“Syria,” Gen. David Petraeus recently concluded, “may be a Humpty Dumpty that can’t be put back together again.” Likewise, Iraq as we know it appears to be disintegrating along ethno-sectarian lines. A host of factors—the Arab Spring, the brutality of ISIS and Assad, the ineptitude of the Iraqi government and weakness of the Iraqi state, Iran’s intervention in Syria, America’s withdrawal from Iraq, ancient religious differences exploited by Shiite Iran and Sunni ISIS—have contributed to this unraveling. The challenge for U.S. policymakers is not how to preserve the borders of Iraq and Syria—how to “put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” in Petraeus’s words—but rather how to protect U.S. interests amid the cascading chaos. The best way to do that may be to allow Iraq and Syria to go the way of Yugoslavia.
Partition is tricky and should never be entered into lightly. First, it’s at odds with the Enlightenment notion that people can look past their superficial differences and find a way to get along, that what unites us is bigger than what divides us, that character is more important than creed and tribe.
Second, it always looks better and simpler on paper than how it plays out in reality. Think of the partitions of territory following World War I and World War II, the consequences of which we continue to deal with today. These include wars in Iraq and Syria, the ongoing Israel-Palestinian dispute, constant crises in Serbia and Kosovo and the hair-trigger standoff in Korea.
Third, partition can undermine international stability. For almost four centuries, the world has been organized and governed by nation-states with clearly defined and internationally recognized borders. This has served as the very foundation of international order. When we begin to erase those borders, there are consequences.
However, when trying to hold a state together becomes bloodier, more costly and more disruptive to international order than allowing it to break apart, the prudent course is to let that state dissolve. We are nearing that moment in Iraq and Syria.
That’s what happened in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The postwar creation known as Yugoslavia was “a miniature empire run by the Serbs,” historian Paul Johnson writes. Yugoslavia’s non-Serbs bristled at that. From the very beginning, the peoples of Yugoslavia—some Catholic, some Muslim, some Orthodox, some oriented toward Europe, some toward Russia, some toward Turkey—did not get along. But they remained glued together, at least until 1991, when Yugoslavia finally came undone. Over the next eight years, the wars that dismembered Yugoslavia claimed some 250,000 lives. Yugoslavia is now seven countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia-Hercegovina (which is further divided into Serb and Bosniak-Croat statelets). And Europe is more stable and more peaceful as a result of its dissolution.
When the League of Nations entrusted the Ottoman Empire’s wreckage to Britain and France, the two imperial powers haphazardly stitched together or tore apart ethno-religious groupings that should have been handled with much more care. These unnatural groupings and divisions explain why the likes of Saddam Hussein, Hafez Assad and Bashar Assad were so ruthless. Fear and violence were perhaps the only way to hold these countries together.
The war in Syria—a civil war superheated by external factors like the ongoing Sunni-Shiite contest, the Islamic State’s desire to carve out a caliphate, Russia’s geopolitical interests, Iran’s lunge for regional hegemony—has claimed 310,000 lives in less than five years. Iraq’s postwar war—again, a multi-sided civil war—has claimed 166,200 lives in nearly 13 years, with more than 1,200 Iraqi civilians dying per month due to violence in 2015.
One caveat: Iraq is not a mess because America intervened. Rather, America intervened because Iraq was a mess. As Gen. Ray Odierno recalls of his early-2003 arrival in Iraq, “What I underestimated when I got there was the societal devastation that was occurring in Iraq.” In other words, it was not the 2003 invasion of Iraq that turned Iraq into a killing field. Saddam Hussein did that by waging war on his own people.
Saddam’s 1987-88 pogrom against the Kurdish minority killed more than 50,000 people. Saddam executed 250,000 people during the 1991 uprisings following his Gulf War defeat. Stephen Cass, an expert in Iraqi history from Oxford University, notes that Saddam murdered 600,000 civilians. “Coldly taken as a daily average for the 24 years of Saddam’s reign, these numbers give us a horrifying picture of between 70 and 125 civilian deaths per day for every one of Saddam’s 8,000-odd days in power.” That translates into a monthly total of between 2,100 and 3,750 Iraqis killed by the Iraqi government during Saddam’s brutal reign.
When, Not If
So it’s no surprise that the beleaguered peoples who live in what we call Iraq may have little allegiance to the Iraqi state. Even so, Petraeus argues that “There is still a huge centrifugal force in Iraq, and it is the distribution of the oil revenues.”
Petraeus may be right. If anyone understands Iraq’s ethnic-political-religious dynamics, it’s the man who pulled Iraq from the precipice of civil war. But the signs are not good: Many of Iraq’s Sunnis have abandoned the political process and turned to violence. Iraq’s Shiites have turned to Iran. And Iraq’s Kurds are turning their autonomy into de facto independence.
Some Americans forget—many more simply don’t know—that Iraq’s Kurds have been under the protective wing of American power since 1991. At the end of the first Gulf War, as Saddam tried to strangle the friendless Kurds into submission, President George H.W. Bush dispatched U.S. ground forces to protect them and ordered U.S. air assets to enforce a no fly zone over a large swath of northern Iraq. This allowed the Kurds to live in relative safety and begin building a semi-sovereign Kurdistan.
The Kurds remain the largest ethnic group without a state. Perhaps that’s about to change. Iraq’s Kurds govern themselves under the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). They embrace democratic governance and economic freedom. The Economist magazine rates KRG’s business environment better than that of Indonesia, Jordan, Russia and India. The Kurdish military, known as the peshmerga, is the only effective fighting force indigenous to Iraq. Coordinating closely with U.S. forces, the peshmerga has been crucial to battlefield gains against ISIS. In short, Iraq’s Kurdish region represents the only stable part of Iraq or Syria—and the only thing close to a viable nation-state inside the borders of Iraq.
Full independence for Iraq’s Kurds is a matter of when—not if. “Independent Kurdistan is coming,” says KRG President Masoud Barzani. “It will take place when the security situation is resolved.” When the Kurds take that step, the myth known as Iraq will be finished. When that happens, the United States should be prepared to help the freest, most stable, most pro-American part of Iraq join the family of nations. Critics of President George W. Bush cannot undo the decision to invade Iraq, and critics of President Obama cannot undo the decision to withdraw from Iraq. But helping the Kurds can address the challenges of the here and now: defeating jihadism, salvaging America’s precarious security architecture in the Middle East and preserving U.S. influence in the region.
Interestingly, policymakers spanning the political spectrum, from President Obama’s vice president to President Bush’s UN ambassador, have come to the conclusion that it’s time to stop resisting the centrifugal forces that have been pulling on Iraq and Syria. And there is some logic to this. If the artificial post-World War I construct known as Yugoslavia can melt into multiple independent nation-states, why can’t the artificial post-World War I constructs known as Iraq and Syria?
Some will argue that such a course of action would play into the jihadists’ hands. Quite the opposite: Allowing Syria and Iraq to go the way of Yugoslavia would emphasize and reinforce the nationhood, sovereignty, independence, separateness and uniqueness of each of their successor states, thereby serving as a bulwark against the Islamic State’s bid for a transnational caliphate.
With Russian, European, Turkish, Saudi and Jordanian buy-in—along with the requisite sweeteners and assurances—one can imagine Washington building support for a regional political framework in which Iraq and Syria give way to four or more sovereign nation-states representing various ethnic and religious groups (see the above map, courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty).
Of course, that would presuppose Washington leading, which seems as likely as Syria and Iraq surviving.