This week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull raised eyebrows by professing openness to a very controversial idea. He suggested that a partition in Iraq and Syria could form part of a lasting political solution in a broken region.
“The border between Syria and Iraq is just a line on the map. Neither country can be secured without a settlement in the other,” the Prime Minister told Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
“The enmities are so deep, the wrongs so shocking, that every option should be on the table – from an institutionalised power-sharing to some form of partition.”
But what exactly does that last word mean? Well, it depends on who you talk to. However, the basic premise is this: divide the region up along ethno-religious lines for the Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and Kurds as either separate countries or as states within one federal system, the objective being stability and a halt to sectarian violence.
It is probably not true to say that Mr Turnbull strongly backed partition but he has seemingly adopted his “not ruling anything in or out” approach to policy making, in which “creative pragmatism” and compromise are essential.
But even allowing it to be on the table is a cause for consternation in some circles. History
The borders of Iraq and Syria as we know them were created by colonial powers in the early 20th century. They are often called “artificial” and referenced as a cause of instability as countries struggle to control divergent populations or do so with oppressive tactics.
The broad idea of partition – originally proposed just for Iraq before Syria collapsed – has gained popularity in the United States over the last decade.
In 2006, then senator (and now vice-president) Joe Biden and foreign policy expert Leslie Gelb suggested a federalist system, as allowed by the Iraqi constitution, with three distinct states for the major sectarian groups.
This would maintain central government in Baghdad, where oil revenue is distributed and decisions on foreign policy, trade and the military are made while regional governments would have dominion over education and other areas.
The idea of this “soft partition” – which won the support of the US Senate the following year – is that these regions would be satisfied with the level of autonomy and stay unified in one country.
And while Biden and Gelb specifically criticised the idea of a full partition creating separate countries, a setting they warned the country was heading towards anyway, this even more controversial idea now attracts attention as well. The status quo
The prediction that the region was heading for de facto partition has, according to many experts, become reality.
Professor Amin Saikal, director of the ANU’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, says that the “territorial contours” of Iraq (and Syria) have already changed.
“If you look at Iraq, it has become three distinct entities,” Professor Saikal argues.
There is the territory still controlled by the formal, Shiite-dominated government of prime minister Haider al-Abadi in the east and south-east, which includes the majority of the Iraq’s oil reserves.
There are the Kurds, with 20 per cent of the population, who have established a relatively autonomous state in the north defended by their Peshmerga, a sub-national militia. In recent years, the regional government has both solidified control of its territory and expanded to include valuable oil fields.
In the west and north-west, Sunni extremists Islamic State are in control. As long as they survive across Syria and Iraq, it is difficult to say how the borders will settle.
“In some ways, you already have the partition of Iraq. It is already divided but whether it should be transformed into a formal division is a different story altogether,” Professor Saikal said.
Expanded to include Syria, the whole notion becomes even more complex. The Assad regime in Syria now has control over less than a third of its country, with Islamic State and other rebel fighters dominating the rest. The Iranians and Russians are heavily involved and back the government in Damascus. Support and criticism
Professor Saikal and Dr Rodger Shanahan of the Lowy Institute and ANU National Security College agree that the idea doesn’t attract much backing.
“There’s not much appetite among countries in the region for partition. Turkey’s not going to support it, Iran’s not going to support it, the Syrian government’s not going to support it and the Iraqi government’s not going to support it,” Dr Shanahan says.
Turkey is particularly opposed to the Kurds in northern Iraq (and Syria) having their own sovereign state on their southern border. The Turkish government has been engaged in conflict with their own Kurdish separatists and fear an independent Kurdistan would be an inspiration or set a precedent for them.
With their own Kurd minority, the Iranian government have similar concerns and also have close ties with the central government in Baghdad.
The idea of a partition also does not attract support from the majority of Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis.
Really, it can only be found among the Iraqi Kurds, some Western politicians and Israel to an extent.
In the north of Iraq, the Kurds have always desired an independent state or, at the very least, extensive autonomy. In many ways, they have already achieved this.
The Israeli government have stated their support for an independent Kurdistan. They have close military and intelligence ties to the regional government and are happy to see Arab regimes weakened.
Bob Bowker, former Australian ambassador to Jordan, Egypt and Syria, says he has “deep reservations” about the partition even being on the table.
“I think there would be an effort of ethnic cleansing and also we would see militia-dominated rule emerge in these areas, probably dominated by Islamist elements whose rule would be highly regressive for women and minorities,” Dr Bowker told ABC radio on Wednesday.
“And there would be, therefore, attempts either to subdue elements of the population that were going to resist such control or those elements would be forced to leave.”
He said ethnic divisions are not clear enough to simply draw lines on a map because there are regions of overlap and diversity.
Even Joe Biden has admitted that sectarian cleansing is a concern of strengthening the regions of Iraq.
A full partition would also risk making states without oil fields economically unviable. Most of the oil falls into Shiite dominated regions, with very little in western Sunni areas.
It is widely argued that a full partition would entrench sectarian divisions in the area and immediately pit the new states against each other.
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