Is it inevitable that Syria and Iraq break apart?
Iraq and Syria may have been permanently torn asunder by war and sectarian tensions, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency said Thursday in a frank assessment that is at odds with Obama administration policy.
"I'm having a tough time seeing it come back together," Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart told an industry conference, speaking of Iraq and Syria, both of which have seen large chunks territory seized by the Islamic State.
On Iraq, Stewart said he is "wrestling with the idea that the Kurds will come back to a central government of Iraq," suggesting he believed it was unlikely. On Syria, he added: "I can see a time in the future where Syria is fractured into two or three parts."
That is not the U.S. goal, he said, but it's looking increasingly likely.
Let's look at them separately.
For Iraq, if Saddam didn't tear Iraq apart after gassing Kurds and slaughtering Shias; and if the al Qaeda and Iranian campaigns of terror and insurgency in Iraq after the destruction of the Saddam regime was not so crippling that the Obama administration could boast about how well Iraq was doing by the time we pulled out of Iraq, I don't think the current fighting--when the Kurds and increasingly Sunni Arabs in Anbar province are working with us in cooperation with the Shia-dominated central government--means that Iraq must break apart.
And it is not in our interest. We need Kurds and Sunni Arabs in Iraq to help balance against the Iranian efforts to dominate the Shias. Most Shias don't want Iran to dominate Iraq, but a largely Shia rump Iraq would make it easier for Iran to dominate Iraq even through a minority movement loyal to Tehran, as Hezbollah is in Lebanon.
I think the Kurds can even see that the threat of Turkish hostility to the prospect of an independent Kurdish state is too dangerous to achieve right now. And unless the Kurds can assure a friendly Iraq, being landlocked and surrounded by hostile Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq fearful that an independent Kurdistan will inspire their own Kurds, how will Kurdistan thrive or even survive?
As for the Anbar Sunni Arabs, if they separate from Iraq, the Sunni Arab world loses a reason to support Arab but Shia Iraq to contain Iran. Even if oil is discovered in Anbar in sufficient quantities to allow the region to be economically viable, doesn't this risk becoming a jihadi playground as it has for the last 25 years or so since Saddam embraced Islam after his defeat in the 1991 war?
Iraq should not want the Sunni Arabs left to run wild and be vulnerable to jihadi thinking.
Nor should Iraq welcome the loss of strategic depth to resist Iran. Iraq would miss airfields in Anbar in a fight against Iran with a new air force.
For Syria, while it would be easy to see Syria breaking up into Alawite, Kurdish, and Sunni (perhaps multiple) states, how do you resolve the many overlaps without heavy bloodshed that could match the quarter million who have died so far?
Assad is fighting hard for Damascus. Would he give it up to the Sunnis? Would the Sunnis insist on getting it?
Really, given the beating Assad's forces have endured so far, could they prevent an Alawite state from falling to the more numerous Sunni Arabs? Even with Russian ground troops defending them?
The problem for the Kurds in Syria is even worse than in Iraq without mountains to help shield them. Given Turkish hostility, could Syria's Kurds really defend themselves against a Sunni Arab state carved out of Syria?
And could Syria's Christians and Druze survive in states based on single-sectarian divisions? Or do we establish two more small states for them? With the death toll that even more movements of people would require?
Mind you, breaking up Syria doesn't bother me the way breaking up Iraq does. I think a unified Iraq--albeit with some regional autonomy--is in our interests.
I don't think a unified Syria is necessarily in our interests despite the problems of breaking it up. I do accept that decentralization could be in our interest--as long as we keep the defeat of Assad in his mini-state an objective.
Although while in that post I said I thought that trading a deal with Iran on nukes for the survival of Assad was a bad deal, Iran may be doing just that using the money they get from the deal.Because even a rump Alawite state in the northwest could destabilize Lebanon and support Hezbollah to confront Israel.
But a Sunni Arab state further south could be expected to support their Sunni brethren in Lebanon, perhaps exporting the civil war to Lebanon more than ending it in Syria.
And for both Iraq and Syria, doesn't even prematurely carving out Sunni Arab states from Syria and Iraq risk leaving ISIL in those areas with the non-Sunni Arab portions of both states opting out of fighting ISIL? Then it is all up to us to fight ISIL or whatever jihadis are dominant?
So I think it is not in our interest to break up Iraq; and there are good and bad aspects of breaking up Syria from our point of view--but while I lean to break up, I could be persuaded otherwise.
Of course, defeating ISIL is the priority before we even begin to figure out what locals want in Iraq and Syria. Perhaps we could get on that.
UPDATE: And of course, don't forget Lebanon that is a country in name only with sectarian divisions leaving the Shia Hezbollah as a state-within-a-state. If borders are ignored, would Assad carve out portions of northwest Lebanon while he builds an Alawite-dominated state in northwest Syria?