The current crisis in Syria differs from other conflicts. It exists in a power vacuum in the space between two fractured national boundaries. To the West, Bashar al-Assad, with the support of Iran and Russia, makes use of barrel bombs and brutality to pound back opposition forces. To the East, the Islamic State continues to resist the Iraqi army and free Kurdish forces attempting to take back territory.
The border between Iraq and Syria has devolved into a no-man’s land governed by shifting military forces. The situation has forced a critical reevaluation of the current national boundaries and begs the question: are the current national borders a help or a hindrance to lasting peace in the region?
The current border between the two states was established in 1917 as part of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which detailed British, French, and Russian spheres of influence in the former Ottoman Empire.
As the modern nations of the Middle East emerged after both world wars their borders were drawn with a focus on the Sykes-Picot Agreement rather than the actual ethnic and cultural boundaries of the region. As the 20th century wore on, these cultural differences caused conflict. The unity of the nations drawn up under the Sykes-Picot Agreement was held together largely through the brutality of strongmen (Saddam Hussein, Hafex al-Assad) who made use of violence to enforce rule of law.
With the advent of the Syrian Civil War, however, those boundaries have ceased to become more than ink on a map. The conflict between ISIS, Bashar al-Assad, the Iraqi Army, and their proxy backers has devolved the Syria/Iraq border region into a no man’s land not effectively governed by either nation. If those nations have failed to achieve a lasting solution thus far, is it morally permissible to continue advocating for a return to the status quo?
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton puts forth the proposal of an independent “Sunnistan” to fill the void currently occupied by ISIS. With the fracturing of Iraq and the rise of a “de facto independent Kurdistan”, Bolton sees the establishment of a Sunni dominant state as an essential part of a balkanized Iraq comprised of a Shiite nation to the south, Kurdistan to the north, and Sunnistan to the west.
This solution offers individual ethnic groups self-governance and could potentially drastically reduce violence. On a larger scale, legitimate government in these areas would fill the current power vacuum and make it harder for quasi-national entities like ISIS to form.
However, many view this approach as a Western attempt to destroy strong national institutions and weaken resistance to outside influence. Critics argue that it is in America’s interest to push for a balkanized Middle East that relies heavily on U.S. support.
This may be true. From a humanitarian and ethical perspective, however, the current status quo in the region should not continue. The power vacuum must be filled and stability established. Perhaps the best course of action is to create a tripartite Iraq, but perhaps there are other ways to achieve these goals. Regardless, the world must not repeat the mistakes of the past and exclude those actually being governed from meaningful representation in the decision.
For more on Syria, check out a companion piece here.