Much has been made in recent days about the alleged idiocy of colonial strategists in drawing flawed boundaries in the Middle East which are now the cause of the present bloodshed. This is patently a ridiculous explanation; the boundaries were not in fact drawn ‘at whim’, but structured carefully and with a great deal of thought, to the extent that the British and French nearly came to blows over the exact position of a boundary marker in the Syrian desert near Palmyra. Moreover, blaming boundaries for sectarian bloodshed seems uncomfortably close to exonerating the perpetrators of the mayhem. Whilst it may be in vogue amongst the left to indulge in historical self-flagellation and blame imperialism for all the world’s ailments, the reality is that having a multi-ethnic society in no way necessarily leads to civil war. Dozens of countries, from India to Belgium, have religiously and ethnically pluralistic societies who get along perfectly well. The boundaries drawn in the Middle East are actually remarkably good at preventing the persecution of minority groups and reducing the danger posed by ethnic confusion.
But still many now point to partition along ethno-religious grounds as the cure to Iraq’s woes, a sort of variation on the ‘Iron Wall’ speech of Ze’ev Jabotinsky – if two groups simply refuse to co-exist, the only solution is to separate them absolutely. The current belief is that the partition of Iraq is either a fait accompli or imminent, and that it should be encouraged; a Kurdish state encompassing the north, a ‘Sunnistan’ in the vast central belt possibly linked to contiguous areas of Syria, and finally the Shi’a state in the south. The belief is that hastening the inevitable partition will be the best solution to the Sunni insurgency, and prevent a repeat of the sectarian insurgency which plagued Iraq during the last decade.
Such a solution sounds both simple and attractive, but on further examination is neither of those things. In fact, the territorial integrity of Iraq is vital to the future security of the region and of the world at large. The first reason for this lies in the impossibility of a ‘clean’ partition. The confessional outlook of Iraq has been grossly oversimplified by the media, to the point where many simply assume there is simply a line in the sand with Shi’as on one side and Sunnis on the other. In reality the boundary is convoluted, vague and blurred. Any attempt at drawing a line of division will inevitably mean leaving a huge minority population within a foreign state – Sunnis in a Shi’a state and vice versa. The fate of such populations will not be enviable judging by Iraq’s previous treatment of minorities. Conversely, they will remain a constant thorn in the flesh of their host nation, being a potentially dangerous minority in the dangerous border regions of both states. So what to do with them? Population transfer is almost never successful; the Israel-Palestine conflict shows that the populations being transferred almost never want to go, and are generally forced out at gunpoint with little or no compensation, and only memories of their former homes. Meanwhile the sorry tale of the Sudetenland shows the danger of leaving minorities in situ; the likelihood is that they will indeed form a fifth column undermining the state. Finally, even if some solution to minorities could be found, a thornier issue would emerge; irredentism. In a region in which natural resources are the difference between poverty and untold wealth, the exact placement of a border post could become a dispute which could easily turn into a war. Yet it remains entirely uncertain exactly where a border would be located, and any line of division imposed upon Iraq would become a point of extreme tension and potentially war, much like Kashmir is fought over between India and Pakistan. Far from simplifying the regions’ problems, partition would simply exacerbate them.
Secondly, the partition would not favour the Sunni state. Kurdistan is amply provided with huge mineral and petrochemical wealth (especially after its’ recent conquest); the Shi’a south holds some of the largest oil reserves in the world. However, the Sunni state will mainly consist of nothing but desert – hot, flat, featureless desert. Moreover, it would also be landlocked, a sure recipe for disaster. Partition would turn the Sunni portion of Iraq into an impoverished wasteland, with very little to trade and nowhere to trade it from as a result of its’ landlocked nature. Poverty would lead to resentment, and resentment to political instability; by creating a homogenously Sunni state, partition would in fact result in a volatile state which will almost inevitably turn into an incubator for terror. It would be al-Qaeda’s wet dream, so to speak; an abandoned country full of recruits and with a government thoroughly in sympathy with terrorism and willing to enforce Islamist policies upon the populace. Partition would lead inevitably to Sunni Iraq becoming another Afghanistan, and that is not an appealing prospect for the world. Already we have seen radicalised European Muslims return home from ISIL territory to commit acts of terror against Western targets, such as the heinous attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. It is imperative that Iraq cannot become a training camp for more such terrorists.
The next reason for opposing partition stems from the fact that partition is a surrender. If we accept the ‘facts on the ground’ through partition, we will lend legitimacy to ISIL, an organisation which has none. Not only are ISIL a terrorist organisation allied to al-Qaeda and thoroughly supportive of attacks against Western targets, but their human rights record is frankly appalling. In Syria they have revived such medieval practises as crucifixions and floggings, and are busy imposing a particularly unpleasant version of Sharia law upon their latest conquests in Iraq. Women are beaten up for walking in public without a veil; Christians are threatened with death unless they pay a protection tax, the jizya. ISIL cannot be accepted or legitimised, but partition will do both of these things. The de facto rulers of Sunni Iraq at present are ISIL, and thus it stands to reason that partition will result in ISIL being the transitional government of the area. But the majority of Sunnis are not terrorists and have no sympathy with ISIL, regarding them as repressive terrorists – it would be immoral and unjust to deliver them into the hands of the group for convenience’s sake. Partition is unthinkable entirely until ISIL have been vanquished; only then can consideration of political autonomy for Iraq’s Sunni minority be discussed.
Finally, the partition of Iraq would create a mosaic of satellite states which would increase regional tensions intolerably. Each of the key nations comprising Iraq – Kurds, Turkmen, Sunnis and Shi’as – are in reality supported and backed by powerful foreign allies. Currently their political union prevents this support from turning violent, but if the three constituent nations were to split then tensions amongst their supporters would escalate uncontrollably. Iraq’s Sunni populace are already supported by the Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and partition would lead to ‘Sunnistan’ becoming a Saudi protectorate dominated by Wahhabi fanatics. Meanwhile the Shi’a rump state would then become increasingly aligned with Iran, viewing it as the natural leader of the Shi’a world. We would then be in the unenviable position of having an Iranian satellite state and a Saudi satellite state abutting each other. The two countries do not hold each other in high regard; in fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that they loathe each other. Partition, however, would put Iran and Saudi Arabia right next to each other, effectively. This would be a nightmare scenario; the two most formidable armies in the region attacking each other in a Mesopotamian battlefield. Meanwhile the Iraqi Turkmens remain tied intimately to Turkey proper; the Kurds on the other hand are traditional allies of Israel. Turkey, Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia all jockeying for influence over the wealth and strategic importance of Iraq would be catastrophic, and cannot be allowed to happen. The only way that this could be prevented is by maintaining Iraq’s union, and thus enabling it to act as an independent and autonomous entity rather than being forced into seeking alliances with bigger powers.
Partition is unthinkable, now or ever. Iraq must remain a single unit, for the sake of the region. But it is also evident that the current status quo is also unacceptable. The ISIL insurgency is, we recall, a direct consequence of al-Maliki’s corruption and sectarian bias, which in turn is a result of Saddam Hussein’s discrimination and persecution of Shi’as. A new ethno-religious settlement must be found in which each of Iraq’s nations can achieve genuine autonomy within a single strategic framework, and the optimum solution lies in a confederal structure. Even looser than the federalism posited by some, this would turn Iraq into four states which have total political independence (n.b. the fourth state would be a Christian region in the Nineveh plains). However, these four states would be united in a single foreign policy, a single non-sectarian military, and a single monetary policy. Efforts would be made to co-ordinate other matters, and to increase co-operation between states; nonetheless, the states would be independent in everything other than the above. A confederal solution has the advantage of satisfying the legitimate concerns of all the groups in Iraq, whilst keeping it united politically. There will be no issue of minorities in a confederal Iraq, as minorities would be protected by the single confederal constitution; similarly confederalism would not allow any state to turn into an incubator for terror, by maintaining a single army. Most importantly, however, the united and monolithic foreign policy would prevent parts of Iraq from becoming dominated by other nations. Iraq would remain as a buffer between the Gulf and Iran, thus maintaining the uneasy peace between the two great powers.