Other People's Countries: Partition Talk re Syria & Iraq

Monday, November 30, 2015

In recent days, I've seen a fair bit of talk relating to the idea of partitioning Syria. John Bolton, who was the US Ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration, made the argument for partition recently in a NY Times editorial. Observing that "Today’s reality is that Iraq and Syria as we have known them are gone,"  Bolton wrote the following:
The Islamic State has carved out a new entity from the post-Ottoman Empire settlement, mobilizing Sunni opposition to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the Iran-dominated government of Iraq. Also emerging, after years of effort, is a de facto independent Kurdistan.
Notice how Bolton uses the term that an "independent Kurdistan" is "emerging?" Phrased this way, this process sounds very natural and organic--and not at all like the result of political decisions made in places like Washington, DC, London, and elsewhere--decisions that influence the lives of millions of people.

Anyway, here's more from Bolton:

If, in this context, defeating the Islamic State means restoring to power Mr. Assad in Syria and Iran’s puppets in Iraq, that outcome is neither feasible nor desirable. Rather than striving to recreate the post-World War I map, Washington should recognize the new geopolitics. The best alternative to the Islamic State in northeastern Syria and western Iraq is a new, independent Sunni state.
And Bolton isn't alone. In USA Today, Bloomberg, and elsewhere there have similarly been discussions about the wisdom of dividing up Syria and, if so, how. The theme of partition is also present in the ways in which the American media analyze the supposed aims of US adversaries in the region like Russia and Iran. Even back in 2007 then-Senator Joe Biden was the chief architect of a plan calling for the partition of Iraq, one of the only ideas at the time to receive bipartisan support in the Senate.

I can see the appeal of the argument. After all, I am sure that to many Americans--and some Europeans as well--it probably makes perfect sense to advocate a move that would potentially result in the upheaval of tens of millions of people's lives, all for the sake of some American's sense of what constitutes a "logical" country--one based upon national or religious homogeneity. 

But remember, for a moment, who it was that created the borders of Iraq and Syria in the first place. England and France created these entities in their efforts to divide up between themselves the (mostly) Arab territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire. Back then, the received wisdom in Europe was that it was best to create "national" entities, as opposed to sectarian ones of the sort that Bolton and others are advocating now. 

John Bolton has a new plan wrapped in old assumptions

I'm sure that dividing up other people's countries along sectarian lines makes as much sense to Bolton today as creating multi-sectarian (mainly) Arab nation-states did to his imperial predecessors in London and Paris. For a long time, after all, the nation-state seemed like a great idea to many people in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. That's partly why people thought it would make a lot of sense to divide the Ottoman Empire, which was also characterized at the time as somehow illegitimate due to the fact that it wasn't a nation-state.

The original partition plan for Anatolia after WWI

But the fact that just a few generations ago influential people in European capitals also thought it would be smart to remake the map of the Middle East should give pause to those who are quick to similarly re-draw the borders of the Middle East today. What seems like a logical way of dividing up (other people's) countries today might appear totally unworkable to us fifty years from now. So what would we do then? Re-divide these countries one more time? That's kind of like what Bolton is suggesting we do now. 

To be sure, this is a complicated issue, and there are plenty of examples that people both for and against partition could point to in order to support their arguments. Lebanon, for example, was similarly the battleground for numerous wars taking place in the region from 1975 to 1991. Like Syria, Lebanon is home to a number of different religious communities, all of which became allied with various foreign powers--Iran, the PLO, Israel, the United States, Syria--that got involved with the conflict. And while politics might not be exactly great or smooth in Lebanon right now--indeed, I'm sure people there are focused mainly upon keeping the Syrian conflict out of their borders--I bet that most Lebanese are grateful now that the world community didn't decide that their country was "unworkable" and decide to divide it up. 

There's also the example of Yugoslavia which was divided with the enthusiastic participation of a number of western countries, especially Germany

Meanwhile, the ex-Yugoslav republics of Bosnia and Serbia have themselves been partitioned, each in its own way. In the case of Bosnia, the idea of a unitary state remains a polite fiction, as real power in Bosnia today exists in the country's two halves: the Republika Srpska for the Serbs, and the Muslim-Croatian dominated Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Serbia, on the other hand, was stripped of Kosovo through a series of developments, culminating with the George W. Bush administration's willingness to recognize Kosovo as an independent country in early 2008. Most of the other countries in the world (a little over 100) recognizing Kosovo as an independent state are allies of the US.

Countries recognizing Kosovo

The idea of partition goes hand-in-hand with forced migration, because in most cases the partition of states is accompanied by the transfer of populations caught on the 'wrong' side of the border. The modern history of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh has been marked by repeated traumas relating to efforts to sort out those countries according to some people's ideas of 'homogeneity.' Many people point to the population exchange between Turkey and Greece in 1923 as a great idea, but both the short-term and long-term losses resulting from the exchange were, for both countries, terrible. 

Greek refugees leaving Izmir, Turkey, in 1923

So, when thinking about partition, I'd advise people to consider the following: 

a) It's easy for those of us living in comfortable surroundings to casually talk about partitioning other people's countries, but the effects of such undertakings can be catastrophic for the individuals involved--not to mention for future generations living in these countries and their successor states. 

b) The terms through which we seek to re-organize other people's countries can change from one generation to another. So, perhaps the biggest problem with supposedly 'artificial' borders like those of Syria and Iraq today isn't the borders themselves, but rather the fact that they were created by outsiders. Plans like Bolton's would simply perpetuate this problem. 

c) Even after a partition takes place, the 'problem' that the partitioners were trying to solve (diversity, heterogeneity) ends up re-surfacing in other ways. We'll never get to a point where we can make society perfectly homogenous. And even if we did, people would still find other markers (such as clan or class, for example) to differentiate themselves from others. 

While I can understand the urge for Bolton and other long-distance social engineers to re-make the Middle East according to their own ideas of what makes the most sense for people living there, I think that the future of Syria and Iraq are issues that would be best solved by Syrians and Iraqis themselves. Powerful outsiders have already played too much of a role in determining the borders of the Middle East. I think that, as much as possible, we should resist the urge to repeat history in this way

Also see:

Erdogan vs. Putin: The Streetfighter and the Agent Face Off

More on Russia-Turkey Conflict

Turkey Shoots Down Russian Warplane 

Thoughts and Questions re France and ISIS

Thinking about Paris

Nothing to Celebrate 

Responding post-Charlie

10 Questions Regarding Syria

160 librarians can't be wrong! Ask yours to order a copy of Turks Across Empires at the OUP website or from Amazon

More links, commentary and photographs available poolside at the Borderlands Lounge.  

No comments:

Post a Comment