The idea of partitioning Iraq is once again getting traction. It may of course happen. But it is not a good idea to pursue it and will not help to stabilize Iraq or Syria. It is a formula for more war, for decades to come.
There are good reasons for the issue to arise. While the press has focused primary attention on the Sunni insurgency against the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the future of the country depends on a third factor: the Kurds. Kurdistan now has most of what it wants: It has taken control of territories that it once disputed, including the oil-producing and symbolically important town of Kirkuk. The Kurds can now produce more revenue from their own oil than they are entitled to from their share of all of Iraq's, at present production volumes.
But that doesn't settle the matter. Maliki will not accept either the independence of Kurdistan nor the lines the Kurds have drawn as their desired borders. Tehran will back him to the hilt because eastern Kurdistan is in Iran. There is no greater fear for the Islamic Republic of Iran — which isn't much more than half Persian — than unleashing ethnic strife within its own borders. Sooner or later Maliki, with Iranian backing, will go to war to recover as much of Kurdistan as he can. The same is likely to be true of just about any conceivable successor, whether Shiite or Sunni, autocrat or democrat. Many Arab Iraqis are almost as worked up about Kirkuk as Kurds and Turkmen.
Nor will Arab Iraq stay together if Kurdistan succeeds in departing. The Sunnis would get the short end of the stick: Sunnistan with any conceivable borders largely lacks oil. It may have significant quantities of gas, but it will take years and billions of dollars in investment to bring it to market. Shiitestan would be far better off, but just for that reason you can expect Sunnistan not to leave it in peace. Nor will Sunnistan, perhaps unified with the eastern part of Syria to form the much hoped for ISIS caliphate, leave Kurdistan, Turkey or the United States in peace. The Americans will be droning on for years, if not decades.
The reverberations in other parts of the world of partitioning Iraq would also be shattering. It would encourage Russophiles who want eastern Ukraine to secede, not to mention Republika Srpska from Bosnia, Catalonia from Spain, and Scotland from Great Britain.
There is a reason why American diplomats wasted a lot of breath claiming Kosovo was unique due to not only the attempted ethnic cleansing, but also the subsequent United Nations administration under a Security Council mandate that foresaw an eventual political decision on final status. That argument was intended to make it impossible for others to follow suit, in particular Kurdistan, where ethnic cleansing was just as bad as in Kosovo but a U.N. administration under a Security Council mandate was never established.
It is easy to agree to separate. No one will agree on where the separation lines should be drawn. We call the result of armed quarrels over borders "war." We've seen in Palestine how long a partition-originated war can last, though partition of Iraq will likely make the bloodshed and displacement in Palestine, which has been so destructive to the Middle East and to American interests, look like child's play. Think of something more like the India-Pakistan partition, with the numbers proportioned down according to population.
Don't buy the partition of Iraq or Syria. It may be what happens, but Washington should oppose it. The fact that Iran will take the same position doesn't mean it is wrong.
Serwer is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Middle East Institute. He is the author of Righting the Balance: How You Can Help Protect America (Potomac, 2013). He also blogs at peacefare.net and tweets @DanielSerwer.