In war-torn Iraq, breaking up is hard to do
LONDON - US Secretary of State John Kerry told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that it might soon be too late to ensure the survival of Syria as a single state.
If hopes for a ceasefire evaporate and there is no shift towards a transitional government in the coming months, it would be time to move to a Plan B that could involve the country’s partition, he said in a February 23rd hearing.
Warnings of Syria fragmenting into sectarian-ethnic statelets — Sunni, Alawite and Kurdish — could equally apply to neighbouring Iraq, which has a Shia majority. In the semi-autonomous territory of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq there is a renewed proposal for a referendum seeking independence from Baghdad.
In Iraq’s largely Shia south, where more than 60% of the country’s vast oil reserves lie, Basra has been convulsed by tribal violence and local politicians are pressing for autonomy. They complain that the central government takes the province’s oil but fails to provide adequate services.
Iraq’s minority Sunnis are torn between a brutal Islamic State (ISIS) regime, which controls a large segment of western Iraq, and a Shia-dominated government they accuse of ignoring Sunni rights.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter raised a possible break-up of Iraq in mid-2015 when he speculated before congressmen about what would happen if a central government representing all communities was not viable.
“If that government can’t do what it’s supposed to do, then we’ll still try to enable local ground forces, if they’re willing to partner with us, to keep stability in Iraq,” he said. “But there will not be a single state of Iraq.”
In Iraq, as in Syria, the idea of acknowledging de facto fragmentation by drawing new borders that reflect the reality on the ground may seem an increasingly appealing option.
It was what happened in the Balkans after the murderous civil wars of the 1990s that saw the break-up of Yugoslavia, an entity that emerged from the ruins of World War I as did the states of the Middle East.
It is not for nothing that the process by which states fragment as a result of ethnic conflict is known as “Balkanisation”.
The present map of the Middle East is justifiably considered as the artificial creation of outside powers, specifically France and Britain, drawn to serve their own geopolitical interests rather than those of the inhabitants.
Redrawing the borders almost a century later, however, is an option that might create at least as many problems as it attempts to resolve. The Yugoslav wars were largely a consequence of Serbia’s attempts to exert its hegemony over its neighbours. There was a general Western consensus supporting the communities targeted, while a weakened post-Soviet Russia was unable to turn the tide in favour of its Serb ally.
In the case of Syria and Iraq, however, all the main powers have expressed opposition to partition. Even the statements by Kerry and Carter were expressed as warnings rather than preferences, despite widely circulating conspiracy theories that the United States is intent on fragmenting the region.
Turkey and Iran have both forcefully expressed their hostility to partition, particularly in relation to the prospect of independence for the Kurds. Despite being on opposite sides in the Syrian conflict, Tehran and Ankara see eye to eye on the Kurdish issue at least.
On a fence-mending visit to Turkey in January, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Rahimpour said: “Kurds are our historical friends. And we want them to continue their existence in prosperity and happiness within the states they live in.
“Our region is not strong enough to bear new crises. We hope Kurds in other countries will enjoy full citizenship rights as Kurds in Iran do. And if we defend the territorial integrity of Turkey and Iran, we do the same for Iraq and Syria as well.”
Given Tehran’s harsh crackdown on Iran’s Kurdish separatists over the years, the Kurds might consider Rahimpour’s comments off the mark in terms of policy towards Kurdish secession.
But in what is presently northern Iraq, an independent Kurdish state might be feasible, given the territory’s oil reserves.
However, faced with the hostility of its neighbours and with no access to the sea, an independent Kurdistan there would continue to be subject to opposition from neighbouring states that fear the rise of nationalism among their Kurdish minorities.
Shia Iraq might survive as a separate entity but what would be the political and economic future of any future Sunnistan that has no oil or other natural resources?
Syria and Iraq might be artificial creations of the former imperial powers that divide ethnic and religious communities as much as they unite them but the vision of a region of micro-states prospering in their own territorial bubbles is perhaps as unlikely as the ISIS vision of a region with no borders at all.