“I am the leader of one country which has two alphabets, three languages, four religions, five nationalities, six republics, surrounded by seven neighbours, a country in which live eight ethnic minorities.”
Josef Broz Tito, a charismatic and divisive socialist leader famously uttered the above words describing Yugoslavia. He envisaged his nation to be a torchbearer in overcoming ethno-religious tensions through autonomous and decentralized governance, whilst gravitating towards certain common interests. The central design behind such a structure was to integrate a group of regions blessed with different yet diverse resources and encourage an unheralded form of cooperation which would lead to the formation of a stable, developed nation. Post-imperialism, in theory Yugoslavia was one of three nations that represented a beacon of hope for a new world order.
In reality however, the ship began to burn as soon as its journey began. India, one of the aforementioned nations, underwent a bloody partition which split the subcontinental region along religious lines. After the death of Marshal Tito, Yugoslavia descended into a series of civil wars between the ethnic groups that lived within its boundaries. These events led to the creation of separate nations, formed on the basis of the ethno-religious differences that had failed to be overcome. These nations still harbor resentment towards each other as a result of the destructive turn of events that led towards their creation. However, they are now relatively stable and have enjoyed certain measures of success.
However, it is the third and final nation that remains knee-deep in chaos and strife. At its peak, Iraq was a key region for the Abbasid Islamic Caliphate. Its capital Baghdad was established as a major city of culture and knowledge at the time (a position it has failed to reclaim since being sacked by the Mongols). At present, the country is in ruins, deeply divided amongst sectarian lines and feebly attempting to emerge from dictatorships and a series of devastating wars. Although the clear majority of the population is descended from one ethnic group and follows the same religion, the lines of divide are formed via sectarianism. Around two thirds of the population follow the Shia sect of Islam, whereas one-third follows the Sunni sect. Although historically these sects have lived in peace, recent history and external forces (namely the likes of Saudi Arabia and Iran) have amplified the divide which has led to the conflict we see today. Sprinkled into this casserole of religious conflict is an ethnic divide with the Kurdish population in the north of the country and the Arabs that constitute the remainder of the demographic. With common consensus that Iraq has failed as a state, a question that is increasingly being asked is whether Iraq should be split into three separate nations.
The three-state theory proposes one state for the Sunni Muslims in the northern region of Iraq, one state for the Shia Muslims in the southern region bordering Iran, and a Kurdish state in the north bordering Turkey and Syria. Primarily, one of the theoretical advantages of such a division is an immediate end to the current spate of conflicts occurring across the nation. With the removal of ethno-religious divides, such a proposal can provide these independent nations with the chance to form concrete foreign policies and trade agreements under the umbrella of their parent influences (Saudi Arabia for the Sunni region and Iran for the Shia region). Limiting conflict can also provide an avenue for foreign investment to re-enter the region, and additionally limit the resonant effects of violence and extremism on Iraq’s neighbours such as Syria and Lebanon, which have historically suffered. Perhaps one of the greatest advantages to the region of such a resolution in general is the chance for democratic principles to finally flourish. Iraq’s political institutions have been damaged by centuries of occupation, and for much of its modern history the only systematic way to govern the nation was by crushing religious tensions with an iron fist, easily done through the series of dictatorships Iraq has undergone since obtaining independence from the British.
However, one of the key barriers to this proposal is that of the major natural resource available to Iraq, and the resource that has developed the Arab nations as we know them: oil. The majority of Iraq’s vast swathes of oil reserves are in the south of the nation, which would place them under Shia control. In the unlikely situation that this is accepted by a predominantly Sunni state, over the long term this could lead to a significant discrepancy in income and development, fueling the possibility of cross border tensions. Additionally, despite its relative lack of urbanization, major cities such as Baghdad remain diverse in nature, and an exodus of families may lead to cultural flight as well as a struggle with redistribution and administration of evacuee property that a newly formed government will most likely be unable to address. Finally, the major point of debate is whether creating new states in the Levant region is the correct path forward, particularly as Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to widen their spheres of influence. The worry is whether newly formed and unauthoritative governments will look to these regional powers for support, and eventually become puppet nations.
It remains to be seen what direction the international community chooses to send Iraq in. If it is indeed a partition of the country, it spells the end of the idea of a democratic nation breaking past ethno-religious lines to focus on a common goal. Rather it then becomes critical to refocus on whether such an arrangement can only exist with the rule of an ‘iron fist’, such as in China, or whether in the future we will see a map consisting of small states based on common ethnicity and religion. However, regardless of whether or not this is a proposition that the is implemented, one thing is clear: decades of consistent warfare and destruction in Iraq has brought the country to its knees, and with it the last remnant of many hopes.