The idea has been suggested repeatedly that Iraq, and now Syria, need to be partitioned. As the argument goes, the region’s post-World War I boundaries, which were drawn by the British and French with little regard to local realities, should not be defended. Both Syria and Iraq are socially divided along sectarian lines. According to this reasoning, once each sect has its own state, the conflicts engendered by these divisions will disappear or at least be minimized. As the argument goes, Iraq is already partitioned, to a degree, given the legal autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is the most peaceful and secure portion of the country.
Proposals to divide Iraq and Syria along different boundary lines make a lot of sense and are very attractive. The only problem is they will lead to massive population displacement, the impoverishment of minorities, and genocide.
Previous Attempts at Segregation for Peace
This solution has been tried elsewhere before. The difficulties between Israel and Palestine continue to be obvious to all, and in part stem from the UN’s 1947 partition of Palestine over the objections of almost all Arab states. When the Arab countries attempted to “reclaim” partitioned territories in 1948, the Israeli armies drove them back and claimed an even larger portion of the land than was allotted by the UN. Part of the difficulty with the partition’s implementation was that the area was not geographically segregated along ethnic or religious lines. Jews and Arabs lived together in many places, such as Jerusalem. Ongoing disagreements regarding acceptable partition lines and the lack of international recognition for a Palestinian state have repeatedly generated additional conflicts, which are unfolding yet again in Gaza right now.
1947 was the year of partitions. India and Pakistan were divided that same year, into “Hindu” and “Muslim” states. Around fifteen million Hindus and Muslims were on the wrong side of the line and were forced to flee for their lives. Hundreds of thousands were killed. Survivors largely arrived without any property and required resettlement. These refugees were a source of continuing instability, stirring up violence between neighbors who had lived together peacefully enough before the partition.
In 1923, as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was signing the Ottoman Empire’s final death certificate, Greece and the nascent Turkish Republic agreed to an exchange of populations to end the Greco-Turkish War, which had continued after World War I in the Aegean Sea. On the basis of a religious (as opposed to language-based) criterion of ethnicity, about two million people were forcibly relocated across the Aegean. In many cases, the areas where they settled were insufficiently prepared for their arrival, leading to additional social problems. Abandoned properties were mostly claimed by neighbors of those who had left, leaving incoming refugees with nowhere to go.
Other partition attempts in the region have more obviously failed. In World War I, the Assyrians fought against the Ottoman army alongside the British. In return for their efforts, the Assyrians earned the label “the Smallest Ally,” and a promise from the British for an “Assyrian Homeland” with the right to self-governance. Following the war, however, London felt no need to honor its promise. An Assyrian military leader named Agha Petros was encouraged by British officers to present the League of Nations with a fait accompli by claiming territory for Assyrian self-rule. The attempt was disastrous, as the Assyrian population stretched from Mosul in northern Iraq through the Hakkari Mountains in southeastern Turkey to Urmia in northwestern Iran. In other words, the “Assyrian Homeland” included too many Kurds, Turks, Türkmen, Arabs, and other groups. Just like Palestine before the 1947 UN partition, the region of northern Iraq was and remains inhabited by many different groups. These groups were not segregated from each other, but rather lived as neighbors, whether peacefully or not.
Reasons Partitions Fail
One problem with partitions is that maps lie. While geographic renderings for proposed partitions show solid colors for Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds (this map does the same for Alawites in western Syria), settlement patterns in the region are not homogeneous. Even a “busy” map like this one suffers from over-simplification.
The issue is that notions about a population’s “majority” can only be calculated on the basis of physical boundaries, as various proposals for redrawing voter districts tacitly acknowledge. Even if, say, a map shows Arab Sunnis making up the majority of the population within an area, they may, in fact, constitute only a minority of the population in some places within that boundary; they may not even be present in certain populated areas within the border lines.
The demographic distributions of northern Iraq and Syria could drive a revival of pointillist art among mapmakers. It is impossible to draw coherent boundaries for each of the different groups living in these areas or create a civil society that is bereft of ethnic and religious difference.
Even if a new set of borders were drawn, there would invariably be some who are “on the wrong side.” If the state is defined by sectarian affiliation, as the (Shiite) Islamic Republic of Iran and the Jewish State of Israel, then those outside that mold risk treatment as second-class citizens at best (or extermination as enemies of the state at worst), unless they can flee for their lives. In this case, the state of apartheid, genocide, or forced expulsion would have the ostensible backing of the international community, which would have little incentive to prevent it or even meaningfully object to it.
The people who will suffer worst from this macabre mapmaking are those groups which are too small to get “a state of their own,” including various Christian groups, the Yezidis, the Shabaks, and the Mandaeans, to name a few. Paradoxically, these smaller minorities often fare better when there is a larger minority to bear the brunt of discrimination. That is one explanation for why medieval Muslim states treated their Jewish populations better than their Christian counterparts: Jews were the only significant minority in Christian states, and thus the target of all sorts of discrimination, while in Muslim states in Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, Christians outnumbered Jews and were considered a much greater political threat.
Admittedly, however, in the modern Middle East, minorities have sometimes fared worse than their medieval counterparts. Indeed, some may argue that minority groups are already suffering under the rule of the extremist Sunni organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and that partition would do nothing other than recognize this reality. I disagree: a partition plan would give further impetus to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government to treat any Sunni in Baghdad as a foreign agent worthy of suspicion. A partition plan would give President Bashar al-Assad’s government legal impunity to exterminate the Sunnis of Damascus, because they are “in our Alawite state.” While al-Assad has been forced to depend upon other minorities for political support against a largely (but not exclusively) Sunni rebellion, recognizing the Syrian Arab Republic as an Alawite state would reduce that dependency.
No Other Choice?
I think there is a different and better option, which begins with confronting sectarian ways of thinking. The difficulty with sectarianism is that it is contagious. If one person says, “It does not matter what sect you are,” and the other person says, “If you are X sect, I will kill you,” then the first person very quickly learns that religious affiliation matters. This is what is going on with ISIS. This is also what the Maliki government’s pro-Shiite policies accomplished: they fostered a sectarian contest that emboldened the Sunnis of Anbar province to support ISIS’s recent insurgency.
But this is not how it has to be.
There are still many Sunnis and Shias who reject the sectarian narrative. While ISIS is a terrorist organization, support for the group grew after Maliki tried to turn Iraq into an apartheid state run exclusively by Shias. When peaceful protests in Sunni-majority areas led to government reprisals and sectarian profiling, the Maliki government forced Sunnis to choose between supporting a violent, sectarian organization and a government that wants to subjugate them. It would take uncommon moral fiber for anyone to choose the latter.
Nevertheless, if given the option of a non-sectarian government versus supporting extremist organizations, I believe most Arabs would happily choose the former. Unfortunately, any direct intervention by outside powers will provoke more blame and hatred than resolution, and will probably lead to an increase in extremist recruitment. But a military coalition of regional powers, with material support from the international community, can defeat ISIS. Although the Iraqi army has fallen apart and will be of little military use, it must be included in the fighting force to prevent claims of freeloading. If the Iraqi government is perceived as contributing to the defeat of ISIS, its popular legitimacy will increase. By contrast, if an international coalition hands western Iraq to Baghdad free of charge, perceptions of the Iraqi government as an illegitimate outside oppressor will likely dog subsequent attempts at national cohesion.
The Kurdish Peshmerga may be the most effective armed force to rout the group, and is already fighting ISIS at the borders of the Kurdish region in Iraq’s north. The Baghdad government may grant the Kurds total autonomy in exchange for their help in recovering the north and west, although it may be necessary to guard against their unilateral annexation of Mosul, which the Kurds have long desired. The Jordanian army would be a natural addition to the coalition, since the country borders both Syria and Iraq, including areas most affected by ISIS. While supporting extreme forms of Sunnism, the Saudis have no desire to see a new caliphate either. If the Turks could be persuaded to join the coalition, then ISIS would be surrounded and could be effectively routed.
Ultimately, for peace and stability to be regained in the Middle East, we must see more real power sharing in government, more checks and balances, with no single official position having enough power for the creation of personal fiefdoms. This is something that only Middle Easterners can accomplish. No efforts at redrawing borders by outside actors will do the region’s people any good.
 There were, of course, other factors as well, and the classic analysis of the comparison is Mark R. Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages, 2nd ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008).