Periphery No More: The Jazira Between Local, Regional and International Dynamics

Andrea Plebani*

*Corresponding author

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Despite being divided by the Syrian-Iraqi border, the Jazira, the region lying between the mid-upper courses of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, has significant internal coherence based on extensive cultural and blood linkages, a distinct local identity and a cross-border economy built on licit commerce and illicit trafficking. The emergence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya) over large swaths of the Syrian and Iraqi territories brought back to the fore the importance of the area, transforming it into the “launching pad” of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s (ʾAbū Bakr al-Baghdādi) project aimed at overcoming the “Sykes-Picot legacy” and at redefining the whole international order. The magnitude of the threat represented by the organization of the Islamic State (IS) and its capacity to extend its influence to different parts of the wider Middle East pushed major international actors to temporarily set aside their quarrels over the Syrian battleground to declare open war on IS. While not contributing to the formation of a coherent and unified international front against the organization of the Islamic State, the battle for IS-held territories in Syria and Iraq transformed large parts of the Jazira into a shatterbelt, i.e. an area where tensions between major regional and international actors could be unleashed without resulting in a direct confrontation between them. Furthermore, especially in Syria, the very presence of IS over an arch bisecting the country from north to east resulted in the formation of a buffer zone that de facto avoided a direct confrontation between local, regional and international opponents mustering almost unreconcilable positions. The liberation of Mosul and Raqqa and the huge losses inflicted on IS deprived the group of its Syrian-Iraqi heartland, freeing millions of people from its grip. Yet it also resulted in the elimination of the Jaziran shatterbelt/buffer zone and in the opening of a new phase of protracted instability. Neither Baghdad nor Damascus succeeded in fully restoring their authority over the area, which soon became a battleground for key local, regional and international actors involved in a game of shadows much more complex than generally assumed. A situation further complicated by the resilience of IS-linked networks that demonstrated their ability to project their influence well beyond isolated redoubts in the middle of nowhere. These factors notwithstanding, most of the geopolitical elements that underpin Jazira’s current centrality are there to stay, attesting to the importance of an area that has for too long been perceived as a peripheral territory devoid of any specific relevance.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationStates, Actors and Geopolitical Drivers in the Mediterranean. Perspectives on the New Centrality in a Changing Region
EditorsRiccardo Redaelli, Francesca Maria. Corrao
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Iraq
  • Syria
  • heartland
  • shatterbelt


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