Crisis reopens debate on redrawing Iraq's map

An ISIL militant holds an ISIL flag and weapon in the Iraqi city of Mosul on June 23, 2014.
An ISIL militant holds an ISIL flag and weapon in the Iraqi city of Mosul on June 23, 2014.

The volatile situation in Iraq and Syria has raised questions about the future borders of the two nations. Figures from across the political spectrum are advocating for a changed geography – either within the countries or the region. While the idea of changing borders that were drawn up by France and Britain after World War I is not a new one for the Middle East, the combination of conflicting interests and sectarian conflict is increasing the possibility.

Deakin University Middle East expert professor Benjamin Isakhan said “For all intents and purposes, the modern borders of Iraq are likely to change dramatically and we could well be seeing its complete disintegration into several autonomous zones.”

With the non-Arab Kurdish people of the northern region of Iraq openly pursuing a referendum on independence, a newly formed Kurdistan could be the first piece to emerge.

“Kurds have taken the golden opportunity to seize Kirkuk and Kurdish leaders have used very strong political language saying, 'This is our moment, we can't be held hostage to the volatility of Iraq any longer,'” said professor Isakhan. Yet Kurdish independence could itself be a forerunner to a wider breakup of Iraq.

Here are three people discussing the idea.

1) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, has proclaimed a caliphate, or Islamic state, that encompasses both Syrian and Iraqi territory. The ISIL group, which now calls itself the Islamic State, embraces the notion a Sunni-ruled region bridging parts of Iraq and Syria. It even released a slick video called The End of Sykes-Picot with a man reportedly at the border of Iraq and Syria explaining how the caliphate supplants the political border.

2) Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken about autonomy for Kurds. Israel is looking for allies in the region, as the security worsens and the US makes plain its reluctance to engage in more wars. Israel began purchasing oil from the resource rich Kurdish territory, and suggested an openness to the people of the region achieving their long-held goal of independence. Israel has other motives besides oil.

An Iraq divided into a Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite nations would potentially create less formidable neighbours for Israel, as well, according to Shlomo Brom, former director of the strategic planning division of the Israeli army.

A plan to forge an alliance with an independent Kurdish state harkens back to Israel’s strategy in the 1950s and 1960s, when Israel built a "peripheral alliance" with non-Arab countries and peoples including Kurds, Turkey and Iran.

3) Joe Biden floated the idea of Kurds, Sunnis and Shia being partitioned into largely autonomous zones in 2006. Biden penned a New York Timesopinion piece, written with Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. The basic idea is to "establish three largely autonomous regions with a viable central government in Baghdad. The Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions would each be responsible for their own domestic laws, administration and internal security. The central government would control border defence, foreign affairs and oil revenues. Baghdad would become a federal zone, while densely populated areas of mixed populations would receive both multi-sectarian and international police protection."

In 2006, Senator Biden and Mr Gelb noted that decentralisation was "hardly radical" and the volatile situation on the ground in Iraq was "already heading toward partition: increasingly, each community supports federalism, if only as a last resort".

Since, then of course, Mr Biden became vice president, where he has been the White House's point man on US policy on Iraq. Only days ago, in another New York Times opinion piece, Mr Gelb argued that the pressing issue for the US is to help Iraq’s government defeat the IS movement in Iraq and Syria – with the help of allies in the region. “These present circumstances provide barren ground for a settlement, but if the Iraqi Humpty Dumpty is to be made whole again, it can be only through a federal power-sharing formula,” he wrote.

For now, the bloody sectarian war continues. Even if the Iraq-Syria map is forever altered, as some are saying it should be (or in the case of al-Baghdadi, saying it is), Dr Isakhan sees no immediate period of peace. “In the immediate short term, they will see a blood-bath,” he said. “There is no way this is going to be done peacefully.”

And over the longer-term? It’s “impossible to say”.

This story Crisis reopens debate on redrawing Iraq's map first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.