US Intel Chief: Iraq and Syria may not Survive as States

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Public remarks by the head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency and by John Brennan, director of the CIA, suggest that Washington is making its peace with a break-up of Syria and Iraq. They hastened to say that break-up was not US policy, they simply saw it as likely. (Despite what conspiracy theorists allege, and despite the failed Biden initiative, US policy has consistently favored keeping Iraq together; it is easier to sign one oil deal than three after all). Last month similar sentiments were voiced by outgoing US commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno.

Gen. Vincent Stewart of the DIA said he couldn’t see the Kurdistan Regional Government of northern Iraq coming back under Baghdad’s rule, and that with regard to Syria, “I can see a time in the future where Syria is fractured into two or three parts.”

Brennan echoed these views, saying that the Middle East could well look different in coming decades.

Obviously, at the moment Iraq and Syria are fractured. And Stewart and Brennan (the latter is an Arabist) could well be right. But this outcome cannot be taken for granted.

My views on this sort of topic have been shaped by my experiences in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East over the past 40 years, as well as by my work as a historian. I can remember in the late 1970s everybody thought Lebanon was a goner and pundits were suggesting it might split into cantons. Before that, when I was a teenager, I remember the failed Biafra attempt to secede from Nigeria. I have a vague recollection that as a teenager I was involved in some minor fundraiser for victims of the resulting war.

The fact is that as irrational and fragile as the colonial borders are, they have been remarkably resilient. And, there are practical reasons for that resilience. Often, smaller units than the ones that made sense in the age of colonialism are not economically viable. That is, colonial boundaries often were not completely illogical with regard to regional markets.

Thus, France carved Lebanon out of Syria in 1920 in hopes of having a Christian-majority colony that wouldn’t be too much trouble to rule and maintain. But to make it viable France gave it the Sunni ports of Tripoli and Sidon and the Shiite one of Tyre, and substantial Sunni populations in Akkar and parts of the Biqaa Valley, as well as Shiite populations in Jabal Amil and Baalbek. The non-Christians had more children over time and were less likely to emigrate, so the Christian majority evaporated. A tiny Christian state in east Beirut and Mt. Lebanon would not have been economically viable in the 1920s. But it also would not be economically viable today. Like it or not, the Lebanese need one another.

Eric Hobsbawm, the great historian, looked into the Marxist theory that markets create states and decided it was wrong. States, he found, create markets. And, I would argue, colonial states functioned in the same way. So when colonialism ended there was a successor state underpinned by a national market. Postcolonial states may look like vagabonds dressed in an odd assortment of clothes and rags, but underneath their skeletons are firmer than it seems on the surface.

The trope you find among pundits that colonial states are artificial is also suspect. All states are artificial and formed by basically colonial processes. Most of the world’s states are also multicultural. Linguistically or ethnically homogeneous states are rare and some of them were formed, like Poland, in the maelstrom of WW II through genocides. They aren’t the norm.

It is hard to see today’s divisions of Syria lasting. Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) holds mainly desert towns and is landlocked. Raqqa and Palmyra can’t support a state in the long run. Nor could west Aleppo to Idlib be a state under al-Qaeda and its Salafi allies. The Alawite area around the port of Latakia would have trouble surviving on its own economically even if its Syrian interior would let it go, which they won’t.

My guess is that sooner or later, some Syrian force will take the whole enchilada. Or the various factions could cobble together a fragile peace with a loose federalism. But Raqqa just can’t go it alone forever, and won’t be allowed to.

With regard to Iraq, while Gen. Stewart is right that the Kurdistan Regional Government will remain semi-autonomous, there are many reasons (Turkey is 75 million of them) why declaring an independent Kurdistan state will be difficult. Given Turkish President Erdogan’s current war on the PKK, a radical Kurdish group holed up in the KRG, any move toward independence would be fraught indeed. And this is a change from last summer, when it looked like Ankara had a peace process with the Kurds. At the moment, it looks as though the KRG will go on needing the fig leaf of Iraq.

As for the Sunni regions in Iraq now under Daesh, my guess is that they will be reconquered. I am not advocating this reconquest, which will be bloody, but Iraq’s 19 million Shiites are not likely to give up on having Mosul, and they can’t be stopped by 6 million Sunnis from taking it back if they really want it. Moreover, neighboring Iran doesn’t want Daesh in its neighborhood, and that’s 75 million reasons it won’t likely remain so (not to mention the antipathy of Russia, China and NATO).

The Sunnis who might secede in Iraq are vastly outnumbered by the Shiites who have economic, geopolitical and nationalist reasons to prevent them from doing so. Moreover, the Shiites have the resources, such as the southern oil fields and the backing of neighboring Iran. The Sunnis have the desert sands.

So with the exception of Kurdistan, in the medium to long term Syria and Iraq likely won’t break up, even if they are ruled by different cliques in the end.

It should also be stressed that partitions don’t necessarily bring peace. South Sudan was broken off from the north and become less stable, not moreso. Turns out that the Dinka and Nuer may have been oppressed by Khartoum, but they might also sometimes have benefited from having Khartoum to unite against or to mediate between them. Now they have no one to do so and are just slaughtering each other. In other instances, groups that had fought within a polity go on fighting across the border after a partition, as with India and Pakistan.

Mr. Sykes and Mr. Picot may have the last laugh.

Related video added by Juan Cole:

Wochit News from last month: “Iraq PM Rejects Idea of Partitioning Country”

15 Responses

  1. What a mess. Even with all of the conflicts between warring factions in Syria and Iraq the entire field of GOP presidential candidates are in agreement that all of the turmoil would vanish if they just had the stabilizing influence of US troops on the ground in each country.

    As former Sec. of Defense Gates said…”Some politicians incorrectly think of our military as super humans.”

  2. “The Alawite area around the port of Latakia would have trouble surviving on its own economically even if its Syrian interior would let it go, which they won’t.”

    However, it could exist as a Russian client state for quite some time.

  3. OUTGOING US commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno needs to get his antidepressant meds adjusted.

    Syria and Iraq have been around in various forms for thousands of years. The U.S. for a few hundred years.

    What is amazing is that after a decade these loser military and foreign policy wonks have yet to fully appreciate the simple fact that WE LOST!

    The mess which resulted is directly responsible for the spreading regional chaos being experienced today.

    Heck of a job.

    • Many Americans hope and pray that y’all can solve your own problems.

      Vested multinational interests not of your region stimulated current problems and THEY are not going to fix it.

  4. Regardless of the political/sectarian/nation state outcomes, I suppose we will be seeing hate and blood vengeance as ubiquitous community values. And the US, having shed its fig leaf promotion of free market democracy, can select its allies and adversaries using the most self serving criteria imaginable. Kingdom Saudi, junta Egypt, and occupier Israel form a solid base to build on.

  5. As usual a very perceptive take on the pundits including the Arabists. For Iraq, at least geography has dictated unity in that the West is a large desert, the North and East has a range of mountains which gives a sense of oneness to the country. Until recently, of course the two rivers were what united the markets. Maybe, Sykes and Picot simply looked at the accurate maps they had before drawing the lines.

  6. The current border configuration goes back to the days of Sykes-Picot and Versailles. The borders were drawn by people carving up the area for their own benefit without regard for cultural, tribal, ethnic, or religious factors.

    It’s interesting that the IS is the only one saying enough!! and doing something to right the wrongs of the past. Sadly, when the horrors they perpetuate were found to be necessary before people saw the injustices inflicted on the ME by the colonialist monsters that ousted the Ottomans.

    • 100% wrong. to the contrary, both the US and Israel tacitly supported the Assad kleptocracy for some 40 years because he kept things quiet on the Golan Highths. To this day, the muckdamucks in Jerusalem are divided as to whether they are better off with a weakened Assad winning the civil war, rather then any of his opponents. Better the devil you know then the devil you know not.

  7. The argument that markets create states still stands; the very basis of state creation is market control, therefore regardless of which precedes the other.

  8. But maybe the more relevant question is will globalization destroy the traditional nation-state? In the age of outsourcing, maybe nations are becoming obsolete.

    Here’s a link listing all the oil companies currently operating in Iraq: link to

    The oil companies are from nations all around the world, the UK, China, Russia, Japan, and others are all able to do business with Iraq even as it struggles with war and even as Iraq’s government is largely ineffectual as far as its citizens are concerned.

    International corporations have continued to do work in Iraq (oil companies, private security firms, development groups, fast food chains, etc.) while the Iraq government has floundered around and been largely inept.

    Maybe the new world will be a network of global trade exchanges–and national entities won’t be that important anymore.

  9. The world is to unite to put the west on trial, based on facts not propaganda.

    As soon as you target civilian areas or use weapons of mass destruction, you are a terrorist and yes the West does that in the middle east and in Africa and they have done that everywhere for centuries.

    France widely used napalm in Algeria, to burn vast areas to get rid of the locals who where standing for their freedom. Go ask, those still alive, how the french used in the countryside to harry the villages and to shoot in their homes the poor ones suspected of helping the mujaheddin. That France, with its long list of crimes world wide, has not been put on trial nor have its allies and as its allies, it still pretends to give lessons to the world. Nonsense.

  10. Thanks Juan, for an important insight. A significant factor that seems to be overlooked by the ‘authorities’ in the article is how the Syrian population feels about their nationality.

    The vast majority of Syrians grew up in a mostly stable, secular republic. While they carried varying degrees of religious, ethnic, and geographic attachment, most of them usually identified as Syrian rather than sunni/shia/Bedouin etc (Kurds may have been an exception).

    To them, rebuilding Syria will mean just that, rather than rebuilding rump states of dubious nature.

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