AN OPINION PIECE
Last week, representatives from the Syrian government and the rebels in arms against it sat down for peace talks at the UN base in Geneva. Things got off to a bad start. The 2 sides won’t even sit in the same room as each other and rely on go-betweens to shuttle from room to room with their messages. A previous peace talk sponsored by the UN failed. Previous attempts at cease-fires on the ground failed thanks to Syrian maneuvering at odds with the spirit of the agreements. And the UN privately admits that Syria’s just too dangerous to effectively monitor and maintain any cease-fire or peace.
I am not optimistic about these peace talks, but the sad truth is they’re still probably the best strategy for putting an end to the war. As a previous post should make clear, the war in Syria is extraordinarily complicated and messy: There are multiple actors on the ground, multiple foreign backers on the sidelines (and increasingly on the ground too), multiple agendas, years of mistrust earned through bitter war, and centuries of hatred steeped in religious differences, and they all stand in the way of peace. But the war is at a stalemate; even the much-ballyhooed Russian intervention last September didn’t tip the scales one way or another. And civilians are suffering and dying and fleeing in massive numbers. A negotiated peace seems to offer the best and most realistic exit strategy for this miserable war.
In America, the Republican candidates in the ridiculously long presidential campaign are almost all banging war drums. Refugees from the war zone are considered unsettling and possibly dangerous. The Islamic State’s seizure of Iraqi cities that had been hard-fought for in the ’00s is considered a disgrace to veterans and their sacrifices. And most of all, the recent terrorist attacks in France and California* reminded everyone of the Islamic State’s global ambitions and the lure it offers to any young, hotheaded, and disillusioned Muslim active on social media. The president is a coward, they say. He needs to think more about national security, they say. America needs to “bomb the shit out of” the Islamic State, they say, and put “boots on the ground.”
Put aside the fact that these strategies are lacking in specifics and often call for things Barack Obama is basically already doing. Put aside the fact that America has been getting steadily more involved in the war, from stationing more soldiers in Iraq to training and advising fighters in Syria and bombing the Islamic State relentlessly. Put aside what I’ve argued before — that politicians spew hawkish rhetoric mostly to look tough rather than to actually help a situation.
Suppose America (or some other powerful country) did escalate the war effort. Suppose there was more bombing, more death, more stuff blowing up. Suppose the Islamic State’s financial lifelines were cut off. Suppose there were boots on the ground and the Islamic State was wiped off the face of the earth. There are obviously major obstacles to all these supposes, but just imagine if the Islamic State was defeated.
And then what?
Whenever an outside power destroys a government, there is what we call a “power vacuum.” They never last long. Someone has to step in and take charge. Usually it’s best to figure that out in advance or else there will probably be a breakdown in law and order. So who would fill the vacuum? The Syrian government, which has been discredited throughout the Arab and Muslim world for its brutality and duplicity? The Iraqi government, which has been discredited in Iraq for its blatant sectarianism, thuggishness, incompetence, corruption and economic mismanagement? The Kurds, who refused to march on Mosul, the Islamic State’s capital, because it’s outside their traditional territory? An American occupation, which worked so well in Iraq in the ’00s?
What’s most infuriating is that poor long-term planning and lack of proper consideration for the situation on the ground doomed the Iraq War of the ’00s. George Bush was consumed with a desire to finish his father’s mission (or to get the sweet, sweet oil, or spread democracy in West Asia, I don’t want to get into this here) and fixated on the invasion phase of the war without thinking through how the occupation would work. It’s rumored that he didn’t even know that Iraq had a sectarian split until during the war he launched. Yes, America is easily the world’s most powerful country and can blast most of its enemies to smithereens without much effort. But that isn’t really the hard part of fighting a war; the hard part is arranging a political system that won’t fall apart once you leave (and make no mistake, the US is uninterested in long occupations).
This is what makes Obama pause, not any innate “cowardice” or sympathy with terrorists. The situation in Iraq and Syria is extremely complicated and intervening can easily make the situation worse. And frankly, after years of war, deprivation and chaotic violence, the people in the Islamic State need stability, peace and order, not more shooting.
Given the situation on the ground, it’s time for the participants in the wars in Mesopotamia** to think outside of the box. It’s time for them to recognize reality and face the facts. It’s time for them to start considering a strategy which has rarely been discussed and is basically off the table in most peace negotiations: partition.
The wars in Mesopotamia are rooted in deep-seated distrust between the opposing forces, which stems from religious/sectarian/ethnic differences. When Iraq’s Sunnis were thrown out of power in 2003, they never really forgave the new government. Although Syria might have the firepower and manpower and a formidable ally in Russia, it is a minority regime, with a base of support mostly restricted to one part of the country and deeply fearful of most of its people. Meanwhile, the Kurds have been neglected by both countries, which suits them just fine because they would rather be independent.
I believe that after 5 years of war, the best strategy at the peace negotiations is to propose a partition of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State drew support in Sunni Iraq because it at least tries to administer its territory decently and it is seen as a Sunni guardian force against vicious Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias. The portion of IS in Syria has historically been removed from the rest of the country, since it’s part of the same river system as Iraq and there’s a desert in the middle. The locals welcome IS because it is rooted in that region. On the other hand, they’re not big fans of its religious zealotry and horrific violence, and a lot of its troops are idiot foreign recruits. Why not arrange for a new country (Assyria, maybe?) in what is now the Islamic State — east Syria plus most of north Iraq? That would settle most of the locals’ grievances with their old regimes and make them more willing to get rid of their current crazy terrorist overlords.
A similar strategy could be used in west Syria, where the war is fiercest. Alawites cling to the Syrian regime because they fear (probably rightly) the vengeance that will fall upon them if the rebels win. Sunnis never really trusted them anyway. The Alawite area has more in common with Lebanon, the multi-sectarian country to the south. Why not agree to create an independent Alawite state with the Assad family in charge? It would mean allowing a hated dictator to stay, but expecting him to leave for no reason when he hasn’t left in 5 years hasn’t worked so far.
Finally, it seems obvious that the Kurds need their own country. They have been oppressed and discriminated against in both Iraq and Syria and speak a different language and have a different culture from Arabs. They have been mostly self-governing since the American invasion anyway, with much better results than in Baghdad, Iraq’s capital. An independent Kurdistan would basically formalize the separate flag, government, and army Kurdistan already has.
There are obviously problems with this strategy too. Syrians howled with rage when France partitioned their country along similar lines in the 1920s. The war to preserve the Syrian state will have failed. There are no assurances that any of these countries would be democratic, which is what this war was supposed to be about, at least at first. Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, has stayed in power despite a mediocre military record and lots of help from Hezbollah (a Shi’ite militia in Lebanon), Iran and Russia; he remains probably the single biggest obstacle to peace. Baghdad has traditionally been a mixed city, and its status would be contentious, although it’s undergone ethnic cleansing in recent years thanks to the civil war, and I don’t think its allocation to Shi’ite Iraq would be too disputed. Turkey has consistently blocked any move towards an independent Kurdistan; I personally think it should give up, but since NATO politics mean convincing it to do so won’t be easy, maybe it can be assured that a Kurdistan in Iraq and Syria doesn’t necessarily mean a Kurdistan in Turkey?
Commentators like pointing out how the colonial legacy has screwed over countries around the world; one of their favorite examples is the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, when Britain and France agreed to split Mesopotamia between them, creating modern Iraq and Syria despite the artificiality of those borders given the ethnic mix and history on the ground. Fine. That partition was a failure. Instead of just complaining about it all the time, why not revisit the agreement 100 years later and carve up Iraq and Syria along ethnic lines?
A lot of people are reluctant to endorse this strategy because it would mean caving in to the toxic sectarianism that is engulfing West Asia. It would mean writing the obituary for the Iraqi and Syrian states, unless the rump states in Damascus and Baghdad want to claim continuity with them. It would be a sad moment of resignation for the Arab world. But politics should recognize reality, and the current reality is that Sunnis and Shi’ites, Arabs and Kurds don’t trust each other. Segregation might not be a pleasant outcome, but it’s preferable to unending bloodshed.
*There were other terrorist attacks too, but these don’t get mentioned as much.
*The term for the “land between the rivers (Tigris and Euphrates),” or Iraq and east Syria.