As Iraq again confronts insurgency, terrorism, and political chaos, analysts and pundits have revived Joe Biden and Les Gelb’s proposal to divide Iraq in three: Kurdistan, a Sunnistan, and a Shiastan. It’s quite possible the Kurdistan will go off on its own, at least if its president, Masoud Barzani, decides that independence trumps his desire for a share of southern Iraq’s oil proceeds. That Syrian Kurdistan is also freer than it has ever been before and that Turkey is openly negotiating with the once-pariah Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) makes an independent Kurdistan far more a reality than at any time since the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. And that’s not a bad thing. Many Iraqis with whom I speak have come around to the idea that Kurdistan will go its own way; it speaks a different language, embraces a different culture, and already functions as a de facto state.
But the idea that carving a Sunni Arab state out of the remainder of Iraq will bring peace is false. Proponents of partition may believe division would be worth the human cost in ethnic cleansing—after all, the population of the ‘Sunni belt’ isn’t homogenous. And they may believe that the new Sunni state would be sustainable, even despite its dearth of natural resources, although perhaps it could survive on dates, sheep, and a rapidly depleting underground aquifer.
The problem is that simply granting the Sunni state independent or functional autonomy wouldn’t solve the radicalism problem. The issue isn’t Sunnism; it’s the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and any other Al Qaeda affiliate. If those promoting partition believe that changing borders resolves the danger posed by ISIS, then I have a unicorn to sell them. Simply granting ISIS a safe-haven in the guise of a state won’t make the problem go away, no matter how much American officials want to divorce themselves of Iraq. Nor will borders constrain ISIS. The group seeks not only Mosul, but also Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Amman, and ultimately Istanbul and Jerusalem.
Make no mistake: partition is an interesting proposal and sparks a useful debate, and the Iraqi constitution allows for strong federalism even if not explicitly partition, but secession is no substitute for a strategy to confront, roll-back, and defeat the al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency which Iraq now faces.