Strategy for Iraq: A Two-State Idea

By: Greg C. Reeson

With the passing of the November elections, which were generally interpreted as an expression of the American public’s dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq, strategies for changing direction in the war-torn country have been offered by several individuals and groups, with the most notable being Senator Biden’s Plan for Iraq and the Baker-Hamilton panel’s Iraq Study Group report.

Throughout the seemingly endless discussions about which strategy is best, the assumption that Iraq would remain a unified country has prevailed. But given the increasing levels of sectarian violence and the continuing lack of effort on the part of Iraqis to work toward national reconciliation, let’s consider here the idea of abandoning the one-Iraq policy in favor of a true division into two newly independent states.

Opponents and Proponents

President Bush has repeatedly stated that he is opposed to any plan that provides for the division of Iraq, as has Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Most of Iraq’s neighbors and the leaders of the Sunni-led insurgency have voiced their opposition as well, with regional states fearing a loss of their Sunni buffer with Iran and with Iraq’s former ruling minority understanding that any Sunni region they would inhabit would be devoid of oil resources and economically stagnant.

Proponents of dividing Iraq include several Shiite, Kurdish, and American lawmakers, as well as many citizens of both Iraq and the United States. The divisions proposed so far all create three largely autonomous regions with a limited national assembly that would maintain a single Iraqi state. Provisions for such regions are written into the Iraqi constitution, and Senator Biden has advocated them in his plan.

For the Kurds, the idea of an autonomous region is very appealing. They have largely governed themselves since the 1991 Gulf War and want to continue that autonomy with responsibility for their own security and oil resources. Similarly, many Shiites have pushed for the creation of their own autonomous region in Iraq’s south, where oil is abundant and the security situation is not nearly as tenuous as it is in central and western Iraq.

The Sunnis, who would control none of Iraq’s oil resources, have consistently balked at the Shiite and Kurdish proposals. Senator Biden has suggested the guarantee of about twenty percent of national oil revenues to the Sunnis as a remedy for their lack of economic means, but thus far neither the Kurds nor the Shiites have shown any interest in sharing their oil wealth with their former oppressors.

Problems With a Unified Iraq

Since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, the security situation in Iraq has steadily deteriorated to the point where many have begun to characterize the conflict as an all-out civil war. To get control of the continually escalating violence, coalition troops have pursued a strategy of training Iraqi Army and Police forces that will gradually take the lead in battling the insurgency so that foreign combat troops can begin to leave.

While steady strides have been made, the training strategy has taken much longer than anyone anticipated. The Iraq Study Group referred to the progress as “fitful,” and cited loyalty to sectarian ties as a major obstacle to forming security forces dedicated to a national government.

Even if the major groups could reach some sort of agreement on national goals, real accommodation is unlikely because there is no single Sunni, Shiite, or Kurdish position. The insurgency is divided among many groups, with the private intelligence company STRATFOR listing eight Sunni nationalist insurgent groups and three foreign jihadist groups. The Shia are likewise divided with at least three major militias and many smaller armed factions loyal to different clerics, crime syndicates, and other parties.

But perhaps the biggest problem is that thus far none of the major players have shown an interest in reaching an agreement on what a unified Iraq should look like. According to the Iraq Study Group, “Iraq’s leaders often claim that they do not want a division of the country, but we found that key Shia and Kurdish leaders have little commitment to national reconciliation.” So, if the current unity government isn’t working, and if the creation of three autonomous regions is unlikely to solve Iraq’s woes, perhaps a two-state division of Iraq is worth consideration.

Dividing the Country

The most stable parts of Iraq are the Kurdish north and the Shiite south. Therefore any two-state solution would necessarily focus on these geographical areas. The Kurds would control the northern oil fields and the Shia would control the southern resources. The Sunnis, refusing to work toward any solution to the conflict, would be left with two choices: learn to live peacefully as the minority population they are or face certain extermination at the hands of Shiites and Kurds if they continue to choose violence over negotiation.

Now, this looks very simplistic on the surface, and other issues such as borders and mixed cities would still have to be worked out. But a two-state solution is as viable as any other course of action proposed thus far. Critics of the idea will throw out many objections, including the concerns of neighboring countries and the need to include Iraq’s Sunni population in any agreement. These are valid concerns that must be addressed as part of any proposal for solving the violence in Iraq.

Potential Consequences

The first issue that must be addressed is the reaction of the Sunni minority. The two-state solution effectively abandons Sunnis because of their stubborn refusal to give up the insurgency and end the vicious cycle of violence. This idea has already been floated by the U.S. State Department and is simply recognition of the Sunni reluctance to join in Iraq’s future. To put it frankly, they just don’t have the numbers to fight the Shiites or the Kurds indefinitely, especially in areas where those groups could take the lead in their own security operations. The insurgency could continue, but instead of being limited to largely Sunni areas in central and western Iraq, insurgents would have to take the fight to Kurdish and Shiite dominated areas in the north and south of the country.

Neighboring Sunni countries are worried about losing their Iraqi buffer with Iran, as well as the rapid rise of Shiite power in a region largely dominated by Sunni Arab governments. Saudi Arabia has threatened open support for Iraq’s Sunnis, and Jordan may feel compelled to act as well. But the reality is that a Shiite majority would dominate any Iraqi government anyway and an Iranian-led Shiite power grab has been underway for the better part of the last year. What the Sunnis fear is already happening and further violence would only lead to complete disaster for the entire Middle East.

Any independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq would infuriate Turkey, Iran, and Syria, all fearful that the creation of a Kurdistan would stir up unrest among their own Kurdish populations. There would have to be strong U.S. assurances that a Kurdish state in northern Iraq would not seek to expand into Turkish, Iranian or Syrian territories, perhaps guaranteed by U.S. bases in the newly formed nation. Basing in Kurdistan makes the most sense for the United States because the Kurds are the most pro-American group in Iraq and would not want to jeopardize the gains they have made under the umbrella of U.S. protection. An added bonus for the United States is that Kurdish bases would provide a launching pad for countering Iranian influence in the region.

Perhaps the biggest consequence of this plan is that the United States would be accepting Iranian dominance of any Shiite state created in southern Iraq. No matter what happens from this point on, I think Iran wins. Iraq will never again be the Iranian adversary it once was. Either an Iran-friendly Shiite government will dominate the entire country or the Iranians will exert significant influence in any Shiite region or state in the south of Iraq. The goal now is to limit Iranian influence as much as possible, a goal that can be accomplished with U.S. bases in the Kurdish north and in Kuwait.

By no means is this a simple solution and there can be no doubt that tremendous difficulties would arise. It is a starting point, as are the other plans proposed thus far. Given that so many individuals and groups are opposed to the division of Iraq, this two-state solution may be way off the mark. But given the options available to the United States right now, it is a plan to consider.

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