06/24/2014 11:48 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2014

Breaking Up Iraq Could Support Putin's Effort to Annex Eastern Ukraine


Watching Nigeria play Bosnia and Herzegovina in the World Cup last week provided a context for thinking about the Iraq civil war. Over the course of the 20th century, both countries struggled with issues of national sovereignty, governance and inter-ethnic strife. Like Syria and Iraq, Nigeria's modern borders were established by colonial powers in a manner that divided ethnic groups into multiple nations, and similarly combined myriad groups into a single polity and declared them a nation. Like Syria and Iraq, both Nigeria and Bosnia and Herzegovina suffered inter-ethnic and sectarian conflicts in which hundreds of thousands died. And like Syria and Iraq, Bosnia existed within the Ottoman Empire -- the Sunni Islamic caliphate that lasted over 600 years -- before becoming part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then finally Yugoslavia.

Noted Syria expert Joshua Landis suggested recently that President Obama stay out of an Iraq conflict that he sees as rooted in the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the imposition of artificial borders by colonial powers that have been under stress for "more than a century." Implied in Landis's comments is the notion that any ultimate resolution to the conflict will lie in a redrawing of national borders -- and even a reconsideration of the concept of nationhood -- in the Middle East.

Debates over the proper acronym for the Iraq insurgent group ISIS reflect the question of borders and national identity. ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, should probably be referred to as ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, as the use of the term Levant better reflects the group's ambitions. The Levant generally describes the area of the Middle East within the Ottoman Empire stretching down from southern Turkey to northern Egypt, and from the Mediterranean east through Iraq. To be Levantine is to have a regional identity rather than a national one, and that definition is consistent with the regional aspirations of ISIS that extend to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, along with Iraq.

The question of national identity has long been a challenge in Iraq. From the beginning of the Iraq War, dividing Iraq into three states -- Shi'a in the south, Sunni in the center and Kurdish in the north -- was advocated by those, including then-Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Chair Joe Biden, as a solution to the inherently unstable nature of an Iraq state that was the fictional creation of the French and British colonial offices. Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, who was arguably the strongest proponent of a secular Iraqi national identity, the continuing jockeying for power among the three ethnic groups has been a centrifugal force pulling the nation apart. Today, the Iraq civil war is increasingly becoming a conflict between those who believe that there is --or must be -- a nation called Iraq, and those who view Iraq as a transient historical phenomenon with no inherent identity or purpose.

The civil war in Iraq has brought the ironies and tensions of the Syrian civil war into full view. Last week, President Obama announced that the US would send 300 military advisors back into Iraq in support of the Iraqi regime, while he continues to consider airstrikes against ISIS to forestall its advances on the ground. At the same time, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would send ground forces into Iraq to defend the al-Maliki regime. This confluence of events led to the unlikely notion of American air power being sent into Iraq in support of an Iranian ground offensive.

While US and Iran are each supporting a political resolution that would maintain the integrity of the Iraqi state, the ISIS perspective is fundamentally different. ISIS aspirations are not to redress grievances toward the al-Maliki regime, but rather are rooted in the dreams of Osama bin Laden and Muslim Brotherhood founder Sayyid Qtub to redress the humiliations and perfidy at the hands of the imperial powers and create a new Sunni Islamist caliphate within borders that they alone determine. But unlike Bin Laden's al Qaeda, hidden in the caves of North Waziristan, ISIS now controls an area spanning 360 miles across Syria and Iraq, and is on the brink of reaching into Jordan. With oil fields in Syria and a refinery in Iraq under its control, and a reported $429 million stolen from banks in Mosel, ISIS has territory, assets and gold.

The emerging alliance of the US and Iran reflects a common commitment to maintaining the integrity of the Iraq state. For Iran, the prospect of a victorious ISIS in Iraq would leave it effectively sandwiched between two hostile Sunni regimes, with ISIS to the west, and the nuclear armed Pakistan to the east. The recognition of this threat, and Iran's memories of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war led by the Baathists now within the ISIS camp, have led Iran to eschew its traditional hostility toward an American presence in the region in favor of advocating for American reengagement.

For Americans, it is hard for many to remember the days post-9/11 when Iranian intelligence worked in concert with the Americans in pursuit of their common Sunni jihadist enemies. In the context of faltering talks on the nuclear issue it is hard to imagine that even a tacit alliance would be conceivable. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that America's paramount national security interest in the Iraq conflict is no longer about its neoconservative democratization project, or even about oil. Rather it is about the maintenance of international order, the effectiveness of international institutions regulating and moderating disputes between nations, and the sanctity of borders.

Over the past two weeks, one has increasingly heard the argument that the endgame will be the breakup of Iraq into three states along the lines that Biden and Gelb imagined a decade ago. While this approach may have an appeal for those seeking an answer to a seemingly intractable problem, it is problematic as a regional solution. For its part, Iran would still find itself with a new, hostile ISIS controlled state along its western border. For Turkey, the regional power and NATO member state bordering Syria and Iraq, the creation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq has always been a red line, as the Turks anticipate that it would inevitably lead to demands by Turkey's minority Kurdish populations to secede and join the Kurdish homeland. And breaking up Iraq into sectarian regions would implicitly sanction the notion of a similar break up of Syria into ethic enclaves, and the merging of the Syrian and Iraqi Sunni regions as ISIS claims it has already done.

A partition of Iraq may seem like a logical solution, but sanctioning the redrawing of borders is a slippery slope and a remapping of Iraq could have cascading effects on Syria, Jordan, Iran and Turkey. And once the door is opened to the rewriting of borders, there may be unintended consequences beyond the Middle East. Before the ISIS insurgency captured the headlines, international attention focused on the conflict in Ukraine, where, like Iraq, a disgruntled minority was fighting to secede through armed revolt. One has to imagine that separatists in other regions are paying close attention to the outcome in Iraq, and to any American actions that would lend legitimacy to their own efforts to undermine internationally accepted borders.