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(POMEPS Briefing) Syria’s ongoing existential conflict is arguably related to its nation-building trajectory starting in the beginning of the twentieth century. What can theories of nation-building and state formation tell us about the origins of conflict as well as future of the Syrian state?  

I have recently argued that the way a nation-state treats a non-core group within its own borders is determined largely by whether the state’s foreign policy is revisionist or cleaves to the international status quo, and whether it is allied or in rivalry with that group’s external patrons. However, as I admit in the book, my argument does not travel to all states at all times. In particular, it should apply to countries that 1) are driven from a homogenizing imperative, 2) have non-assimilated segments of the population and no caste system in place, 3) have the capacity to directly rule the population, and 4) have a ruling political elite representing a core group with a clear “national type”. In what follows, I explore how my work illuminates some of the challenges of nation-building in the Syrian case.

Arguably, the Syrian government has not been motivated by a homogenizing imperative. In The Politics of Nation-Building: Making Co-Nationals, Refugees, and MinoritiesI suggest that the main reason that leaders adopt the “nation-building option” is the reality, or anticipation, of other powers manipulating non-core groups in their state to undermine their stability or annex parts of their territory. This process is particularly conspicuous in situations where the ruling elites perceive their borders to be challenged. While this process worked in Tilly’s account of Europe[1] and fits the pattern I narrate in the interwar Balkans, it does not seem to fit so much the story in Syria. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and after a brief interlude of direct rule by Ibrahim in the mid-19th century, the territories of contemporary Syria were divided up by decree through a series of treaties. Syria was under the French Mandate since 1920 and after a tumultuous history gained independence in 1946. As it is often the case, colonial powers had to rely on local elites coming from specific groups for political and economic control. Syria was no exception and the role of the Alawis and Christian minorities was vital for the French from the beginning of their Mandate. As Wendt and Barnett put it,

“Lacking political legitimacy, the colonial state’s power was always underwritten by the actual or threatened use of force. Significant military resources were typically not available from the centre, however, and since mass mobilization was not viable for an army of occupation, colonial states tended to militarize coopted groups or ethnic minorities. A similar process occurred in colonial bureaucracies, which were staffed by persons with a vested interest in upholding the authority of an alien state. The character of colonial military and bureaucratic development, in other words, was shaped by the security needs of foreign actors and their domestic clients rather than of the mass population.” [2]

As a result of this legacy, as well as the geopolitical situation in the region, this system of choosing a loyal local ethnic group and ruling the rest of the population through it–that has its roots to the French colonial period–was perpetuated. The various military coups following independence until Hafez al-Assad consolidated his rule on the country in 1970 solidified this outcome. The legitimating principle of the Assad regime has not been state-level nationalism. In fact, repression and a carefully constructed network of informants were the basis for legitimacy in Syria for the past four decades—if not longer. To complement this apparatus Lisa Wedeen revealed a cult that the Assad regime—father and son—designed which operated as a disciplinary device. [3] For decades citizens acted as if they revered their leader. “The cult works to enforce obedience, induce complicity, isolate Syrians from one another, and set guidelines for public speech and behavior” as Wedeen put it in 1999.[4]

Another set of conditions for my argument to be applicable is that part of the population has not yet been successfully assimilated and there is no “caste structure” in place since in caste systems assimilation is by definition impossible.[5] Syria is definitely a heterogenous society, but the heterogeneity is more pronounced depending on which cleavage dimension is salient at each historical moment. In terms of ethnicity, about 90% of the population was Arab before the civil war—including about 500,000 Palestinians and up to 1.3 million Iraqi refugees—while there were about 9% Kurds and smaller groups of Armenians, Circassians, and Turkomans. In terms of religion, based on 2005 estimates 74% of the population were Sunni Muslims, Alawis were about 12%, Druze 3%, while there are also some small numbers of other Muslim sects, Christians 10%, about 200 Jews, and Yazidis.[6] Finally, in terms of mother tongue we find the vast majority speaking Arabic, and then Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic, and Circassian being used by the respective non-core groups. Moreover, although this was not a caste system the mode of rule was definitely blocking social mobility and especially political clout for non-Alawis and their close allies and informants. The rule of the Alawi controlled Baath party coupled with the state of emergency that had been in force since 1963 had decisively alienated the Arab Sunni majority. But following the Arab Spring and coupled with past violence, inequalities, and repression that many reportedly felt in Syria, resistance against the regime grew and by now it has turned into a multiparty civil war. The opposition is fragmented but defections from the Assad side have also been plentiful. The lack of any national cohesion is apparent.

Nation-building cannot be pursued by a failed state that cannot directly rule its population. Assad’s regime clearly did not suffer from this problem. Syria was far from a failed state. In fact, it is a state with high literacy rates– 88% for males and 74%for females. But even if Syrian ruling elites faced the pressures I described above and had the capacity to do so, they would have had a hard time to nation-build. For nation-building to occur, the ruling political elites of the state must represent a core group that is well defined and has a clear criterion of inclusion—a “ national type” in what Eric Hobsbawm called the age of nationalism. In Syria, the closest thing we can find to a constitutive story in Assad’s Syria has to do with a Pan-Arab identity. Particularly, a version of baathist ideology that combines a supranational form of nationalism that calls for the unity of Arabs with anti-imperialism, anti-Zionism and secular socialism.[7] Arab nationalism, a form of unification nationalism,[8] was vital in the struggle for independence—a by-product of British machinations against the Ottoman Empire—as well as the decolonization movement against the French. Thus, the state-level type of nationalism that dominated Europe, did not manage to emerge in much of the Arab Middle East, since such a unification was opposed by multiple great and regional powers. The short experiment of the United Arab Republic that brought Egypt and Syria together in a union between 1958 and 1961 was stillborn but characteristic of the supranational character of the constitutive story that motivated Syrian leadership.  Given this configuration, it is really hard to identify a Syrian constitutive story and this is reflected in the school curriculum that primarily emphasizes anti-Zionist ideas, Pan-Arab ideas, and ironically, Sunni Islam.[9] Thus, while linguistically and ethnically there could be an overwhelming majority constructed–that of Arabs and Arabic–if one had to decide what constitutes the core group in Assad’s Syria, they would most likely suggest that it is the Alawis – together with other minorities – in the exclusion of the Sunni Arab majority.

Despite the well-known arguments that territory is becoming increasingly less important in our globalized world, myriad of territorial disputes, dozens of border changes and the long list of “nations without a state,” or “stateless nations,” point to a more sobering picture. For the past couple of years, several external state and non-state actors are aligning themselves with internal factions or non-core groups in Syria. However, the most powerful regional states Turkey, Iran, and Israel – all non-Arab– are unable to dominate Syria through these local alliances. The USA can be an arbiter of the conflict by intervening with Sunni, which would please Turkey and the Gulf states along with Sunni populations in Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt—each for different reasons.  Alternatively, if Iran prevails, Alawis in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shia minorities in the Gulf States, and the Shia majority of Iraq would rejoice. But a more cynical point of view, one perhaps best summarized by Ed Luttwak,[10] suggests that the USA—and even Israel —should allow this war to go on since it is in their strategic benefit for the factions to fight each other thus preventing the emergence of a strong and unified Arab state, or a victorious Iran.  A note of caution flows from my work in the Balkans. Shifting alliances in the context of the current multiparty civil war with ample external backing, coupled with the rapid changes in control over territory already have lead and will continue to lead to repeated instances of violent exclusionary policies, since non-core groups that are perceived as enemy-backed, or collaborating with the enemy, are going to be targeted by the respective sides of the conflict.

A version of this essay was first published atThe Political Science of Syria’s War, POMEPS Briefing #22, on December 18, 2013.


[1] Tilly, Charles (ed.). 1975. The Formation of National States in Western Europe.  Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press; Tilly, Charles. 1990. Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990-1990. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell. Tilly, Charles and Wim P. Blockmans (eds.). 1994. Cities and the Rise of States in Europe, AD 1000 to 1800. Boulder: Westview Press.

[2] Wendt, Alexander and Michael Barnett. 1993. “Dependent State Formation and Third World Militarization”,Review of International Studies 19: 321-47, p. 331.

[3] Whitman, Elizabeth. “Stalemate in Syria,” The Nation, April 23, 2012.

[4] Wedeen, Lisa. 1999. Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[5] They involve an “ideology of inferiority for the subordinate groups” and thus an almost fixed ethnic structure that is perceived as natural. For more on hierarchical systems, see Horowitz, Donald. 1985. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. University of California Press, pp. 21–32.

[7] It is characteristic that both in 1982 when the regime violently crushed the Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in Hama and in mid-March 2011 following the brutal response of the regime to the protests in Daraa, the conflict was attributed to Zionists and Americans intervening in Syrian internal affairs using fifth columns as agents of Western imperialism. See Wedeen 1999 and Seale, Patrick. “The Syrian Time Bomb Forget Libya”, Foreign Policy, March 28, 2011.

[8] Hechter, Michael. 2000. Containing Nationalism. Oxford University Press.

[9] Landis, Joshua M.  2003. “Islamic Education in Syria: Undoing Secularism,” presented at the conference onConstructs of Inclusion and Exclusion: Religion and Identity Formation in Middle Eastern School Curricula, Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University.

[10] Luttwak, Edward. “In Syria, America Loses if Either Side Wins,” The New York Times, August 24, 2013.

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In my book, The Politics of Nation-Building, I explore the reasons behind a state’s choice to assimilate, accommodate, or exclude ethnic groups within its territory.[1] I develop a theory that focuses on the international politics of nation-building arguing that a state’s nation-building policies toward non-core groups — any aggregation of individuals perceived as an unassimilated ethnic group by the ruling elite of a state — are influenced by both its foreign policy goals and its relations with the external patrons of these groups. Through a detailed study of the interwar Balkans, I conclude that the way a state treats a non-core group within its own borders is determined largely by whether the state’s foreign policy is revisionist or cleaves to the international status quo, and whether it is allied or in rivalry with that group’s external patrons. However, as I admit in the book, this argument does not travel to states where the ruling elites are not motivated by a homogenizing imperative.

Some places in the world are run by core groups consisting of apparent minimum winning coalitions,[2] others by elites that go at great lengths to establish national states.[3] Why do some countries have leaders that try to make the national and the political unit overlap and others that opt to rule with a minimum winning coalition? One argument suggests that maybe the degree of diversity prevents the nation-building path in some cases, other arguments focus on the pattern of spread of nationalist ideology and/or the prevalence of competing ideologies such as communism, yet others put forth the importance of war-making and imitation of successful military tactics as a mechanism that accounts for the spread of nationalism and the nation-state system.[4] In The Politics of Nation-Building I build on some of these and suggest that the main reason that leaders adopt the nation-building option is the reality, or anticipation, of other powers using non-core groups in their state to undermine their stability or even annex parts of their territory.

The European story is well known and so are the interactions between the Russians and the Europeans. Tilly’s argument that war made the modern national state may be correct but it is also based on an understood reality: borders were constantly changing during the centuries that modern European states developed.[5] But the Westphalian principles have been adhered to more in some parts of the world than others.[6] Border fixity did not only vary tremendously over time but it also significantly varied crossnationally across the globe.[7] For example, following the Treaty of Berlin in the end of the 19th century the borders of Africa “froze” after the decision of the Great Powers.[8] This led to a completely different incentive structure for both ruling elites and counterhegemonic elites in countries with “fixed borders”. Beyond the case of Africa, however, we can point to other places with similar levels of border fixity that resulted from different geopolitical configurations, such as Latin America—the back yard of the USA—or the Middle East, where the colonial powers also left their mark on the demarcation of borderlines.[9]

Overall, areas that were part of a geopolitical configuration that guaranteed border fixity had less of an incentive to pursue nation-building policies. Within these cases the only countries that I would expect to see nation-building policies emerging involve cases where an external power (major power, regional power, neighboring state, diaspora group and so forth) attempted to cultivate a fifth column within their territorial boundaries. Moreover, it would not be surprising if this phenomenon of external backing of non-core groups would be less pronounced in regions where border fixity was perceived to be really high. However, this ‘equilibrium’ becomes more or less sustainable based on the structure of the international system and the ability—real and/or perceived—of regional actors to defy these geopolitical configurations I described above.

The crucial question today is: What is the future of border fixity in today’s world? More importantly, what is the perception of the relevant actors across the world with respect to this question? The list of border changes is longer than we want to admit. One just needs to cite former Yugoslavia and USSR;[10] but more recently we find cases beyond the traditional spaces where nation-building has already made its mark like Sudan.[11]Discussion of border changes has also emerged in the case of Iraq, Mali, and even Syria. It remains to be seen if any such plans will materialize. Granted the list of cases could have been much longer if nationalist principles were to be fully operative but this is not a satisfactory answer. Even if we only get a few dozen of the hundreds of border changes we would get based on nationalist principles, the reverberations will be felt globally. Moreover, such a situation would further push the spread of nationalism, encourage external involvement, and boost nation-building projects across these areas. We are already observing manifestations of this dynamic, but more border changes would certainly intensify it. This in turn will have the direst consequences for the well being of ethnic groups that are perceived as having ties with external powers that are perceived as enemies by core elites. Shi’as in various Sunni dominated states in the Middle East are a case in point.

What can be done? The International community can impact perceptions of border fixity by either investing resources in upholding the norm of territorial sovereignty or by promoting regional integration schemes around the globe that would indirectly guarantee existing borders and, according to The Politics of Nation-Building, would also lead to accommodationist policies. However, neither of the two solutions is sufficient without important investments in economic and political development.

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 The article was published at e-IR on May 8, 2013 | © e-International Relations (e-IR)

Harris Mylonas got his Ph.D. at Yale University in 2008 and then joined the Political Science department at George Washington University as an Assistant Professor in the fall of 2009. He was also an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies in 2008-2009 and 2011-2012 academic years.

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[1] Harris Mylonas, The Politics of Nation-Building: Making Co-Nationals, Refugees, and Minorities. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

[2] William H. Riker, The Theory of Political Coalitions. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962; Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, James D. Morrow, Randolph M. Siverson and Alastair Smith, “Political Institutions, Policy Choice and the Survival of Leaders,” British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Oct., 2002), pp. 559-590; Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce; Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson and James D. Morrow. The Logic of Political Survival. The MIT Press, 2003.

[3] Eugen Weber. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976; Ernest GellnerNations and Nationalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983; Smith, Anthony. 1986. “State-Making and Nation-Building,” in John Hall (ed.), States in History. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 228–263; Rogers Smith. Stories of Peoplehood: The Politics and Morals of Political Memberships. Cambridge University Press, 2003; Keith Darden and Anna Maria Grzymała-Busse. “The Great Divide: Literacy, Nationalism, and the Communist Collapse,” World Politics – Volume 59, Number 1 (2006): 83-115.

[4] Connor, Walker. The National Question in Marxist-Leninist Theory and Strategy. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984Barry Posen. “Nationalism, the Mass Army and Military Power,” International Security, 18, 2 (1993): 80-124; Andreas Wimmer. Waves of War: Nationalism, State Formation and Ethnic Exclusion in the Modern World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[5] Charles Tilly (ed.). The Formation of National States in Western Europe.  Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975; Charles Tilly.Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990-1990. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1990. Charles Tilly and Wim P. Blockmans (eds.). Cities and the Rise of States in. Europe, AD 1000 to 1800. Boulder: Westview Press, 1994.

[6] Leo Gross. “The Peace of Westphalia, 1648-1948,” The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jan., 1948), pp. 20-41.

[7] Boaz Atzili. Good Fences, Bad Neighbors: Border Fixity and International Conflict. Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press, 2012.

[8] Förster, Stig, Wolfgang J. Mommsen, and Ronald Edward Robinson. Bismarck, Europe, and Africa: The Berlin Africa Conference 1884–1885 and the Onset of Partition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

[9] Livingstone, Grace. America’s backyard: the United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror. London; New York: Zed Books, 2009.

[10] Rogers Brubaker. Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996; Ronald Grigor Suny. The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union. Stanford University Press, 1993.

[11] Andrew Natsios. Sudan, South Sudan, and Darfur: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 2012.

The killing of the US Ambassador last week in Benghazi and the recent wave of attacks on NATO personnel by uniformed Afghan police and military highlight the perils of international efforts to build states and societies on foreign soil. Why is it that the people we arm and assist keep on turning those weapons against us?

The New York Times, CBSnews, Washington Postall reported on Sept 17, 2012 that the number of NATO personnel killed in Afghanistan by uniformed Afghan military and police is already at 51 this year, up from a total of 35 for all of last year. Approximately one in six of the NATO soldiers killed in Afghanistan this year were killed by our local allies and trainees. And this only counts those who killed while in uniform. The attrition and desertion rate from the Afghan National Army and police forces is exceptionally high and many have joined the ranks of the Taliban.  If we consider the number of allied personnel killed by soldiers and police who have been armed and trained by coalition forces, the number is certainly much higher.

The US has wisely put the training of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) on hold for a month until it can improve procedures for vetting its recruits, but the problem runs much deeper.

In a symposium published recently in Ethnopolitics we debated the merits of international state-building efforts.  Our main lesson: There is more to state-building than simply expanding the ranks of the army and police.  Expanding the army and police may be state-building, but it might just as easily be insurgency-building if it is not preceded by systematic efforts to build loyalty and to carefully select recruits. If you are unsure of the loyalties of the recruits who you are training, it’s best not to train them at all.

Here is the link to our piece, which was followed by some responses (Erin JenneFotini Christia,Gordon BardosDavid Siroky & Yoav Gortzak) and our reply to their thoughtful comments.

Keith Darden and Harris MylonasThis post first appeared on The Monkey Cage (September 20, 2012).

In 2008, Kosovo declared its independence; on July 22nd, the International Court of justice ruled that its declaration was legal. In many parts of the West, especially in Washington, this news was greeted with applause. Reading the Kosovo Declaration of Independence, however, one is amazed at the ability of politicians and pundits to compare it to the American Declaration. Joe Biden even goes so far as to compare the Kosovo Prime Minister to George Washington.

In many ways, the situation of the colonies is analogous to the one in Kosovo. The colonies were stuck between the influence of France and Britain, just as Kosovo is caught between Russia—Serbia’s protector—and the United States. And, the colonies were aware that dissolving their ties to Britain risked igniting separations throughout the world, just as the Kosovo declaration might be a precedent for such declarations elsewhere.

Yet, the way in which America declared independence is drastically different from Kosovo. The Kosovo declaration is short, addresses specific United Nations plans for the composition of government, and thanks NATO for its past help.  What’s notable is what’s missing: unlike the American Declaration of Independence, it does not justify its secession.

The signers of the American declaration, aware of the danger that secession would cause, explained that“Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” But, given the specific abuses of the King, it is the colonies’ “right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” Instead of justifying secession through an appeal to right, the Kosovo declaration narrowly and legalistically justifies its special status. When the American declaration lists twenty-six specific and irrefutable grievances with England; the Kosovo declaration provides no grievance whatsoever. The American declaration is couched in a sophisticated moral and political theory in order to show that any individual can endorse its conclusions; the Kosovo declaration is couched in narrow legalisms designed to provide political cover for the western powers that recognize it.

These are no minor differences. Jefferson thought it right that a declaration of independence makes claims on the conscience of the world, outlining the case for independence, enshrining it in a single compelling statement: “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”  The Kosovo declaration skirts debate, does not make a case for powers to recognize or support it, and represents an international system in which power, not conscience, rules. The American declaration sparked a global debate over the rights of peoples; the Kosovo declaration is sparking a trivial debate over the right interpretation of a UN Security Council Resolution.

In light of the NATO involvement in the Balkans during the late 1990s, the U.S. support for Kosovo’s independence is not surprising. Historically, the U.S. has traditionally backed self-determination movements and independence through de facto recognition. The U.S. supported the French declaration of Independence in 1793, the Greek in the early 19th century—and many more—under the Monroe Doctrine. But this principled position of the U.S. did not last. In the last century, the U.S. has refused to recognize de facto states in Central and Latin America in order to discourage potential rebels and delegitimize Communist regimes. For different reasons, the U.S. did not recognize conquests made by the Fascist Italy and Germany as well as by Stalin before and during WWII. Today, the U.S. refuses to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia but intensely supports Kosovo’s independence. In other words, over time principled foreign policy soon enough gave way to Realpolitik and pragmatism.

In 1953, President Eisenhower declared that “Any nation’s right to a form of government and an economic system of its choosing is inalienable. Any nation’s attempt to dictate to other nations their form of government is indefensible.” Unfortunately, today’s rhetoric does not match reality. Russia and the United States accuse each other of manufacturing independence movements and then guaranteeing their security until de facto independence is secured. Russia accuses of the U.S. of doing this in Kosovo and the U.S. returns the “favor” in the cases of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Our point is not that Albanians in Kosovo have no case to make; but that they have not made their case. The misplaced and even dangerous triumphalism with which western media greeted the ICJ ruling sends the wrong message to aspiring secessionists. The Kosovo declaration addresses narrow international rules and wide channels of power; it does not address the universal conscience of the world. No one can endorse the document because there is nothing to endorse: no cause, no claim, and no challenge to the Serbian government. If the American declaration of independence was the beginning of the growth of an international community that supports self-determination and democratization, the Kosovo declaration represents the failure of the international community to move beyond power politics, disguising Realpolitik with international law. Is this the international system we aspire to?

Eric Grynaviski and Harris Mylonas are Assistant Professors of Political Science at the George Washington University. This article first appeared on the blog of the The Utopian on November 30, 2010.


On June 12 the leader of a sovereign state in Russia’s periphery reportedly requested Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and the US government to send troops to its territory to restore order. Both leaders –for the time being—have refused. Russia was eager to intervene back in August of 2008 when it fought a war against Georgia over two breakaway republics, under the pretext of humanitarianism. Likewise, the US and NATO intervened in Serbia under the rationale of preventing human suffering in Kosovo. Why did the two governments refuse to intervene in Kyrgyzstan even though it is experiencing a major humanitarian crisis?  The short answer is that the geopolitical importance of Kyrgyzstan to Russia and the US is much lower than in the previous cases of military intervention.  Yet the low stakes should also make cooperation in the troubled Central Asian nation easier.

Since the overthrow of the Kyrgyz regime on April 7, the new government has been unable to provide security throughout most of the country. As a result, the past two months, local clashes have broken out in several regions, sometimes along ethnic lines. Beginning June 11 deadly attacks perpetrated by ethnic Kyrgyz on minority Uzbeks broke out and violence  spread throughout the country’s southern half  in a matter of hours. According to the latest official reports, over several hundred have been killed, thousands are wounded and 400,000 have fled toward neighboring Uzbekistan.

The US and Russia both perceive limited strategic interests in Kyrgyzstan. Since 2001, the US has operated an airbase there, primarily for logistical support for Afghanistan. Russia also has a military base as part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)–a regional security body of former Soviet states. Both powers have thus far turned down the Kyrgyz government’s request to intervene.Russia has stated that it will only send troops if the CSTO agrees on such an action. Contrast this with the rapid Russian intervention in the Georgian crisis.

What is different this time around? Besides safeguarding their military bases, the two powers perceive little at stake in Kyrgyzstan. The country is impoverished, possesses no oil or gas, it does not border Russia, and has no known al-Qaeda presence.  Unlike Georgia, Kyrgyzstan has never been under consideration for NATO membership and is therefore not at risk of exiting Russia’s “sphere of influence.”

Kyrgyzstan’s low geopolitical value has left it in the lurch. The US and Russia have proved willing to intervene –even when uninvited– for “humanitarian” purposes if there is a strategic interest involved. This is illustrated by the military interventions in Serbia and Georgia. However, a clear-cut case of humanitarian crisis occurring under the nose of 1,000 American troops can easily be ignored.

If the two great powers of the region are unwilling to intervene, other states may take matters into their own hands, to the detriment of all. Thus far, the government of Uzbekistan has not threatened any military action to protect its co-ethnics, despite having the most powerful military in the region. Uzbekistan has always prioritized internal stability above all else. Its lack of initiative should not be surprising—countries do not always act to protect their co-ethnics.

However, as residents of Uzbekistan witness the incoming throngs of beleaguered fellow Uzbeks and hear their stories, they are likely to put pressure on their government to rescue those (primarily men) who stayed behind.  The Uzbek government may then have to choose between suppressing its own people and invading its neighbor.

Kyrgyzstan’s only hope lies in a peacekeeping force from outside the region that can stop the violence and protect vulnerable populations.  Fortunately, US-Russian relations have been “reset” since Obama became president and mistrust has been replaced by engagement on a number of issues. Given that Kyrgyzstan is not a geopolitical flashpoint and both powers have an interest in preventing an escalation of the conflict, the two should be able to cooperate with minimal friction to address the crisis.  The alternative is more instability that may irreparably change the character of the region.   The US and Russia should answer Kyrgyzstan’s call for help.

Harris Mylonas, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at The Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University and Scott Radnitz, Assistant Professor of International Studies, University of Washington.  Radnitz’s book, Weapons of the Wealthy: Predatory Regimes and Elite-led Protests in Central Asia, is forthcoming from Cornell University Press in December 2010. (A version of this piece first appeared on Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review on June 23, 2010).