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Partition of Syria and Iraq: Lessons from Europe

Partition of Syria and Iraq: Lessons from Europe

Iraq and Syria at a crossroads.

Since the Arab Spring, the fate of Syria and Iraq seem hard to untangle from each other. After a potential defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS), political solutions will have to be based on the reality in the field, regardless of the 100-year old Sykes-Picot agreement.

Between 2001 and 2014 in Afghanistan and Iraq the U.S. was driven by a belief in the universality of their ideas of freedom and democracy. In their political solutions, they ignored the geographical landscape as well as ethno-religious groups and tribal fault lines. The rise of ISIS in the Sunni parts of Mesopotamia, the spread of the Taliban to non-Pashtun parts of Afghanistan, the migration crisis in Europe and the increase in terrorist attacks worldwide are some of the consequences of this policy.

Up to now, maintaining the integrity of Iraq and Syria has been one of the main priorities. The possible disintegration of those countries is considered by many as a destabilizing factor for the rest of the region, often labeling it with the pejorative term “Balkanization.” Global leaders are not satisfied with the evidence that preserving an undivided Iraq and Syria is part of the reason for the current disaster.

It is important to admit that restoring to Iraqi and Syrian state to their original borders cannot result in operational political units. The transformation of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) can offer some instructive parallels.

The Arab Spring was not a democratic but a national revolution

Unfortunately, many pundits used the example of the 1989 CEE revolutions to explain how the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions would lead societies toward democracy. Doing so, they ignored an important factor: instead of emphasizing nationalism and inter-ethnic strife as the main similarity, they focused on democracy.

Unlike Arab countries, much of the CEE underwent a period of mass mobilization. This played a very important role in establishing their nationhood, from its earliest manifestations in Greece, Poland and Hungary to its latest expressions in Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia, Moldova, and Cyprus. These societies, having experienced a period of mass mobilization several generations before the collapse of the Soviet Union, were ready for a democratic transition.

Arab societies only started being exposed to mass mobilization in the 1950s to 1980s, like the Nasser regime in Egypt and Baathist dictatorships of Iraq and Syria. To build industries and the boost middle class, strongmen across the region initiated mass migration programs of peasant and nomad populations to the cities. The average urbanization rate in eight Arab republican states (Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria) increased more than twofold between 1950 and 1990: from 23% to 50%.

They also dramatically increased school enrollment, achieving almost 100% in primary schools and gender parity. The average primary school enrollment in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Algeria between the age of 6-11 grew from 54% to 93%, with girls enrollment jumping from 38% to 90%. Secondary school enrollment between the age of 12-17 rose from 13% to 54%, while girls enrollment grew from 7% to 45%.

These reforms helped mass mobilization and initiated the resurgence of a new, sectarian nationalism that further developed during the geopolitical contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran after 1979 and fully materialized after the Arab Spring.

Nationalism and disintegration as necessary conditions for democracy and integration

After the 1989 revolutions, a contradictory cocktail of nationalism and desire for European integration appeared in CEE. Then, power struggles in multinational federations such as the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia contributed to the escalation of nationalism and prevented the development of democracy and European integration.

Politicians like Milosevic or Tudjman monopolized power and used the awakened national identities as means of undermining the unity of multiethnic countries. Functioning multiparty democracy could not materialize within the ethnic federations anymore.

Semi-authoritarian regimes could only be removed in mono-national successor states: the elimination of Meciar in Slovakia, Karadzic in the Bosnian Republika Srpska (1998), Tudjman in Croatia (1999), Milosevic in Serbia, and Izetbegovic in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (2000) paved way for democracy. The very existence of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia were an impediment in their European integration.

After a century of ethnic cleansing and nation building, there is very little potential for destabilizing even in the former complex ethnic mosaic of the Balkans. Four minor cases are exception: the Republika Srpska in Bosnia, the Republic of Ilirida in Macedonia, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Transnistria in Moldova. Otherwise, CEE countries including the Balkans are democracies more or less integrated with the European Union.

Another paradox is that the former states were not artificial units. Contradictions between Serbs and Croats or Czechs and Slovaks were not age-long and after 1918, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and USSR became “natural” members of the family of European nation states founded on influential nationalist ideas and Stalin’s Soviet patriotism.

In comparison to present small nation states like Slovakia or Croatia, the original federations had some security and economic advantages. A larger polity had a larger army that could deter more competitors. It had a larger domestic market, more advantageous for their products. With the prospect of integration to the security structures of NATO and the EU common market, these advantages of larger polities lost their allure after 1989.

From “geometric” to sectarian nationhood

After WWI, states were gradually established in the Arab world, based on borders representing the spheres of influence of Britain and France. Protagonists of the anti-colonial, national-liberation movements associated their dream of nationhood with those colonial borders.

Similar to Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia, “geometric“ countries like Iraq, Syria or Egypt became “natural“ nations within the Versailles framework. Even if Nasser, Qaddafi or Hussein promoted Arab unity at different times, their objective was an Arab realm under a common dictator, not a genuine social and national unity.

Dictators like Hafez al-Assad, Mubarak, al-Bashir or Saleh emphasized differences between Arab states and exploited them. Their dictatorships often degraded to the rule of tribal minorities and religious groupings whose privileges provoked resistance from the dominated religious or tribal groups.

Since 1979, new political directions, contrary to previous trends, ripened under the surface. Witnessing three decades of fierce competition between the Shi’a and Sunni Islamist regimes of Iran and Saudi Arabia and a decade of successful Sunni Islamist rule in Turkey, the region exploded. The 2011c Arab Spring highlighted the sectarian divisions within countries combined with the first-ever mass wave of support for Arab unity.

Multi-ethnic / multi-sectarian states as an obstacle to Arab unity and democracy

Arab unity among states together with sectarian divisions within societies created a contradictory cocktail. The power struggle between Sunni and  Shi’a at the country level is generating competing alliances in the Middle East—crushing Arab unity.

This divide allows foreign powers to manipulate Arab politics for their own goals. The links between Shi’a Arabs and non-Arab Iran or the ties between Sunni Arabs and non-Arab Turkey are stronger than bonds among the Arab states.

Spread of democracy in the Middle East is one of the West’s main objective. Like former federations of the CEE, multi-sectarian Arab states are also unable to achieve democratic political contest as dominant political forces are organized along ethnic lines, Lebanon and Iraq being clear examples.

The old nation state within the colonial borders, once considered “natural,” gradually failed in the Middle East beginning in 1979. Without newly defined nation-states, any new development other than oscillation between dictatorship and anarchy is impossible. Unless Syria, Iraq or Yemen split into states with dominant ethno-religious groups, Arab unity and democracy cannot be imagined. Furthermore, ethnic cleansing and persecution of  members of a particular ethnic groups will not stop and friendly relations with non-Muslim neighbors will not be possible until new borders are established.

Current conflict in the Middle East is an indivisible part of the phenomenon of nation creation in which membership of a religious group is a crucial factor for political mobilization. Sunni-ness and Shi’a-ness resembles “secular religion” akin to nationalism. That is why arguments put forward by secularist advocates of Syria’s and Iraq’s unity have so little ground.

More than a decade of political development in Iraq (2003-14) showed that even secular political parties are not able to overcome sectarian cleavages and unite voters of different religious affiliations. A clear evidence of this issue is the 2009 marriage of convenience between Allawi’s predominantly Shi’a Iraqi National Accord and all major Sunni parties. The coalition collapsed immediately after its election victory.

Preservation of a united Iraq and Syria will result in disaster

Maintaining a united Iraq after overthrowing of Saddam Hussein resulted in a disaster: a dictatorship of the Shi’a majority under Prime Minister Maliki aligned with Iran, and the frustration of the previously ruling Sunni elites which eventually turned their support to extremists like ISIS.

Seven decades have proved that any constitutional form of multinational states, such as federation or autonomy, do not work in developing countries besides India. In federal multi-ethnic states (Libya, Pakistan, Nigeria, Burma) and countries with autonomous regions (Iraq, Sudan), a single military coup was able to eliminate constitutions that were subject to years of negotiations.

New federations in Iraq (2005-14) and Yemen (2014) collapsed before they came into real existence. Federation and autonomy is an unstable and not very promising form of arranging multi-ethnic developing countries of the Arab world.

Restoring Syria’s unity would be a similar mistake, strengthening the societal split between the Sunni majority and the previously ruling Alawites (Shi’a) class. Either the former would be  subject to ethnic cleansing by Assad’s regime or the latter would face an unprecedented persecution once the regime is overthrown.

Preserving Iraq and Syria as unitary states entails the risk of endless ethno-religious strife and instability while concepts of federalism and autonomy have proven in the past to be unsustainable. Therefore, partitioning Iraq and Syria along ethno-religious lines is the only guarantee for stability and democratization in the region.



Ladislav Garassy

Ladislav Garassy, an ethnic Hungarian from Slovakia residing in the Czech Republic, is a political geographer focused on ethno-political identity. He has been an election observer in multiple post-conflict countries of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. He lectures political geography, nationalism, ethnic conflicts and European integration at the East European Educational and Cultural Center. He also publishes his blogs in Slovak ( and in Czech (
Twitter: @LGarassy