Kentucky voices

Robert Olson: Politics, geography make dividing Iraq impractical

June 29, 2014 

Robert Olson of Lexington is a Middle East analyst.

It is somewhat strange, but unsurprising, to once again have policy makers in the U.S, Europe and the Middle East recommend that Iraq should be divided into three regions reflecting the three major ethnic and religious divisions: Arab, Kurd, (ethnic) and religious (Sunni-Shi'a).

The question is: In such a partition, could a diminished central government be able to manage the differences between three such constructed regions?

It seems unlikely for several reasons.

Such a division, with an anemic central government, would not be able to manage the centripetal ethnic and religious forces. For one, of whom would the central government be comprised?

Going from south to north in Iraq, such a partition within current borders seem untenable.

The Shi'a Basra region could well contain some 22 million Shi'a along with an estimated 120 billion barrels of oil. It lies next to Iran with a Shi'a population of 66 million and adjacent to Kuwait whose population is 35 percent Shi'a and close to Saudi Arabia with a Shi'a population of some 3 million most of whom live in the oil producing regions of Saudi Arabia along the west coast of the Persian Gulf.

This region is now heavily influenced by Iran. A partition of Iraq would result in an even closer relation between this region and Iraq, which in turn would mean even more Shi'a influence in the Gulf Arab countries.

The middle region, centered on the current Anbar province, would have no access to the Persian Gulf. On the west it would abut the vast Syria desert. And even if it were to be joined by the Arab Sunni tribes of Syria, it would have precarious access to the water of the Euphrates River.

Control of the waters of the Euphrates between the Sunni Arabs of Iraq and Syria would be difficult to manage. Indeed, their ability to manage would depend on very good relations with Turkey which controls the down flow of the Euphrates which rises in east central Turkey.

Turkey has built over 50 dams on the waters of the Euphrates during the last 40 years. It has suffered drought the past several years and is in need of water for its booming economy and 77 million population.

It is unlikely that a Sunni region with no access to Persian Gulf or Euphrates water could survive.

The north region of Iraq controlled by Kurds currently has better relations with Turkey than with Arab Iraq. It is likely this situation will continue as the present Kurdish Regional Government needs Turkey in order to transport its oil and gas to world markets.

In addition, the relations between the proposed Kurdish regions and the Arab Iraq region would be cantankerous to say the least.

During the recent fighting between the Iraq Army and the allied Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and former Ba'ithist Iraqi Arab nationalists, the Kurdish government took over the territories disputed between them and the Sunni Arabs. The disputed territories comprise 8.2 percent of Iraq. The current three provinces comprising the Kurds are 6.2 percent of Iraq, which means it now controls 15 percent of Iraq.

That land is adjacent to the 8 million Kurds of southeast Turkey, 8 million Kurds of Iran and 1.2 million Kurds of Syria — all of whom have strong Kurdish nationalist movements.

In addition, the Kurds now control the headwaters of the Tigris and of its two major tributaries, which would be necessary for the survival of any proposed Sunni Arab region.

In short, the proposed — indeed, any — partition of Iraq is unlikely to have any success.

Robert Olson of Lexington is author of The Siege of Mosul and Ottoman Persian Relations, 1718-1743.

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