To bring peace to Syria and Iraq, allow them to break apart

The integrity of nation states is an important concept and the idea of breaking them up should not be taken lightly, unless the state itself is the problem. This is the situation in Syria and Iraq today – two countries in name only, where Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds have shown they are unable to live together in peace. 

This is not just an internal matter affecting the people of the two nations. U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, and Russian forces in Syria, are deeply involved in the fighting between the three ethnic groups. The two nuclear powers back different sides, creating the danger of a U.S.-Russia conflict that could escalate out of control.

For example, just last week U.S. air strikes reportedly killed Russian military contractors (ranging from four to several dozen, according to different media reports) accompanying pro-Syrian government forces. That marked a dangerous escalation of fighting in Syria’s civil war. The Syrian and Russian forces were attacking Kurdish fighters supported by U.S. troops.

This was the first direct U.S. involvement in the deaths of Russian nationals in Syria. While the Russians who were killed are currently described as contract fighters they may have been members of the Russian military. Either way, their presence in Syria is directed by Moscow. 

But there are much larger issues than this one clash in play – specifically, how strong a position the U.S. will take against Russia as the end game to the civil war in Syria plays out. The attack where U.S. airpower bombed Russians was in an oil-rich region and may have been a probe by the Russians to see just how far they could push to consolidate territory.

Right now the future status of Syria – and well as Iraq – is in play. Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s regime may be able to slaughter enough of its opponents to declare a bloody victory. But even with the help of Russian and Iranian troops and tens of thousands of proxies and Shiite militias, Assad can’t control his whole country – any more than the Iraqi government controls all of its nation.

So what happens now? Years more of war between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in Syria and Iraq, with horrific casualties? A wider conflict drawing in the U.S., Russia, Turkey, Israel and even Iranian troops battling it out?

Security Studies Group, which I head, put forth a plan last year for Iraq and Syria that still looks like the most likely path to stability, if not exactly peace. It accepts the truth on the ground that the countries of Iraq and Syria are broken and do not represent their people in any meaningful way. So let’s stop pretending they do.

Our plan proposes autonomy and eventual self-determination for the Sunni regions of Iraq and Syria and the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq upon the defeat of ISIS and removal of the Assad regime in Syria.

The plan calls for a 10-year international protectorate in the Sunni parts of Iraq and Syria, policed by troops from many nations, including the U.S., to separate warring factions and end the fighting.

At the end of 10 years, we propose the people within the protectorate should be given the opportunity to vote and select one of three options for the future:

  1. Turn western Iraq and eastern Syria into autonomous regions within the existing nations.
  2. Turn the protectorate into an independent republic that’s not part of Iraq nor Syria.
  3. Turn the protectorate into two independent republics – one in territory that’s now part of Iraq, the other in territory that’s now part of Syria.

The existing nation states of Iraq and Syria have already failed and fragmented. It is highly unlikely the Sunni and Kurdish regions of either can be successfully reintegrated with the dominant Shiite regions in each country. The populace in these regions harbors tremendous dislike of their respective central governments.

We can kick the can down the road and hope another set of insurgencies doesn’t rise out of the ashes of post-ISIS Iraq and Syria, but history says that won’t happen.

Just as ISIS rose from the vacuum left when President Obama cut and ran from Iraq, so will a successor to ISIS do the same if we fail to allow the people of those countries freedom from their oppressors and self-determination.

Let’s do the right thing this time. Sometimes taking down an existing structure to build a new and better one is the best way out of a bad situation.

Jim Hanson is President of Security Studies Group and served in US Army Special Forces.