The Right Way to Partition Iraq (If Necessary)

Iraq faces an existential crisis: the Sunni-dominated group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has declared itself “the Islamic State“; Kurds in the north are solidifying their autonomy; and the largely-Shiite controlled government in Baghdad braces against further gains by its foes.

In 2007, Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon and SAIS (Johns Hopkins) Senior Fellow Edward Joseph wrote a paper, “The Case for Soft Partition in Iraq,” in which they laid out the rationale for an Iraq-led approach to a viable soft-partition of Iraq in the wake of then-escalating intercommunal violence.

In a new opinion piece, O’Hanlon and Joseph revisit their proposal in light of the current situation, writing that “Though it would be difficult to accomplish, federalism could still be a helpful element as Iraqis struggle through their current tragic mess.”

The appeal of federalism could grow if Iraqi leaders in Baghdad cannot agree soon on a government of national unity, ideally one without Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has proven so divisive. Whether a “soft partition”—meaning the creation of a Sunni autonomous zone to complement the existing Kurdish one—or “hard partition”—meaning the formal redrawing of regional lines—it would seem a natural idea. Not only because of the recent violence, which has caused hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to flee their homes, but also the arbitrariness with which state borders were drawn by the European powers after World War One.

While Iraq’s constitution allows for the possibility of a Sunni autonomous region that “may even persuade moderate Sunni leaders at the national, provincial and tribal levels to support a new government of national unity,” O’Hanlon and Joseph say that “partition cannot be seen as an alternative to cooperation by Iraqi political leaders across sectarian lines. In fact, to be stabilizing and consistent with U.S. national security goals, restructuring Iraq via one of these means must be done collaboratively, not by fiat by one group or because of developments on the battlefield.”

Read their piece here to get full details of their proposal.

During a recent Brookings event on the Iraq crisis, O’Hanlon spoke to this question, explaining that “Partition can mean a couple of different things.”

What it can mean is a de facto relocation of some populations, and maybe some more autonomy within Iraq for the Sunni population in the north and west, akin to the Kurdistan concept. It could mean a redrawing of formal state boundaries. It could mean that the individual autonomous zones each have their own military force as the Kurds essentially do. Or it could mean that they’re really governing themselves in terms of economics and policing, day to day operations of government, but they still all contribute to a national security force.

And then there are additional questions, such as who is going to protect populations that are relocating? And, will people be compensated for the loss of their property, the loss of their homes? “There are all sorts of very hard, practical questions to make partition work,” O’Hanlon said.

Citing a conversation related to the partition of Yugoslavia that he had with former Greek Prime Minister Papandreou, O’Hanlon explained that partition can’t come in the heat of conflict:

If people want to cooperate in making this happen, or they get to a point where there are new political forces and new political priorities that people are focused on, then maybe it’s not quite as destabilizing. If you just do it right now in the heat of conflict it actually creates as many problems as it solves, or at least it could.

Nonresident Senior Fellow
John McLaughlin
, a former deputy director for intelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency, also wrote about this issue. In “
Are We About to See Three New Nations Replace Iraq?
,” McLaughlin writes that “Iraq as we know it is in danger. Which means it’s time to start thinking about what the nation will look like if it does disintegrate, and consider what policy challenges would then confront the world.”

Though Iraq’s three major ethnic groups—Sunnis, Shia and Kurds—live in generally distinct geographic regions, there will be nothing neat or clean about a breakup. A split won’t calm political waters nor will it bring near-term stability. And for US policy? The already labyrinthine geopolitical puzzle will become even more maddeningly complex.

Let’s break it down into what would happen in each of Iraq’s three ethnic enclaves.

Read here for his complete analysis.