The case against dividing Iraq

Nicholas Sambanis and Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl write: At this point, partition might sound preferable to persistent sectarian conflict. U.S. policymakers were tempted by the idea at the height of Iraq’s sectarian war in 2006, when Joseph Biden, who was a senator at the time, and Leslie Gelb, the President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, advanced a plan for the “soft partition” of Iraq. In a 2006 Foreign Affairs roundtable focused on policy options for Iraq, Chaim Kaufmann, a well-known scholar of international relations, argued that only through separating the population would the violence end. This summer’s bloodshed seemed to revive the idea. Writing in the Washington Post, columnist Fareed Zakaria advocated that the United States adapt to the reality of sectarian enclaves. Others, like the Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven A. Cook, hinted that the United States might need to come to terms with a full partition of Iraq, however “bloody and protracted” the process would be.

Events in Syria, meanwhile, have further revived the partition debate. ISIS has kept a firm grip on its Syrian territory in the face of a U.S.-led air campaign, and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have proved unwilling to back down. Appearing on Zakaria’s CNN show, GPS, in November, Syria expert Joshua Landis promoted a partition plan for Syria. Landis argued that partition would “accept [the] reality” of a Sunni state spanning Syria and Iraq. Partition would be more stable, and, as Zakaria added, would “reflec[t] the realities of sectarianism.”

The usual argument for partition is that, once ethnic or sectarian fighting gets too bloody, nobody can put Humpty Dumpty back together again. War reveals the fault lines in a country’s social terrain, the thinking goes, and redrawing official borders along those lines is the only way out of a perpetual cycle of identity-based bloodletting.

The argument seems intuitive, but it rests on a flawed premise. It treats social identities as givens and ignores the fact that it was politics — not identities in and of themselves — that brought Sunnis and Shias to blows in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Far from resolving disputes, partitions can actually activate dormant fault lines. [Continue reading…]

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