people, but rapidly emptying of both water and oil, and with the same inability to focus on the underlying problems that plagues us here in the U.S.