In war-torn Iraq, breaking up is hard to do

Friday 04/03/2016
All main powers have expressed opposition to partition

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.