Why Partitioning Iraq is a Terrible Idea

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

I think the remarks of outgoing US Army chief Gen. Ray Odierno on the possible partition of Iraq have been reported in a sensationalist way. He just said that Sunni-Shiite relations in Iraq are at a nadir and that the country could look different in the future. But he was careful to say that such decisions are for local people to determine, and that in any case the first order of business is to defeat Daesh (ISIS, ISIL).

Still, he did get drawn into speculating about the partition of Iraq, which was probably unwise.

Iraq will likely continue to have a Canada-like federalism with substantial provincial prerogatives, Quebec-style, for the Kurdistan Regional Government.

But a formal partition, while possible, is unlikely and in any case would be a bad idea.

Every time there is a big civil conflict in a country, pundits always rush to speculate about or even urge partition. I remember when I was living in Lebanon in the 1970s during the early years of its civil war, there were speculations that it would end up a set of independent cantons.

But partitions are rare in in the post-war era. And the few that have occurred don’t offer encouraging examples. The United States was all enthusiastic to break South Sudan off from Sudan proper, in order to weaken one of Africa’s larger states and given that the Christian and animist population there had long chafed under northern Muslim Arabophone rule.

But no sooner was South Sudan independent than it was largely abandoned by the US and it fell into a vicious and brutal civil war between the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups. Moreover, its post-independence dispute with Khartoum led the latter to block its oil exports.

So the takeaway is that a partition can often actually lead to more conflict. The newly seceded state may witness power struggles among rising new local elites no longer under the control of the old metropole. And, a partition doesn’t necessarily end conflict between the region and the center. The British partitioned both India and Palestine, and both regions went on to see many subsequent wars.

In the case of Iraq, Odierno is not thinking straight. If Daesh is defeated by the Iraqi army, the Sunni Arab regions will be reincorported into the Iraqi state. Having lost troops in a war, Baghdad is highly unlikely just to turn around and let the Sunni Arab areas secede. If the latter have just been conquered by main force, they won’t be in a position to do so. Moreover, being ruled by Daesh, with its beheadings and harsh administration, may make the population more open to compromise once it is liberated by the Iraq national army.

As for Iraqi Kurdistan, I should say that I am offering analysis, not doing politics. In principle I don’t care one way or another if Kurdistan is independent. But I don’t think it will have positive benefits for the Kurds. Formal independence for it would anger Iran and Turkey and could even lead to war. Moreover, Iraqi Kurdistan is a small place. I doesn’t have a big enough domestic market really to flourish without the rest of Iraq. If it were independent it might face tariffs from its trading partners.

Iraqi Kurdistan doesn’t have all that much oil compared to the rich fiels of Iraq’s deep south. Why not stick around and enjoy that bounty as an Iraqi citizen? It should be remembered that petroleum won’t be valuable much longer, because of its role in climate change. Without an oil income or special access to large markets, it is hard for me to imagine how Iraqi Kurdistan will prosper 20 years from now. The world has enough small hardscrabble states.


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22 Responses

  1. I can’t believe I read such a misinformed comment. There is plenty of oil in Iraqi-occupied Kurdistan. Other resources include agriculture, livestock, fresh water and uranium deposits, to name a few. Your opinion is based on flawed data. How dare you suggest that the Kurds be at the mercy of Baghdad to distribute the oil revenues fairly (under the current agreement) when the central government has had a history of not paying, at times, anything at all? Do you understand the mindset of Iraqi politicians? Do you think they work for all Iraqis equally? Iraq is nothing like a western democracy. People who form opinions often make that mistake. There are no benefits for the Kurds to remain part of Iraq. It benefits the other countries mentioned, who have their own Kurdish population. Kurdistan will be a united, independent nation one day. The only question is: how much longer do the Kurds need to suffer until that day?

    • Well the largest part of Kurdi area is in Turkey and halve of all Kurds live there. It is as likely that Turks will allow “their” Kurds to become independent as it is that USA allows Latinos to form a own state of the Southern USA. How much longer do the Latinos need to suffer until that day Ari?

      • SimoHurtta: Are you comparing the Kurds that have no country of their own to Latin Americans? Tell me, has anyone ever been imprisoned and tortured for speaking Spanish in the United States? Because that was the policy in Turkey. Shame on you for comparing the suffering of the Kurds to Latin Americans. Feel free to reply when President Obama uses chemical weapons to oppress Latin Americans.

        • Well the reality is that the Turks will not want to give one third of Turkey to Kurdistan. Neither could Turkey tolerate an independent Kurdistan in Iraq and Syria. Turkey is still the strongest force in the region, in many ways stronger than Israel is. By the way Ari Latinos in USA hardly enjoy their role as second class citizens, illegal imigrants and picking fruits and vegetables. Suffering however doesn’t automatically create a state. Not anywhere.

  2. It seems fine for Americans to offer advice to other countries from a distance. I’m less enthusiastic about our habit of insisting that other nations follow our advice, and backing our advice up with guns, bombs, etc.

  3. Whether or not it is a good idea is immaterial as to whether or not partition will happen. Unfortunately, many former colonial states are constructs based on 19th Century European power politics. A number of other states were carved out as a result of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Little to no thought was given to the indigenous peoples in these states, or the location of various natural resources. The result is that so many developing countries are artificial creations that have no “natural” nationhood. We have seen in Europe a number of states split apart–Yugoslavia, Czecholslovakia, and the former USSR. Many of these decisions, in the opinions of many, were not good ideas as regards to the viability of the successor states. But they happened anyway. Of all the countries in the Middle East, Iraq, it seems to me, is the most divided. Whether one likes it or not, whether it makes good sense or not, it looks like there is a 50/50 chance that it will happen. The total incompetence of the government in Baghdad certainly doesn’t inspire confidence, especially if you are a Kurd or a Sunni.

    • I remember the break up of Yugoslavia. Germany was the first to recognize Croatia and the whole country splintered. People who were neighbors under Tito killed each other a few years later. Leadership (and lack of it) can still make a difference, but certainly not Bagdad ‘leadership”

  4. The nation of Iraq is less than a century old. It was hobbled together for the convenience of the French and British through the Treaty of Sevres and the betrayal that led to the Treaty of Lausanne. Three disparate groups, Sunni Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs, saw their tribal homelands carved up and were then corralled together. It was the British who chose the minority Sunni Arabs to rule over and eventually suppress the others. This was done without their involvement, without their consent.

    As a nation, Iraq remains stable only by iron fist rule. The idea that the Iraqi army will rout ISIS is fanciful and that reality is becoming more broadly recognized.

    You might enjoy reading Peter Galbraith’s “How Iraq Ends.”

  5. There has been a referendum on Quebec’s independence before and there will be again.

    A true Qubec-style Kurdistan would only last until the first referendum.

  6. I second the 2 other comments Juan. What happened to self determination? The Kurds have also, ARE fighting ISIL/IS. AND THEY SE TO BE DOING VERY WELL NO THX TO BAGHDAD

  7. While I think that it probably is not the time yet for Iraqi Kurdistan to declare formal independence (if for no other reason than to keep Iran and Turkey at bay), Ari is right about their oil situation, and furthermore, they have just started separately selling oil abroad without going through the Iraqi central government, protesting their claimed lack of proper payment from Baghdad for past oil sent there (I am in no position to objectively judge the validity of this protest). This is de facto economic independence, and if they can get away with it without declaring formal independence, who needs it?

    I also note that the proposed “reforms” that the current Iraqi PM is making include eliminating the position of President in Iraq, a position that has often been held by Kurds in recent years. That would seem to be an act by the central government to push the Kurds further away (and many have charged that these “reforms” also tilt things against the Sunnis, so these reforms may well lead to such a partition, at least more seriously de facto, if not de jure).

    And on all that, I do not think it matters one whit what Odierno had to say.

  8. Sorry, but saying that an independent Kurdistan is not a good idea is not just providing anaylsis … it is doing politics.

    Sure, new states then trigger sometimes uncontrollable dynamics. But this does not mean forcing people to sit together and forget the past violent dynamics is any better; especially after the parties involved have, in the past years, already behaved as if they did not believe in the power of the Iraqi state.

    Plus, the Iraqi Kurds really deserve their own state. Like the Palestinians.

  9. unfortunate to see you to treat a man with Ray Odierno’s track record as a serious commenter on world affairs.

  10. I admire your usually deep insight, but this one knee jerk off the rails comment on why it is sensible to enslave the Kurds and so many other ethnic minorities forever is way off the rails. You use the status quo as if was the Titanic pre fame when everyone thought is was unsinkable. To negatively compare anything to the western powers who murdered millions and stole all their wealth is obnoxious and ignorant..

  11. Keeping Iraq whole has not worked out well either. Time to redraw the colonial boundaries. If it’s not done peaceably, it will be done violently.

  12. The needed analysis of the unsuccessful bundling of conflicting groups (Iraq, Yugoslavia, Czechoslavakia, etc.) would reveal underlying factors such as leadership ability to avoid conflict in the federal vs. separated models. If technology is not a major factor, history may be the best guide to feasibility. Even the US was unable to resolve regional divisions before the Civil War despite a suitable federal framework and fairly general education: factional ideologues simply did not care to examine opposition views.

    If the US could not avert civil war, and fought over secession itself, then only external powers could force dialogue and resolution. But the US has instead much worsened the Iraq problem, either intentionally or with zero understanding among its political gangsters.

    So I think we need a thorough analysis of what is possible, likely a re-run of some dreary historical case, in the absence of enlightened international leadership.

  13. It could be that the “partitioning” of Iraq might not only be better termed as “redistributing,” but it might also take place anyway, as a result of forces as elementary as the planetary motions. Because what is Iraq?

    If nations can best be defined as collections of generally like-minded people, then Iraq is not a country. It is instead an artificial construct of mainly three groups of people who strike me as being a bit less happy with each other than, for instance, are the three groups that comprise Switzerland. And in that light I seem to remember that, way back in 2003 when the U.S. went into Iraq under the same imbecilic impulses as are now ruling those who want to attack Iran, there were strong speculations then, that between the poorly connected human groupings in Iraq and the influences of Iraq’s neighbors, that construct would start flying apart, with the fragments more naturally adhering elsewhere, and that looks like what could be happening now.

    There were always two aspects of Iraq that most strongly made Iraq such an unnatural construct. One was that the minority Sunnis were allowed to rule over the Kurds and the majority Shiites by force. The other was that the Kurdish provinces were much more naturally a part of something that looked suspiciously like a real country called “Kurdistan,” whose parts were culturally and geographically connected but were politically disconnected by Kurdistan’s location in three different and very uptight jurisdictions: Iraq, Syria, and above all, Turkey. And so the efforts of those three Kurdish regions to coalesce with each other in a process much like how fragments came together to form the Earth and everything else in the Solar System, could be underway in this case of Iraq, no matter what Turkey says.

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