IA Geopolitics, representation and Syria

I am about to start a set of five Geopolitics lectures for the first year (IA) undergraduate Human Geography paper here at Cambridge. It is teaching I really enjoy, starting with some of the ‘foundations’ of Geopolitics, entwined as they are in the institutionalisation of geography as a university discipline in the UK and US. These early discussions explore the early fusions of human and physical geography in attempts to produce an over-arching science of human society, work that contributed to the rise of environmental determinism, where the environment was imagined to determine the social and cultural characteristics of populations.

The course goes on to trace the impact of ‘critical’ perspectives towards geopolitics and following the scholarship of luminaries such as Gerard Toal, Merje Kuus, Klaus Dodds, Jo Sharp and Jason Dittmer (amongst many others) we then explore how danger is framed spatially and the implications for politics at a variety of spatial scales. Partly this is a question of representation: why and how are certain places coded as threatening? What kind of geographical imaginations are cultivated through these representations? And what do such accounts of threat tell us about imaginations of what it is to be secure?

Inevitably we can turn to unfolding political events to illustrate the power of such strategies: in the case of Syria the co-existence of numerous geopolitical frames points to the complexity of these processes,where a  ‘treble’ threat of Bashir al-Assad, the Islamic State and the exodus of refugees has been deployed by the UK government to bolster a range of foreign policy positions. Of course, these accounts of threat spill over into wider regional questions, in particular following the intervention of Russia, the links to the US-led intervention in Iraq and the threat by the Syrian government to the stability of the region as a whole. As these geopolitical stories and scales shift and morph we can trace the differing ‘threat’ posed to the UK, and perhaps as importantly, this illuminates different understandings of (human, national, territorial) security.

Some readings that help explore the geopolitics of the Syrian conflict:

Barnes, J. (2009). Managing the Waters of Baՙth Country: The Politics of Water Scarcity in Syria. Geopolitics, 14(3), 510-530.

Hazbun, W. (2010). US Policy and the Geopolitics of Insecurity in the Arab World. Geopolitics, 15(2), 239-262.

Mamadouh, V. (2013). Making Sense of Ongoing Revolutions: Geopolitical and Other Analyses of the Wave of Arab Uprisings Since December 2010.Geopolitics, 18(3), 742-750.

Also see the brilliant commentaries by the international Crisis Group:


Alex Jeffrey, October 2015


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