Jeffrey Goldberg – now back full time (yay!) at the Atlantic – rightly claims some prescience. In 2007, he sketched a slightly fanciful map of the future of the region and it looked like this:
His bottom line:
One of the reasons I don’t find myself overly exercised by the apparent collapse of Iraq (and one of the reasons I don’t think it would be wise for the U.S. to rush into Iraq in order to “fix” it) is that I’ve believed for a while that no glue could possibly hold the place together.
The case for Kurdistan is pretty powerful, I’d say, and there are some hints that the Turks may not be quite so hostile. British Tory Daniel Hannan wonders whether partition is such a bad idea after all:
How much disorder, horror, fear and mutiny might have been avoided had Iraq been divided along ethnographic lines in 2003 – or, better yet, in 1920. (If you don’t like the word “ethnographic”, substitute “democratic”: it amounts to the same thing.)
Any mention of partition sends some pundits scurrying to their keyboards. What about Yugoslavia, they say, or Ireland, or India, eh eh? Well, I wonder whether, in each of those cases, an agreed separation beforehand might have left us with something very like today’s borders without the intervening war. We’ll never know, obviously, but it’s worth noting that several partitions happened amicably enough, from Czechoslovakia to the West Indies Federation. More to the point, look at the consequences of non-partition. The civil wars have driven 2.1 million Iraqis and 1.4 million Syrians into exile. How much worse do things have to get before we consider an alternative?
Mordechai Kedar posits that Iraqis’ loyalties are not to “Iraq” anyway:
“The tribe always succeeds against the state,” Kedar emphasized. If one doubts this, one need not look further than the number of Iraqi soldiers that deserted Mosul. If they felt loyal to a country called Iraq, they would have staid and fought against Al Qaeda. However, their loyalties were to their tribes and clans. Why die fighting for something that they don’t believe in? “People are loyal to the tribe rather than to the state,” Kedar noted.
Aside from the tribal issues in Iraq, Kedar explained that the country is also full of religious tension, as Iraq is the home to 10 different religions. Among them are Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians, Alawis, Druze, Bahais, etc. Kedar emphasized, “As we speak, Christians are getting killed and persecuted. Only a third of the Christians that existed in Sadamn Hussein’s Iraq are still in the country.” These tensions don’t even include the Shia-Sunni divide, which has been going on since the advent of Islam even though the Caliphate no longer exists, rendering the question of who his rightful successor should be to be almost irrelevant.
But Mansoor Moaddel collects survey data from the past decade that complicates the narrative that Iraq is hopelessly incoherent:
The Sunnis and Shia converge in defining selves as Iraqi, rather than Muslim or Arab, above all. This support rose from 22% in 2004 to 80% in 2008, and then dropped to 60% among the Sunnis. Among the Shia, it was 28% in 2004, increased to 72% in 2007, and then dropped to 62% in 2013. There is not much support for Iraqi identity among the Kurds. Among the Kurds, on the other hand, there has been a shift from predominantly Kurdish identity to religion.
Reinforcing attachment to the nation rather than to the religion of Islam in politics is the fact that both the Sunnis and Shia (1) prefer politicians who are committed to the national interests over politicians who have strong religious convictions by at least a factor of 4 to 1, and (2) consider a good government one that makes laws according to the wishes of the people over the one that implements only the sharia by at least a factor of 3 to 1.
And Jocelyne Cesari has faith in reconciliation, provided anyone is willing to try and make it happen:
In sum, the main reason for the rise of ISIS is the growing disillusion of the Iraqi Sunnis with the government of Al Malki who has marginalized Sunni in different areas of politics and public life. In other words, the main issue that fuels the influence of ISIS is not religion, even if the war is couched in religious terms, but the unbalance in the distribution of power between Shia and Sunni. Although ISIS aims to establish a Caliphate across Iraq, Syria and beyond, it is not the main goal of the Sunni population of Iraq. In fact the political violence of Sunnis in Iraq is governed primarily by tactical and strategic choices rather than by religious motivations. No doubt that communal antagonism plays a significant role but is the outcome, not the cause, of the discriminatory political mechanisms in Iraq.
Successful conflict regulation requires the recognition and accommodation of the core cause ‐ in this case effective power sharing ‐ rather than a containment of the violent symptoms of the conflict. In this case, defeating ISIS is certainly necessary but not sufficient. It is imperative for the Iraqi rulers to create the conditions for a national reconciliation between Sunni, Shia and Kurds and devise a constitutional compromise which offers each community sufficient protection which eliminates the resort to violence. It is probably easier said than done, especially in the current regional environment and the transnational ideology of ISIS. But its is where the international community, including the US, could positively influence Iraqi protagonists: all of them.
Meanwhile, Andrew Lee Butters cautions that the states that would emerge from partition might not be viable:
It’s not just the mass executions that are going to leave a bad taste. In the chain-smoking Arab world, the days are numbered for a regime whose interpretation of Islamic law is so severe that it bans cigarettes. And an ISIL regime in northern Iraq can’t exactly put oil on the international market, or get Baiji‘s barely functioning gasoline refineries and pipelines up and running at full speed. The billions of dollars in U.S.-donated war material that ISIL is now capturing from the Iraqi army can’t really be put to effective use without substantial maintenance, training and support capability that ISIL lacks.
Substantial checks also remain on the nationalist impulses of both Kurds in the north and Shias in the South. The southern city of Basra may have a ton of oil and access to the Persian Gulf, but if it broke away from the rest of Iraq with a Shia sectarian agenda, it could find itself dangerously isolated or becoming a battle ground for Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Kurdish leadership in the north has consistently shown more interest in consolidating control and the economic viability of the Kurdish region than in national independence. For all their success at boosting trade and relations with their neighbors — particularly Turkey and Iran, each of which has large Kurdish minorities with national aspirations of their own — the old rules still apply. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has power, and the support of these key neighbors, as long as they are bringing stability to their part of a weak Iraqi state. They make enemies if they declare statehood.