Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Partition Checklist

People curious about Iraq often ask me this question: Would it not be better to just break up Iraq? Or, Do you think Iraq will separate it into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish states?

In order to answer this question, I think one must first look at the set of issues that could decide whether Iraq will break down into 3 states. I will not discuss here whether Iraq should be partitioned into 3 states.

It’s not an exhaustive list, but these are in my opinion the key questions. Let’s call them, the partition checklist.

Will Iraq’s neighbors support its partition?

a) Will Saudi Arabia welcome an exclusively Shia Iraqi state on its northern border? Will it exacerbate a sense of encirclement? Think about the Saudi response to the rise of the Houthis in Yemen.

b) Will Turkey welcome the formation of an independent Iraqi Kurdish state? Yes, the Turks like the Barzanis, but does this mean Ankara will not worry about other Kurds in Syria and Turkey itself following suit? Think about Erdogan’s renewed conflict with the PKK and his response to the YPG.

c) Will Iran prefer to have greater influence over part of Iraq (the new Shia state), or lesser influence over all of Iraq? What if you throw in geographic link to Syria and Hezbollah with the latter?

The Kurds aside, will the Shia and Sunni Arabs want partition?

a) Despite some complaints about the cost of fighting to retake Sunni areas from ISIS, there are few signs of support for partition among Shia Arabs.

b) The Sunni Arabs are, as usual, divided and unable to produce a unified vision for their future in Iraq. Perhaps we can loosely identify 4 schools of thought among them: 

1) Jihadists and right wing Sunnis who want to control all of Iraq (include ISIS and remnants of JRTN et al in this category); 

2) Federalists who wish to copy the KRG experiment and push for what we can call functioning federalism (this is more or less mainstream, as demonstrated by the 2011-2013 regionalization projects in Diyala, Ninewa and Salahaddin; 

3) Idealist nationalists who dream of a secular Iraq with strong central government (you could count Allawi’s supporters in this category); and 

4) Pragmatists/federalism skeptics who prioritize retaking Sunni land from ISIS (the must-have) over the delegation of power from the center to the province (nice-to-have, at best). This generally applies to anti-ISIS tribes in Anbar.


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