Splitting Up Iraq: Yes, Biden Was Wrong

February 5, 2014

When alerted to the latest article about the wisdom and/or inevitability of the division of Iraq, I had to sigh. Yet again. Though at least this time I was spared the graphic of the various ethno-sectarian “-stans”. The fact is that the division of Iraq is neither desirable nor likely. Those who propose otherwise, exemplified in James Kitfield’s article, tend to be historically misinformed about the origin of current borders, downplay the reasons that Iraq remains unified, overplay the grievances of minorities and the instability they generate, and fail to recognize the emergence of an uneven but genuine democratic culture in Iraq.

The usual villain in the story of Middle East borders is the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, the product of talks between Great Britain, France, and pre-revolutionary Russia about the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Sykes-Picot drew international borders for Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq (and others) on the map in the interest of these external powers, without accounting for local dynamics on the ground, setting the stage for the ethno-sectarian clashes we see in the region today. However, this narrative ignores what Sykes-Picot was really about—access to the coasts. The French and British cared a great deal about Basra, Haifa and Beirut—and much less so about the deserts between Fallujah and Damascus. In the interior, long-standing customs and administrative units tended to prevail (though always with exception, of course). For more detail on this important subject, see the analysis of Iraq expert Reidar Vissar.

Stories on the fragmentation of Iraq ignore the very realpolitik factor that keeps Iraq together—the fact that its sub-units would be very weak and easy prey for surrounding states. The current Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)—often discussed as the most likely breakaway region—is landlocked, with neighboring states that also have Kurdish minorities, and which would therefore be less than thrilled about an independent Kurdish state. While the KRG is blessed with abundant oil and natural gas, it does not have access to a seaport to export it to world markets. The KRG would then be at the tender mercies of its neighbors (reminiscent of Afghanistan). While its hydrocarbons would give it some leverage, its small size and precarious geography make it inherently weak. Iraqi Kurdistan has essentially two options: remain a part of Iraq, where its influence in Baghdad is limited but real, or declare independence and find itself quickly a vassal state of Turkey, with almost no influence in Ankara. This is not news to the Iraqi Kurds themselves, who will almost unanimously tell outsiders that they wish in their hearts to be independent, but know in their heads that it simply is not possible.

Iraq’s Sunnis have a similar dilemma, but without the benefits of significant hydrocarbon resources. An independent Western Iraq (a far preferable term to “Sunni-stan”) would be a poorer, landlocked version of Jordan, dependent on transfer payments from other states in the region. Iraq’s western provinces are among the greatest economic beneficiaries of a unified Iraq, being able to participate in the oil and gas wealth of the far north and far south.

Finally, even a rump southern Iraqi state would be weakened by national fracture, despite the great increase in per capita GDP that would occur from spinning off the less wealthy northern and western provinces. Despite accusations of Iraq being an Iranian puppet, that is simply not true. Were that the case, Iraq would not be generating the increased oil production that makes economic sanctions against Iran possible without rocking world energy markets. However, an Iraq consisting of solely the southern, Shi’a-dominated provinces would probably succumb to Iranian influence, unable to resist its eastern neighbor once deprived of 30-40% of its population and half its territory. This would be anathema to even the most Islamist of Iraq’s Shi’a, who definitely see themselves as Arabs, first and foremost.

No commentary on the breakup of Iraq would be complete without a litany of grievances about Iraq’s Kurdish and Arab Sunni minorities (each of which probably constitutes 15-20% of Iraq’s population, though there has been no census in decades). These are increasingly overstated. Iraq’s Kurds enjoy a privileged place in the current Iraqi system, partly because their suffering under the prior regime was so profound). Their grievances have more to do with Baghdad blocking steps that increase their independence from the central government, rather than any real oppression.

The situation with Iraq’s Arab Sunnis is quite different. As I have written elsewhere, Iraq is on the receiving end of an Al Qaeda in Iraq (or ISIS/ISIL) offensive. That elements in Iraq’s Arab Sunni community are giving passive support, or sanctuary, to the terrorists who last year killed over 8,000 Iraqis, predominantly Shi’a civilians, is lamentable (Sunni moderates and security forces of all kinds are also targeted). Perceived oppression of the Arab Sunnis by the government’s security forces in these ISIS safe havens must be seen in this light. We can only imagine how the U.S. government would react were there a domestic insurgency killing thousands of our fellow citizens.

Arab Sunni grievances usually also point to the conviction of senior Arab Sunni politicians responsible for various violent crimes, citing these crimes as pure political persecution. Left curiously unanswered is the quite plausible possibility that these leaders are, in fact, guilty of the crimes committed. Also usually not mentioned is the fact that the Iraqi government quite deliberately let these leaders escape the country and that they were tried in absentia. In essence, their sentences were commuted to exile, rather than imprisonment.

In short, it is not too much to hope that should Arab Sunnis cease to harbor members of Al Qaeda affiliates and should Sunni leadership reject political violence, Iraq’s Sunni populace might find a quite welcome place in a larger and unified Iraq.

Finally, it is important to recognize that democratic culture is emerging in Iraq.  Admittedly, the politics in Baghdad are messy and dysfunctional. But, at the provincial level, we have seen two complete democratic electoral cycles, in which sitting officials run for re-election, lose, and peacefully transition power to their successors. Basra, for example, has had governors from three different parties in the past six years. Iraq’s citizens understand the power of the ballot box and expect their voices to be heard. There is still great hope that Iraq’s national elections in April of this year will offer a better result than that of 2010, in which the photo-finish between the coalitions of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi produced a result reminiscent of the 2000 Bush versus Gore election in the United States, leaving the winner wounded and the loser (and his supporters) quite embittered.

The breakup of Iraq is not what is best for Iraq, the region, or the United States. Fortunately, despite the conventional wisdom, it is less likely to happen now more than ever.  Iraqi nationalism is real and it transcends the Sunni-Shi’a schism.  As a friend of mine wrote about another embattled state, “[a] shared history of collective suffering, a fear of foreign influence, and a staunchly embedded nationalism have forged [an] identity that is real, if messy.” Iraq does remain quite messy. But, this hardly means that the international community should root for its fragmentation. The host of second and third order effects such a balkanization would generate would be disastrous.

So without endorsing Gates’ claim that Biden was always wrong, he was wrong in this case.


Dr. Douglas A. OIlivant is a Managing Partner and the Senior Vice President of Mantid International, a global consulting firm with offices in Beirut, Baghdad and Washington D.C.  He is also a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and was last in Baghdad in June.  Follow him on Twitter at @DouglasOllivant.


Photo credit: Paolo Porsia