This week's post comes to us from friend and colleague Stephen Howard. Stephen is a recent graduate of Political Science and International Relations at South Dakota State University. His primary emphasis includes the modern Middle East.
In a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine, multiple foreign policy analysts discussed the diminishing influence of the United States in Middle East politics. They also debated whether this is in response to the U.S.-China relationship, the cost-benefit relationship the U.S. has with the Middle East, or some other change in its grand strategy. As each author points out, this refocusing on other regions of the world is not a fantasy; American influence is truly waning, and policymakers and statesmen around the world need to start considering the impact of a U.S. withdrawal on the future of Middle East states. Most of these articles also presented prescriptions on how to best cope with this new reality. One of the articles by Ali Khedery, Iraq in Pieces, brings up a solution that has long been discussed in the west: the dissolution of the "Sykes-Picot borders" in favor of more ethnic/religious realities. He advocates not exclusively for the dissolution of conventional borders, but more generally for the devolution of powers from the central government of each state to the multitude of nations that inhabit them. In this ‘power sharing’ agreement, each nation would hold sway over the territory they nominally control in the state. This would divide both Iraq and Syria among sectarian and ethnic lines in hopes of alleviating the Sunni/Shia/Kurd divide within each state. This is a solution, though, which will only further destabilize the region.
Since shortly after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, this idea of separating Iraq into three distinct entities has been floating around Western foreign policy circles. This seems only natural, as Iraq is at the end of the day an artificial construct which was created by the ill fated Sykes-Picot agreement nearly one hundred years ago (and was originally imposed by British and French imperialism). This was done with little regard for the people who lived there or their customs. Instead, this process was used predominantly to give the imperial powers who controlled the area the best ability to govern. Giving the territory back to each ethnic group who inhabited them originally seems to make some sense in this context, but almost everything has changed in the one hundred years since then.
Westerners still have the idea that any stable state is generally a nation-state, and the rest of the world needs to copy this model in order to advance. But this idea stems from the homogeneous nature of Europe’s states which emerged after hundreds of years of war, forced migration, and state sponsored ethnic purges. The states themselves were only formalized by the Treaty of Westphalia around 300 years ago now, and the distinct nations within them only emerging during the Napoleonic Wars. These ideas, while not exclusive to Europe anymore, are not always the de-facto way states are formed around the rest of the world. A single state can easily now have more than one "nation" in it as China, Russia, Nigeria, and even the United States have shown. Imposing the nation-state on states or nations who have been politically defined for one hundred years is now no better than a second re-imposition of Sykes-Picot under similar circumstances.
The first major problem with dividing Iraq or Syria is the demarcation of borders, and the ‘nation-state’ problem. It is true that over the past ten years, each region in Iraq and Syria has become more homogeneous and defined due to violence and migration. However, there are still considerable minority populations of Sunni and Shia living in opposite dominated areas, to say nothing of the other minorities who inhabit these areas. If Iraq or Syria were to be split into autonomous nation-states in the way Europe has done, or even self-governing regions within the Iraqi/Syrian state structure, these minorities would be trapped in areas of governance in which they have almost no representation (think about being a Democrat in rural South Dakota, or a Republican in St. Paul). Additionally, government policies would have every reason to discriminate against them. As Hannah Arent famously described of the Jews prior to WWII, they were a nation without a state. They then belonged to none of the nation-states that dominated Europe, as they could not belong to the ‘French’, ‘German’, or any other state without claiming nationality of the same. I don’t need to describe what this led to for the Jews, with nowhere to go but everyone wanting to get rid of them.
The same problem persists today with the Roma people, showing the nation-state has yet to solve its problem of inherently discriminatory policies. In short, these would be the autonomous regions created within Iraq and Syria, and the same problems which plague the Europeans would plague the Arabs and Kurds as well. It is not enough to say that if they don’t like where they live they can migrate- the people of Syria don’t like living in civil war but neither the West or East seem to care enough. States are inherently selfish, and accepting refugees is a task that most would rather not choose if they had the opportunity. These disenfranchised people are the perfect recruitment targets for groups like self proclaimed Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and other non-governmental militant organizations.
The second major problem is simply "realist" International Relations theory: raison d’etat (reasons of state). This term is better suited to reasons of "nation" in this case, but the principal is the same. Coined by Cardinal Richilou nearly three hundred years ago, this raison d’etat means that a state must do what it can for its own existence, since its existence is never assured. A state, then, has no friends, it only has opportunities and threats (hence "realist). This happens for two reasons. One, if a state or nation is perceived as weak or forgiving on the international scene, it will be taken advantage of. This is because, as political analyst John Mearsheimer discusses in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, states can never be assured of the intentions of others, all have some offensive capability and they will always be looking to exploit and capitalize on weakness in order to preserve their own security. The second reason stems from that old and hated book, The Leviathan. In it, Thomas Hobbes creates the first idea of a social contract. Essentially, the ruler of any state is granted his power ultimately from the people of that state and is responsible only to them. Because this social contract is not created with any other state or nation, the ruler has a mandate to work for the improvement of his/her people, even if it comes at the cost of someone else. Drawing "lines in the sand" between rival factions would only further increase the instability inherent in these political realities.
So where will these realist conflicts come from? Primarily, resources and territory. Any government worth its salt will try to gain as much access natural resources as possible, even at high cost, for the presumed benefit it will give them. In the case of Iraq, this will come not only from oil, but from the oil infrastructure as well. A single refinery or oil well can be the cause of enormous strife. Arable land (yes there is some of that in Syria and Iraq), other infrastructure systems, and cities, all can be major sources of conflict. But conflict will also come from the external forces which will drive these nations apart. Mainly, the question of "who will dominate who?" in the region. For instance, an Iranian backed Shia nation will naturally compete for power with a Saudi backed Sunni nation. This is something which already occurs today, but not within the framework of competing states. Instead of a low-grade war for influence over the central government, this would have every opportunity to turn into all-out war between internationally recognized nation-states with the possibility of drawing the Saudis and Iranians to war against each other. Consider the case of Yemen, where a internal civil war was taken advantage of by BOTH sides and made into a sort of proxy war. This is even more surprising since the Iranians do not even have a real stake in this issue. The funding they provide for the Houthi rebels is, as described by Farea al-Muslimi “...the cheapest middle finger [Iran] could give to Saudi Arabia”. With strategically important nations like Iraq or Syria at stake, you can bet your life savings that both sides will be much more invested in the outcome of a conflict.
The third major problem with separating each ‘nation’ within Iraq is that it hurts any chances of a true state leader emerging. As stated before, each national leader would be judged based on the nation's interests, and this leader has every reason to not care about anyone else’s interests. Creating homogeneous states means that the leaders have to cater to a smaller and smaller portion of the people, eliminating any need to compromise on issues. Leaders with no need to compromise become nothing more than populist demagogues, who have no real governing capability and thrive off of conflict (which is, after all, the best motivator). It will be in the interests of these leaders to maintain conflict with their neighbors in order to take advantage of that one thing they are good at- riling the masses into stupidity.
Lastly, and as this blog has previously pointed out in a different context, though the current crisis has congealed each nation into multiple seemingly insoluble masses within a single state, the religion and ethnicity which defines them are only being used for political purposes by opportunists in and around each nation. If these nations were to be given their own state or self governing capability, the seemingly insoluble masses would dissolve among further tribal, regional, or philosophical lines- each being used by the same opportunists to aggrandize their own power. Consider the situation in South Sudan. After the Christian south declared independence from the Muslim north, the leaders proceeded to divide their new state through further civil wars based on clan ties. This was not the work of some popular opposition, but opportunists seeking to get more power at the expense of the lives of their fellow countrymen. This is the situation which would befall the new self-governing regions in Iraq and Syria (and has ALREADY occurred in Kurdish controlled regions). The only way to prevent it would be to create the three self governing regions on the template of a dictatorship which tolerates no dissent. This is obviously not ideal either.
In all, the dissolution of Sykes-Picot is dangerous, and compounds the problems it is intended to solve. A stable, solid Iraq is still seemingly the best option then, especially if the United States is to leave (or at least be less present in) the Middle East. This does not mean that the status quo is a viable option either. My hat is honestly off to Mr. Khedery for at least suggesting a solution, even though I believe it is wrong. I personally have no solution, or at least no viable solutions. To whomever may read this, let me extol the necessity of formulating a full solution which helps the region in the long term, and acts not just as a short term panacea to allow for less U.S. involvement. It is the people who read blogs like this who need to stop sniping and start building (yes, I know I am being hypocritical). Don’t abandon the people or state of Iraq, Syria, or any other state seemingly thrust into an uncorrectable trajectory. As long as there are minds working at the problem, there will always be hope.
Getting rid of Sykes-Picot will only further exacerbate problems in the Middle East, and do nothing to solve U.S. problems in the region.