A Two-State Solution for Iraq

02/24/2015 07:20 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

The unfolding chaos in Iraq is fundamentally linked to the historic religious and ethnic enmity among its three major ethnic and religious components. Iraq was created by forcefully merging three semi-autonomous Ottoman provinces of the predominately Kurdish Mosul, the Sunni-Arab Baghdad, and the Shiite-Arab Basra after World War I. Consequently, its history has been marked with continual sectarian conflicts between Shia and Sunni Arabs and Kurdish uprisings for self-determination. These trends shed light on the need for the long awaited ethno-religious partition.

The transition from decades of dictatorial rule to the so-called democracy after the fall of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath regime has failed to address the underlying ethnic and political issues: The historic Sunni-Shia split lines and the Kurds' aspiration for self-determination.

The vicious cycle of violence appears to have no end in sight. It is primarily accredited to the Shia-led central government's marginalizing and alienating policies, coupled with economic deprivation, which have pushed the disenfranchised Sunni Arabs to welcome and support the most brutal Salafist Jihadist terrorist organization, known as the Islamic State (IS) or Da'esh.

On another front, contentious disputes over disputed areas, hydrocarbon rights, and budget have exacerbated relations between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to a level where the two sides came close to a military conflict. Further, the Kurds have threatened to secede from Iraq because of Baghdad's economic blockade and restrictions, which are primarily aimed at undermining KRG achievements.

Historically, partition has been used to resolve many ethnic or religious conflicts. Most partitions have followed decades of war and bloodshed, making it the most attractive option for bringing peace and stability. Some policy analysts recommend applying the Dayton Accord (The 1995 agreement that ended the bloody ethnic war in the Balkans) as a framework to solve ethnic conflicts around the world.

The advocates of partition argue that it is more humane as the settlement is reached through negotiation rather than war, which saves lives. Some base their argument on the classical Wilsonian notion that "separatist nationalism stems from bad borders and incompatible cultures". They assert that depriving ethnic or religious groups of statehood causes unrest.

On the other hand, the opponents argue that partition happens in the state of war and intensifies violence. Further, they claim that it could potentially inhibit economic development and long-term solutions are connected to a state's emphasis on rule of law, democracy, equal opportunity, resource-sharing, and infrastructure development.

Above all, empirical data supports partition. In a study at the University of California San Diego, Chapman and Roeder concluded that partition is the best option for nationalist wars compared to unitary states, de facto separation, or autonomy. After evaluating 72 nationalist civil wars between 1945 and 2002, they found that 14 percent of the partition cases experienced resumption of violence within two years, compared to 63 percent of unitary, 50 percent of the de facto separation, 67 percent of autonomy cases.

The idea of an independent Kurdistan and a Shia-Sunni state with federal regions has strong grounds. Although Shias and Sunnis have always resented one another's domination and rule, the nature of their resistance differs from the separatist and nationalistic Kurdish revolts. Most of their conflicts were over the control of the country. For instance, when the Ba'ath party took over the country in 1963, 53 percent of the party members were Shias. Further, in the 2009 elections, Al-Iraqia, a union between the secular Shias and the Sunni minorities, gained the highest votes.

In contrast, the impetus behind Kurdish movements has been their aspiration for independence. The unofficial referendum that was conducted in 2004 validates this notion, as Kurds nearly unanimously chose independence over being part of Iraq.

All things considered, Iraq in its current form is a failed state. The notion of preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq will continue to be disastrous. In reality, the country is unofficially partitioned along ethnic and sectarian lines. Hence, Baghdad and the global leaders must come to terms with this reality.

In essence, KRG's relative security and stability and its economic and democratic achievements are fundamentally attributed to the Kurds ability to govern themselves. With that said, a two-state solution, an independent Kurdish state and a federal Shia-Sunni state, can essentially address Iraq's underlying issues. An independent Kurdistan will serve as a model for democracy and coexistence in the broader Muslim World. It will also enable Kurds to more freely engage with the international community and positively contribute to global stability and security. Moreover, a federal Shia-Sunni Arab state with a weak central authority can address the historic sectarian conflicts between Shia and Sunni Arabs. The right to self-determination will reduce the threats of domination and marginalization from one another. It will also limit foreign intervention and help contain terrorist organizations.