Iraq’s Disintegration Would be Contagious and Destabilizing

by Shireen T. Hunter

When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, there was hope that a main barrier to implementing the principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter and creating a more law-based international system and order had been removed, offering the chance that states, both great and small, would endeavor to organize their relations on the basis of law and principle and not sheer power and ambition.

Perhaps those who nurtured such hopes were too naïve and let their desires for the future overshadow their experience of the past. Whatever the case, they were soon cured of their illusions by the turn of events. Instead of ushering in a new political order for the 21st  century, the end of the USSR led to a revival of the politics of the 19th century. Those who had won the Cold War began to dream of global hegemony and reshaping whole regions according to an ill-defined program of democratization. The concept of humanitarian intervention, first advanced by one-time French Minister of Culture and later Foreign Affairs Bernard Kouchner, became the ideological vehicle for this new age of global intervention much as the Civilizing Mission (mission civilisatrice) had been for the colonial age. Ironically, those clamoring for this type of intervention dismissed so-called Christian ethics with their humanitarian components because these ethics were too soft and did not approve of the use of force. Instead, they called for a pagan ethos, which they saw as more muscular and uninhibited by the moral considerations of the supposed dawn of the new age.

Meanwhile, Russia, which as the Soviet Union had lost the Cold War, started to dream of resurrecting its lost empire instead of focusing on curing its internal ills. And other would-be imperial powers, such as China, were just waiting in the wings.

After the calamitous consequences of this new version of old mind-sets, one hoped that the allure of nineteenth-century politics, with its imperial divide and conquer propensities, would have subsided. Instead, some of the less powerful countries began to dream of empires and spheres of influence, and of manipulating existing states’ fault lines in order to achieve their goals; hence Turkey’s neo-Ottoman project, Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Khilafat, and the mirage of a Shia Crescent.

The latest development along this line has been the desire for a so-called new Sykes-Picot agreement, referencing a May 1916 Franco-British drawing of prospective borders in the Middle East, as modified by the San Remo Treaty of 1920. The new agreement would presumably remake the Middle East and possibly parts of South Asia’s political map, supposedly on an ethnic and sectarian basis that is more realistic than that which currently exists. In fact, such ideas emerged after 2001 and were reflected in articles such as Blood Borders, which showed how countries like Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan could be divided into more homogenous ethnic and sectarian entities.

These themes, however, were never seriously pursued by any government until the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and the recent crisis in Iraq. Now some countries seem to be actively encouraging Iraq’s disintegration, or while officially opposing it, are secretly supporting it.

Yet these countries, most of which have their own disgruntled ethnic and religious minorities, do not realize that Iraq’s dismemberment would in all likelihood also encourage centrifugal tendencies in other neighboring states. For example, the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an thinks that somehow Turkey would remain immune to the impact that an independent Kurdistan in Iraq would have on the aspirations of Turkey’s Kurds. Yet, in all probability, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would in due course seek to incorporate other Kurdish-inhabited areas into the new state, especially because of the Greater Kurdistan dreams of Masud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Region.

Nor would Kurds be the only minority in Turkey who might want to separate. For example, the disintegration of Syria and the emergence of a separate Alawite state might encourage Turkey’s Arab minority, many of whom are Alawites, to join that state. They have been subjected to pressure and discrimination, which has increased in recent years, and they live close to the Syrian border in lands claimed by Syria. A Shia state in southern Iraq, meanwhile, would become a magnate for Shias in Saudi Arabia, another persecuted minority, and in Bahrain, with its persecuted Shia-majority population.

What is more frightening is that this process of separation and realignment would be extremely violent and brutal. There would be no velvet divorces, as happened in Czechoslovakia in 1993. This process would also very likely lead to confrontation among current states. These upheavals ultimately could and probably would reach areas of crucial international importance due to their oil resources. So far, there has been a degree of nonchalance regarding regional conflicts because they have not affected the supply and/or price of oil and thus the interests of key international players. But there can be no guarantee that this would always be the case.

Moreover, the new states, which could emerge out of a disintegrative process, would not be viable, partly because even these supposedly more homogenous states would still be fragmented unless they took the form of Lilliputian entities. They would depend on their neighbors: some for access to the sea, others for resources, and hence would become extremely vulnerable to pressure. Certainly, the creation of these entities would not resolve such intractable problems as the Arab-Israeli conflict or the Kashmir problem, even if there were several states in Syria or an independent Baluchistan.

Thus the solution to current and potential problems should not be a new wave of semi-colonial gerrymandering. Instead, the international community should encourage wherever possible federal or semi-federal relationships and regional integration and cooperation. Certainly outsiders should not encourage the use of force to bring about change.

In Central Europe, with the exception of the velvet divorce of Czechs and Slovaks, the collapse of the Soviet Union’s external empire did not lead to the repeat of the injustices of the various treaties agreed to after World War I in 1919-20. Instead, one requirement for admitting Central European countries to NATO and the EU was that they would retain their existing borders and foreswear past territorial claims on neighbors. This approach has never been encouraged and tried in the Middle East and South Asia. The current unitary states might have run their course and Iraq may be the first of many facing the challenge of remaining intact. But the creation of other smaller and less-viable unitary states is no solution.

Instead, key international and regional players should resist fanning the flames of ethnic and sectarian discord, in hoping to benefit from them. They should focus on realistic arrangements that respond to the needs of various peoples, without dismantling the entire state system, because these flames will inevitably also engulf outside players. As the saying goes, those living in glass houses should not throw stones.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. This is one of the better articles I have read on this blog, primarily because – for once – it is not totally US-centric.
    What Shireen Hunter has outlined above is – in essence – the working out of the Yinon Plan, fully supported by the US and a number of similarly misguided EU countries.
    The Kurds were short-changed in 1919 by Woodrow Wilson and I agree with Shireen Hunter that Barzani is happy to play a long game in achieving the historic goal of a Kurdistan which incorporates people living in present-day Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran and Armenia.
    This is clearly a long-run goal for the Kurds to achieve – but they appear to be on their way.
    Western powers or countries should stay out of all the conflicts in places like Syria and Iraq.
    Our presence and involvement is not part of the solution and must, therefore, be considered part of the problem – following on from Sykes-Picot.
    We should only get involved in as limited a way as possible if our countries and their interests are directly threatened. Giving billions of dollars to so-called “moderate” irregulars is not the way to do it and has – arguably – helped to spawn the emergence of the new, much more radical, Islamic State as a consequence.
    US support for the mujahadeen in Afghanistan bequeathed Al Qaeda and 9/11 to the world.
    Why does the US insist upon making the same mistakes over and over again?
    In case I seem overly critical, let me finish by complimenting Jim Lobe on this blog.

  2. Thank you for this Post, Ms Hunter, a breath of fresh air in the haze of adversity of the M.E. today. I like your finishing sentence sentence in the post, as it sums up the picture/situation facing both the peoples and the world as a whole, IMHO. Waiting for the naysayers to come around, is akin to holding ones breath, not always to ones own advantage.

  3. I agree the territorial integrity of Iraq should be preserved. Syria too.

  4. The role of Bernard Kouchner in helping set up the disastrous US invasion of Iraq in 2003 gets too little attention in the US. Bravo for bringing him in to the discussion.

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