A third lesson is about partition, especially redrawing of territorial lines to accommodate ethnic differences. All the current borders of the Balkan states remain where they were in Socialist Yugoslavia. Only their status has been changed, from internal boundaries to international borders. Even in Kosovo, whose population is about 90% Albanian, the international community has so far refused to allow the four northern municipalities, which are contiguous with Serbia and three of which had majority-Serb populations even before the 1999 war, to opt out and rejoin Serbia, despite their relatively recent addition to Kosovo. The Kosovo/Serbia “border”—or for those who do not recognize Kosovo’s independence, “boundary”— has not moved.
In the Middle East the international borders are also relatively recent, having been established in the 1920s. They are often attributed to Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, British and French diplomats, respectively, but that is not right. Mosul, originally slated for the French colonial mandate under the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement and therefore in what we now call Syria, was ceded in 1924 to the British, who already had troops there. The Islamic State, which claimed to be destroying the Sykes-Picot borders, ironically restored them when it absorbed large parts of Iraq’s Anbar, Ninewa, and Salaheddin Provinces into a territory they controlled along with eastern Syria. That is how Sykes and Picot had drawn the lines originally.
The borders of Ukraine are even more recent: the Soviet Union transferred Crimea to Kiev’s authority only in 1954. Ukraine had emerged as an independent state for the first time, but only briefly, in 1918. It lost part of its territory to Poland and was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922.
The question is whether redrawing some of these relatively recent borders to accommodate ethnic or sectarian differences might help to stabilize chronically unstable regions. That is a good question, one ethnic nationalists never tire of asking. The answer is a qualified no. Even if everyone in a region can agree that the borders are arbitrary and should be changed, experience suggests they rarely agree on where they should be redrawn. Czechoslovakia was divided in its 1993 “velvet divorce” peacefully along an agreed preexisting line. In 2011, Sudan was also divided by agreement, but the lines were not so clear. The predictable result was violence focused initially on the Abyei area, where the line was not agreed.
That is the rule. Bosnia’s Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks were unable to agree on their lines of division, which is why they fought. The Vance-Owen plan for drawing ethnic boundaries in Bosnia contributed to the war, not to its solution.
Macedonia’s ethnic Albanians and ethnic Macedonians know perfectly well that they cannot agree on division of the country. The city with the largest Albanian population in Macedonia is the capital. Any attempt to divide it would mean war. Kosovo’s Albanians have until recently insisted on reintegration of the country’s Serbian-majority north not because they are anxious to govern Serbs but because they know partition would call into question their borders with Albania and Macedonia, which Washington and Brussels would not allow. If you open the question of borders in one country, you are bound to cause questioning of borders in other countries in the region and possibly beyond. That is as true of Syria and Iraq in the Middle East as it is of Bosnia and Kosovo in the Balkans.
Iraqi Kurdistan has what many consider a compelling case for independence, which would mean partition of Iraq. Saddam Hussein brutally mistreated the Kurds, chasing them from their homes and even out of the country. He also gassed tens of thousands during the 1986–1989 Anfal campaign. The Kurds have largely governed themselves since 1991, when the United States, Britain, and France imposed a no-fly zone over their territory. Kurdistan won a large measure of autonomy in the 2005 Iraqi constitution, but the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil has been rocky since. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) claims it has not received all the oil revenue it is entitled to, that it has had to defend its own territory from the Islamic State without needed support from Baghdad, and that it faces demands from its population, many of whom no longer speak fluent Arabic, for independence. The KRG claims to be democratic and to treat minorities well. Why should it not be independent?
The geopolitical circumstances are not favorable. While Iraqi Kurdistan has vastly improved its relations with Ankara, large parts of what is now eastern Turkey were slated at the end of World War I to become part of an independent Kurdish state. Turkey does not want to see independence for its southern neighbor while it represses a violent Kurdish rebellion on its own territory, for fear of the irredentist consequences. Iranians feel even more strongly on this issue: fighting frequently flares in Eastern Kurdistan, which is a province of the Islamic Republic. Iran’s population is not much more than 60% Persian. Tehran fears the Kurds will not be the only ones looking to get out. Baloch have been rebelling since 2004.
Iraqi Kurds naturally look to the Americans for support. Washington was vital to their survival in the 1990s. The Kurds supported the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and happily hosted American forces. The KRG has welcomed Iraqis of varied sects and ethnicities displaced by ISIS, against whom its Peshmerga fought effectively, and maintains friendly relations with the United States, even welcoming American oil investment and until recently admitting Americans without the visas the Baghdad government requires. Kurdish friends ask plaintively: Don’t the Americans want a friendly ally in the Middle East? One with at least a nominal commitment to multiethnic democracy?
Washington might, but it has global concerns, which include protecting its equities in Baghdad and maintaining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, all of which have Russian-supported territories wanting to secede. Independence for Kurdistan would open the proverbial Pandora’s box, strengthening Putin’s arguments and undermining the international consensus that has formed against independence for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the annexation of Crimea, and the rebellion in Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as the aspirations of Moldova’s Transnistria. China is no less opposed to Kurdistan independence than the Americans, for fear of the implications for Tibet. Geopolitics are not sympathetic to Kurdish aspirations.
Inside Iraq, there are other issues. Kurdistan’s main political parties all agree on independence as their goal, but none are willing to see the others get credit for it. Former Kurdistan Regional President Mustafa Barzani locked his opposition out of parliament and was none too gentle with those in the press and civil society who tried to buck his authority. The boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan are not agreed. While the KRG seized the so-called disputed territories during its offensive against the Islamic State in 2014, Baghdad did not agree that they belong within Kurdistan. The KRG offered to conduct referenda in these territories on whether they would want to join with Kurdistan, fulfilling a provision of the Iraqi constitution. But doing that in the absence of international supervision and with the KRG in control was not going to convince Baghdad that a free choice had been made.
At oil prices around $50 per barrel in 2017, the KRG was nowhere near having the financial resources to be independent. Independence would have left Kurdistan even worse off. It is an oil rentier state, despite its hopes for a more diversified economy. Oil prices in the future will have a hard time going over $80 per barrel for a sustained period, because above that level massive quantities of unconventionally produced oil and gas (as well as other alternatives) will come online. The KRG needs closer to $100 per barrel to meet its financial requirements with oil production well above current levels.
Barzani nevertheless proceeded with an independence referendum in September 2017, which predictably won approval by a wide margin. He claimed it would be prelude to renegotiation of the relationship with Baghdad, not necessarily a one-way street to independence. Anyone who knows Kurds would doubt that after voting independence they would return to the negotiating table to accept some sort of confederal arrangement to stay nominally inside Iraq. An independence referendum was far more likely to trigger still another violent conflict, in which Arabs (both Sunni and Shia) would fight Kurds to determine the borders they had failed to agree on for more than a decade.
That is what happened, though on a relatively small scale. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, fresh from victory over the Islamic State, used his battle-hardened forces to retake most of the disputed territories, with some mostly passive help from Barzani’s political rivals. The redrawing of sovereign borders in the Middle East suffered a resounding setback.
Partition has also been proposed for Syria. Henri Barkey, a distinguished scholar of the Middle East, proposed ethnic/sectarian division of the country into three parts: Alawite and Christian in the west, Kurdish in the north, and Sunni in the center.
The trouble is that the population is not distributed that way. The Alawites have never been a majority in the main population centers of the west, to which many Sunnis have fled because of the war. Kurdish populations in the north are mixed with Arabs. Christians and other minorities are embedded among the Sunnis. Many Alawites live in Damascus. Drawing ethnic and sectarian lines would lead to a bloodbath in Syria as each group seeks to establish a majority in its designated area.
Crimea represents a possible exception to the rule. Its border is not in doubt, and its transfer to Ukraine was recent. President Trump has indicated some sympathy for the Russian annexation of a territory where most people speak Russian. Much of Crimea’s population, though not the minority Tatars, appeared to welcome the peninsula’s transfer back to Russian rule, though only time will tell whether that attitude is permanent. The March 2014 referendum was not free or fair. Conducted under Russian military occupation, it failed to offer an option to remain with Crimea’s relatively autonomous status within Ukraine. Tens of thousands of Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians have been chased from their homes. Both the UN General Assembly and Security Council overwhelmingly voted their disapproval, but General Assembly resolutions are not binding.
Russia vetoed Security Council action, claiming that Kosovo set a precedent for what was done with Crimea.
The analogy is false. Crimea had no UN peacekeeping forces or UN administration. It was seized by force, not occupied in accordance with a Security Council resolution. Only a handful of countries have recognized its annexation. It is costing Moscow a bundle. The Americans and Europeans are refusing to accept the annexation, as they did with the Baltic states when incorporated into the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.
They hope some future Russian government will implement a negotiated settlement for Crimea, one that returns it to Ukrainian sovereignty but with a great deal of autonomy. The Russians hope for the inverse: American recognition of the annexation of Crimea (and perhaps also the “independence” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia) in exchange for Russian acceptance of Kosovo’s independence.
In the Middle East, Pandora’s box now contains oil and gas, which intensifies conflicts over territory. The Iraqi city of Kirkuk has long been disputed among Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen. Its oil and gas production raises the stakes. The Syrian government wants to regain control of the country’s eastern oil and gas fields, now in the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces whom the Americans backed in the battles against the Islamic State in eastern Syria. Fuel and hydrocarbon revenue could be critical in the postwar period. Likewise, Iraq’s Sunnis are not going to allow Iraq’s south to walk off with the country’s massive reserves. Partition of Iraq or Syria is a bad idea because it would cause more war, not end it. In the Middle East and Ukraine as much as in the Balkans, attempts at ethnoterritorial partition are bound to generate atrocities and other human rights abuses.