Amidst calls by prominent Republican Senators, including Senators Lugar, Voinovich, and Domenici, for the U.S. to change course in Iraq, a “soft partition” plan designed by Edward Joseph and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution has been gaining attention. The proposal likely offers very little chance of success. It also entails great risks.
The paper entitled, “The Case For Soft Partition in Iraq,” assumes that there are only two options at present: (1) Sustain the troop surge or (2) Abandon Iraq. As neither approach appears viable, the paper shoots them down and asserts that “soft partition may be the only means of avoiding an intensification of the civil war and growing threat of a regional conflagration.”
That there are only two options at present simply isn’t the case. A conference modeled after that which took place in Bonn to form the transitional Afghanistan government would offer a better approach than either of the two options cited by the Brookings paper or any kind of partition plan. Such a conference would be hosted by the United Nations, Arab League, and/or Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). It would be attended by Iraq’s factions, and it would also involve all of Iraq’s neighbors and the United States. Such a conference would aim to create a pluralistic legal framework that protects minority rights, guarantees full political participation by all Iraqis, precludes the kind of domination by the Shia that would put them in a position to oppress Iraq’s other peoples, and provides a sharing of oil revenue. Such a conference would establish a transitional Iraqi government that would be comprised of all of Iraq’s factions. Later, once Iraq has been able to build political, economic, and legal institutions, future governments would be elected. To get there, one would need negotiations and compromises.
The diplomatic course for achieving a soft partition would be no less rigorous. However, the soft partition plan would also require a population transfer of 2- to 5-million Iraqis. It would also need to accommodate the significant number of Iraqis who are married across sects or ethnicity. Overall, the complexity of implementing a soft partition plan would be much greater than that for the kind of approach described above.
In addition, the Iranian leadership has said that it “will not tolerate the partitioning of Iraq.” Hence, it is unclear how such a formal partitioning would be feasible if Iran were to act to thwart it. To date, Iran has demonstrated both the willingness and capability to intervene in Iraq’s affairs in pursuit of its interests and objectives. It has done so even as such activities have put it on a collision course with U.S. troops.
Any partitioning of Iraq could have broader regional ramifications. Aside from the risk of bringing Turkey, Iran, or Saudi Arabia into Iraq, it could alter U.S. ties and destabilize a larger portion of the region.
A partitioning of Iraq could undermine important U.S. relationships with the Middle East’s moderate Sunni-led states, including the vital U.S.-Saudi relationship, as the regional balance of power tilts further in Iran’s favor on account of a fragmented Iraq. Saudi Arabia has hinted that it might intervene to prevent the massacre of Iraq’s Sunnis, but this might not be Saudi Arabia’s only option especially as it could risk a direct confrontation with Iran. With global energy supplies tight, Saudi Arabia could choose to cap oil production at current levels for a prolonged period of time, or even reduce output, to demonstrate that it is willing and able to retaliate when its vital interests are undermined. With the International Energy Agency warning of a possible medium-term oil supply crunch, such a decision would be economically costly for the West, especially if the anticipated “crunch” begins to manifest itself. And, in perhaps its most stark signal to date that it is seriously exploring options for a wider reassessment in its bilateral relationships, its foreign minister recently suggested that a nuclear energy consortium for the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council be created. In doing so, he specified that such a consortium would include Iran.
A soft partitioning of Iraq would establish a formal legal precedent by which other ethnic or religious groups could more readily pursue separatist agendas. Such an approach could further animate the Shia-Sunni rivalry across the Middle East. It could shatter the fragile equilibrium that exists in Lebanon and Jordan. Lebanon, in particular, could explode in a new civil war.
In Lebanon, the danger of factional conflict is particularly high. Lebanon has many of the characteristics common to states that have experienced major sectarian conflict. Its population is mixed in terms of religious affiliation with the existence of two sizable major groups: Muslims (59.7%) and Christians (39%). The Muslim share of the population is increasing. Among the Muslims, 40% are Shia, and that proportion is also growing. These dynamics translate into longer-term pressure for a change in the fundamental sectarian calculation on which Lebanon’s post-civil war government has been organized. On account of the fragile, often uneasy, balance among Lebanon’s sectarian groups, Lebanon’s government is weak. In the not-too-distant past, Lebanon experienced a destructive and bloody civil war. The Shia-based Hezbollah group is heavily armed–and more than capable of taking on Lebanon’s relatively weak armed forces–and Shia sections of Lebanon have already suffered significant damage during the recent Israel-Hezbollah fighting, so the Shia have much less to lose in a new civil conflict than Lebanon’s other factions. During the past month, pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emil Lahoud and senior leaders of Hezbollah have threatened to establish a “second government in Lebanon.” With President Lahoud’s term set to expire later this year, events could head toward a climax should the reformist Parliament attempt to replace him with an anti-Syria leader. A formal partitioning of Iraq would only add fuel to Lebanon’s rising sectarian pressures.
Previously, The Iraq Study Group headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and Congressman Lee Hamilton examined and rejected the soft partition concept. The Iraq Study Group concluded:
The costs associated with devolving Iraq into three semiautonomous regions with loose central control would be too high. Because Iraq’s population is not neatly separated, regional boundaries cannot be easily drawn. All eighteen Iraqi provinces have mixed populations, as do Baghdad and most other major cities in Iraq. A rapid devolution could result in mass population movements, collapse of the Iraqi security forces, strengthening of militias, ethnic cleansing, destabilization of neighboring states, or attempts by neighboring states to dominate Iraqi regions. Iraqis, particularly Sunni Arabs, told us that such a division would confirm wider fears across the Arab world that the United Stats invaded Iraq to weaken a strong Arab state.
With a sectarian leadership occupying the seat of power in Baghdad and a low-level civil war raging around the country, Iraq is already in a de facto soft partition situation. That status quo is unsatisfactory. There is little reason to believe that a de jure soft partition would be any better than the de facto soft partition that already exists. Worse, there is the genuine danger that a de jure partitioning of Iraq–soft or hard–could further destabilize the already unstable Middle East and, in the process, inflict substantial damage on critical U.S. interests and relationships in the region.
Don Sutherland has researched and written on a wide range of geopolitical issues.