Kurdish episode shows partition is no longer a viable option in the Arab region

October 29, 2017
Complex situation. A member of Iraqi forces walks past a road sign after the recapture of Kirkuk from Kurdish control, on October 16. (AFP)

The Kurdish experi­ment with independ­ence in Iraq seemed an easy scenario to bring about given favourable historical factors, the Kurds’ readiness and tenacity as well as foreign support. However, once challenges began piling up, it was virtually impossible for the Kurdish autonomous region to split off from the mother country.

The reasons are simple. In ad­dition to the profound differences among the Kurds themselves, the independence referendum was forced on Baghdad without coordi­nation with the central government and some regional powers were opposed to the secession.

The ill-fated Kurdish experi­ment cast a heavy shadow on the partition project prepared for Iraq following the US invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Similar projects for Syria, Libya and Yemen are almost brain dead. If Iraqi Kurdistan couldn’t do it despite advanced preparation ef­forts, do other partition schemes, especially those based on sectarian considerations, for other countries stand a chance?

Observers of the Syrian crisis must recall that six years ago when the people revolted against the Assad regime, everybody antici­pated the country’s partition into three mini-states — a Kurdish one, an Alawite one and a Sunni one. However, conditions in Syria make falling into that trap pure fantasy.

Syrian unity carries more weight than partitioning the country. In the worst scenario, the warring par­ties can live with the solution of a confederation granting a very large margin of independence to regions with mixed ethnicities and sects.

Libya’s partition seems to be heading towards the same fate. In Libya, too many militias made it impossible for any one of them to control a sufficiently large territory to lay claim to a state. Tribal rather than regional affiliations had the upper consideration in the crisis and regional and international powers could not agree on a single vision for Libya. Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar has not been able to reconstitute a national Libyan army under the banner of unity. All these factors swept aside the partition solution.

The situation in Yemen is slightly different from the rest but the result is the same. In the past, the country was divided between north and south. Arab coalition forces, however, aim to keep it together under the control of the so-called legitimate government so another partition of Yemen is out of the question.

The fact remains that the Arab region suffers from a bout of early ageing. The region has seen the birth of entities that were unable to go along with the developments that guaranteed the main bases of statehood. The modern and scien­tific criteria for a country’s unity, namely in territory, population and government, need revisiting in many Arab countries where disu­nity between these components is no longer easy to hide.

The seeds of fragmentation are present in many Arab countries. The matter requires serious at­tention and persistent efforts lest some ill-intentioned parties use the fragmentation to turn people’s lives into a hellish reality. We have a telling example in Somalia. The independence of the theoretical three regions of that small country has never been acknowledged by any international body and yet So­malia has suffered the torments of fragmentation for two decades.

Economic and social underde­velopment might lead to partition but experiences show that comfort and development are not sufficient for guaranteeing unity. Catalonia’s experience is a case in point.

Many factors interact to push back the prospect of partition in many Arab countries, with the existence of a unified military institution topping the list. In Egypt, the complexities created by the revolution prevented the rise of a dominant element that could rival the army’s influence — and so the Egyptian state did not fall. Surviving military institutions in Syria, Libya and Yemen stand in the path of partition by depriving the disunited militias control of large territories.

Another factor is the contradic­tory and competing agendas of foreign powers. The effects of this are clear in Syria, where they played a big role in the survival of the Assad regime; in Iraq, where they have stopped the secession of Iraqi Kurdistan in its tracks; and in Libya and Yemen as well. Foreign powers could not agree on a com­mon definition of terrorism in the region and each backed its own horses. They meddled militarily and politically and made parti­tion a nightmarish prospect for its proponents.