Why Syria and Iraq need to be Balkanized

For the past several years Americans have been inundated with the horrific, tragic, and utterly inhumane news coming out of Iraq and more recently Syria. Both of these failed states have become the epicenter of an ethno-religious sectarian conflict that has brought nothing but misery, destruction, poverty, and death to the peoples of the region.

It is no surprise that both Iraq and Syria share many of the same underlying problems. Both nation’s borders were conceived as a product of the World Wars and their aftermaths rather than the actual ethnic, linguistic, historical, or religious factors on the ground. As a result various differing peoples were forced to come under the same central government rule, with some groups benefiting from this arrangement, while many others lost out. The result of these artificial lines in the sand are patently obvious to even a casual observer of the news cycle today. The spiral into ever more conflict and blood seems never-ending and many have lost all hope in the possibility of future peace and stability for the region. Many of the proposals put forth in the west to quell the strife invariably involve more of the same…bombings, invasions, aid, and other wastes of taxpayer money. Very few have called for outright redrawing of the maps, claiming it to be a dangerous idea that can lead to a domino effect that will inevitably spiral out of control. They instead insist that borders and the status quo must remain, albeit with regime changes sprinkled here and there.  What they don’t understand is that with the current borders there will never be peace. These borders brew conflict and tension.

The current borders encourage the persecution of one group by the group in power. Sometimes it is a majority persecuting a minority or a minority persecuting a majority. The underlying factors that have fueled the conflicts were for a long time swept under the rug by a Strong Man Dictator. Saddam in the case of Iraq and until recently, Assad in Syria. This “Strongman” effect was most visible historically with the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Josep Broz Tito was the strongman dictator of the former Yugoslavia. It was under his tight rule and control that the various ethnic and religious groups of that divided nation remained together relatively peacefully. Only after his death and the fall of communism did we see the violence and strife that will sadly characterize the region for decades to come. What ended up happening though is a process know as “Balkanization” which entails the fragmentation of a region or state into smaller, and in my opinion, more representative political entities. Balkanzation has taken on a negative connotation in many circles, many wrongly identify it as a cause of violence and conflict rather than the solution. A typical fallacy of confusing correlation with causation. The destruction we saw in the former Yugoslavia was due to the strive to maintain its unity. Once the region was divided into separate independent and sovereign nations the violence has come to a standstill. Do issues still remain? Of course, but nothing to the level as previously seen, and certainly not to the extent we are seeing in Iraq and Syria today. The underlying philosophy of Balkanization is the smaller the political entity the better.  Smaller states bring the individuals closer to their government and enable them to have more political clout.

Thus governments tend to be more representative of the will of the people. This is one of the reasons federalism is so important in our own country. The more local the government the more accountable and just it tends to be. Larger political entities with little in the way of localized governance lead to more tyrannical and despotic regimes. In the case of countries like Syria and Iraq, a process of Balkanization would do wonders in order to foster peace and produce less corrupt and tyrannical governments. The various new states would be less internally factitious and more homogeneous thus allowing various ethnic and religious groups the right of self-determination and self-rule that they currently lack within these 2 failed centralized states.

Now while Balkanization will not solve all of the region’s issues, history has taught us that it will certainly move things in the right direction. Furthermore while I support a natural move towards the breakup of Syria and Iraq, I am in no way encouraging this process through the actions of any foreign intervention. With that said I believe it would be useful and interesting from a hypothetical standpoint to describe an ideal division of the two countries.

1. Alawite State

The Assad family are Alawites, which are a sect of Shia Islam primarily concentrated on the coast of Syria. The Alawites have formed the backbone of the Syrian regime since Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1971. Despite forming only 10% of the population of Syria they rule over a majority Sunni nation. An Alawite state existed during the French Mandate period and many Alawites fought against its integration into a Greater Syria, including the Assad family. Under Hafez al-Assad, the regime, for decades pushed the concept of a pan Syrian identity and nationalism used to unite the nation (save for the Kurds). With the Arab Spring, and spillover from the chaos in Iraq, among many other internal issues, the control of Bashar al-Assad has weakened and the majority Sunni nation has been thrown into its current civil war. Many have speculated that a possible end goal or rather last resort of both Assad and possibly his Iranian and Russian allies is the establishment of an Alawite state along the coastal corridor of Syria. The area is majority Alawite with a large Christian presence as well. The Christian communities of Syria are generally supportive of the secular Assad regime as they depend on him to survive. This new state will enable Russia to maintain their naval and other strategic assets while also ensuring a safe and secure home for the ancient Christian community of Syria. Without such a state you can be sure of ethnic cleansing of the Christians and other minorities in the region. The Assad regime will most likely only acquiesce to this situation if all hope is lost in reclaiming the rest of Syria. With renewed Russian and Iranian support it appears the Civil war might drag on longer with the new successes of the regime in regaining territory.

2. Kurdish State

The Kurdish people are one of the largest ethnic groups in the world without their own state. The Kurdish people are divided between Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. Each of those nations having a long history of persecution of their local Kurdish population. Iraqi Kurdistan is a testament to the power of self rule. The region is comparatively stable, prosperous and safe compared to the rest of Iraq.

With the turmoil in Syria the Kurdish Syrians (Rojava) have begun to assert their own quasi Independence in the north-east of the country. If Iraq and Syria were to fall apart I believe both Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava would come together to form the basis of the new independent Kurdish state. Now while political differences exist between Rojava and Iraqi Kurdistan, I have no doubt, should the opportunity arise, that they would put them aside and come together for their own self-preservation and independence. An independent Kurdistan would provide the region with a large stable and largely pro-Western presence among a sea of radicalism and terror. It would most likely be supported by many Western European nations, the Russians, and hopefully the US. On the contrary the Iranians and the Turks would vehemently oppose such a scenario from unfolding, fearing their own large Kurdish minorities might also begin to rise up with new fervor. On a defacto level though Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava are already independent states in all but name.

3. Jab al-Druze State

Syria’s south is home to the Druze, an ethnoreligious group distinct from Islam numbering only about 2 million adherents worldwide. Like the Alawites and Christians to the north they generally support the Assad regime but are more isolated from his base of support in Latakia. They also had a short-lived state during the French Mandate.
A sovereign and independent Druze state would ensure their safety and survival. They also inhabit a geographically contiguous area south of Damascus known as “Jabal al-Druze” or “Mountain of the Druze.” Such a state could also serve a dual geopolitical purpose as a buffer between Israel and a new rump Sunni State in Syria and Iraq. This new state would be rather small, have no sea access, and most likely depend on foreign assistance to maintain its borders.

4. Assyrian State

The Niveneh plains in the North of Iraq are home to the ancient Aramaic speaking Assyrian Christian community. Long persecuted and ruled over, their struggle for independence could come about with a breakup of Iraq. Since the Iraq war many Assyrians have fled their homeland, especially to the neighboring countries of Syria and Turkey. Now with Syria in worse shape than Iraq the already displaced Assyrians are dealing with more difficulty. They still do make up a slight majority in the Niveneh plains region currently under Kurdish governance. With an independent state many Assyrian refugees would find their way back home. Any independence though would require Kurdish cooperation, and the two groups have had a difficult history. An Assyrian state would be one of the only Christian States in the middle east for centuries which would be a radical geopolitical development. The difficulties that would face a Druze state apply equally to an Assyrian state. It would inevitably require some form of foreign support. A more likely development would be local autonomy for the Assyrians under the umbrella of Iraqi Kurdistan. Though despite all the rhetoric from the Republican party about Christian values very little was ever done to support or help the persecuted Christian minorities in Iraq and the broader mid east. Supporting Assyrian statehood would be a major move to rectify this.

5. A rump Sunni State (“Sunnistan”)

The remainder of the Sunni inhabited land of both Iraqi and Syria should most likely form a new rump Pan Sunni Arab state.

The Sunni Arabs of both Iraq and Syria share much in common and there are historical precedents in the region for such a unification. This new state would be similar to the former Untied Arab Republic between Syria and Egypt that lasted from 1958-1961 or the even shorter lived Arab Federation of Iraq and Jordan of 1958. One could hope such a state would end up like Jordan, secular, relatively pro western and stable. You could expect Jordanian and Gulf State support for such a concept if all else fails.

6. A rump Shiite State (“Shiitestan”)

Iraq unlike Syria is actually a majority Shiite nation. Like Syria though its former strong man dictator, Saddam Hussein, was a member of the religious minority, in this case, he was a Sunni. The majority of the Shiite population of Iraq lies to its south. It would form the perfect basis of a Arab Shiite state, with strong Iranian backing.

1 Comment

  1. “Both nation’s borders were conceived as a product of the World Wars and their aftermaths rather than the actual ethnic, linguistic, historical, or religious factors on the ground.” True not many people seem to realize it was the Ally powers that created the modern middle east states and they continue to contribute to instability in the region still today.

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