Iraq and Syria are fragile states but borders are surprisingly resilient: Caabu board member John McHugo writes for Chatham House's 'The World Today'

Posted by Caabu on 05 Aug 2013

Caabu board member John McHugo has written an article for Chatham House's The World Today: Iraq and Syria are fragile states but borders are surprisingly resilient, explaining why formal partition is unlikely in these two countries. McHugo is an international lawyer and the author of A Concise History of the Arabs

Formal partition seems inevitable but it is unlikely

In separate articles in the last issue of The World Today, Michael Williams and Martin Chulov questioned whether the borders of Syria and Iraq, which are based on an Anglo-French partition of the region, could survive the current conflict. Before looking at some facts of human and physical geography, a few legal niceties require consideration.

The international law doctrine called ‘the self-determination of peoples’ runs in parallel with another legal rule, the ‘territorial integrity of the sovereign state’. It has proved extremely difficult to define what constitutes ‘a people’, and the two concepts have run hand in hand. At the end of the colonial era, as each colony became independent, its people were granted self-determination for the territorial unit as a whole.

The rare cases in which partition occurred were sui generis (as in Palestine and British India). After independence, these twin principles of self-determination and territorial integrity were adhered to by the new states, even in Africa, where the boundaries left by the colonial powers were some of the most illogical. Attempts at ethnic secession (for example Katanga, Biafra) were firmly resisted by the continent’s ruling establishments with the support of the international community, and were always unsuccessful.

After the end of the decolonization process, most new states were formed by the dissolution of federations (for example Czechoslovakia, the USSR, Yugoslavia). These had been unions of different states, and their dissolution into their component members could more easily be achieved within the twin rules of self-determination and territorial integrity. Where a state was in ethnic turmoil (for example Bosnia), the solution was deemed to be ‘internal self-determination’ – the granting of autonomy or minority rights, rather than a redrawing of national frontiers.

Today, international practice may be changing. Neither the split of Kosovo from Serbia nor that of South Sudan from the rest of Sudan was the dissolution of a federation. Might they supply precedents for a partition of Syria and Iraq?

The Kurdish minorities in Iraq and Syria might seem to be in a similar position to the South Sudanese or the  Kosovan Albanians. But the obstacles to partition remain. In Syria (as in Turkey and Iran) there are no clearly defined boundaries to the predominantly Kurdish areas, while those of Iraqi Kurdistan are disputed. There are also many Kurds elsewhere (for example in Damascus, Istanbul and Baghdad), while some people who identify themselves as Kurds only speak Turkish or Arabic.

A partition would be messy and inevitably lead to rival territorial claims, such as over Kirkuk and Mosul in Iraq. It is much more likely that the international community would see internal selfdetermination – which has already been applied to the Kurds in Iraq – as the least bad solution. The Syrian civil war is not a purely sectarian conflict, even now. It splits families as well as communities. To detach the Alawite and Druze ‘heartlands’ from Syria, as the French tried to do for their own purposes, would be even harder. It could only be achieved by substantial exchanges of populations – a euphemism for ethnic cleansing.

A purportedly Alawite state would cut the majority of Syrians, being Sunni, off from access to the sea. And what would happen to Syria’s Christians? They are spread thinly and Christian enclaves such as Wadi al-Nasara are too small to form an independent state.

Lebanon was set up to provide a separate entity for the Maronite Christians. In order to form a viable state a substantial non-Maronite population had to be included in it, many of whom would have preferred their land to be part of a Greater Syria.

The only exchange of populations in the region by treaty was that between Greece and Turkey in 1923. It was implemented by two strongly established sovereign states. Quite apart from anything else, such a compulsory exchange would now be incompatible with the human rights of the population and therefore cannot provide a model for either Syria or Iraq.

An Iraqi official told Martin Chulov that the Sunni Arabs of Anbar ‘could go to Saudi Arabia’. Those words speak volumes. The alternatives to internal self-determination are ghastly and might well lead to the creation of half a dozen enduring refugee problems analogous to that created when Palestine was partitioned. Is this really what the international community wants?