Partitioning: A tool for Greater Stability in Syria and Iraq

Is the current strategy used by the international community preventing conflict between Syria and Iraq? Jordan Creed suggests the potential of partitioning as a more effective strategy in the Middle-East in order to ensure greater stability.

Partition has only even been utilised reluctantly by the international community as a means of conflict resolution. The extent of this reluctance is demonstrated by the fact that it is only just being considered as a plan B option by the US foreign secretary John Kerry after five years of conflict in Syria. However partition could provide a means of not only ending the conflict in Syria and Iraq it could also potentially help establish long term stability.

The reason for this is that it the current borders of Syria and Iraq are now impractical and undesirable obstructions to peace and stability. This is because the strengthening of the ethnic identities in an environment of insecurity and distrust has discredited the notion of a shared Iraq and Syria identity.

The conflicts in Syria and Iraq currently appear to reflect Barry Posen’s contention that ethnic conflict is a result of a security dilemma that emerges from the anarchy of state collapse.

Quapan / Creative Commons License

Quapan / Creative Commons License

The anarchy that emerges from state collapse means that ethnic groups must provide their own security. Posen claims that groups will assess whether other groups are a threat on the basis of how they have treated them historically.

This assessment by groups will also often be a worst case analysis because of the costs of judging wrongly. The combination of this insecurity and group’s negative assessment of each other’s intentions can make offensive action an extremely rational option. The reason for this is because it is able to remove the perceived security threat completely i.e. the other groups.

Posen’s assessment of ethnic conflict appears to be very applicable the conflicts currently going on in Syria and Iraq. As both are experiencing state collapse and the breakdown of order as a consequence of it. Syria and Iraq also both have legacies of ethnic tension as groups have committed atrocities and discriminated against each other. Therefore the levels of distrust between the ethnic groups is likely to be high.

Moreover, stories about the atrocities will be retold in various fictional, historical, documentary forms. This will mean they are likely to fundamentally discredit the notion of a shared Syrian or Iraqi identity between the ethnic groups. The atrocities are likely to do this because they will shape the ethnic identities in Syria and Iraq. The result of this will be to create a sense of separate historical experience between the ethnicities in Syria and Iraq.

Center for American Progress Action Fund / Creative Commons License

Center for American Progress Action Fund / Creative Commons License

The consequence of this hardening of identities in a highly insecure climate is that elections are likely to reflect the ‘ethnic census’. What is meant by this is that parties and politicians that are elected in this environment will be ones that will take a hard-line stance on their ethnic groups’ interests. It is likely that these politicians and parties will be reluctant to compromise with other ethnic groups’ representatives. As compromise is likely to be viewed as betraying their own group’s interests.

This has the potential to lead to a state that is mired in gridlock where even the most basic issues cannot be resolved. Bosnia provides a telling example of this as there little compromise between ethnic groups representatives. The deadlock resulting from this in Bosnia has impeded important economic and institutional reform.

Partition can reduce the chances of such situations arising in post war Syria and Iraq because it can reduce the perception of insecurity among the majority group.  The reason it can decrease the insecurity felt among the majority group is because unlike other post-conflict reconstructions, it significantly reduces the population size of minority groups.

By doing this partition creates conditions for concessions to be made by the majority group, as this decreases the perceived level of insecurity felt by the majority group. Partition therefore creates an environment where the majority group will be more likely to be willing to compromise with other groups, as the potential security risks for doing so will have lessened significantly.

Admittedly, an unfortunate part of any effort to partition multi-ethnic states is that it involves population transfers. While, undesirable populations transfers are already a reality in much of Syria and Iraq as members of minority groups have been fleeing to areas where they are majority.

Finally, by accepting the reality that Syria and Iraq as we know them gone, the international community could create a means of achieving peace in Syria and Iraq. As the prospect of a Sunni-state would give Sunnis an attractive alternative to the Islamic state. This would in turn severely undermine IS ability to present itself as the only viable alternative for Sunni Muslims. In contrast the international current adherence to Syria and Iraq’s current borders. Implies to Sunnis that their reward for rising up against the Islamic state will be to put them back under Assad rule or the Shia dominated government in Baghdad.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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