Libya, Iraq, and the Perils of Partition

When I earlier examined the implications of South Sudan Independence [1], one of the most obvious implications is that partition (or separation) will serve as a model for future problems. By and large the international community has generally only supported the partition option for pariah nations (see Israel and Serbia) and has strenuously rejected it even where it applies best to problems without a solution and with a clearly legitimate separatist government (Somaliland, Northern Cyprus, Taiwan, Nagorno-Karabagh). Fortunately for the people of Cyrenaica, Libya is a pariah nation, so if this current Libyan crisis becomes a lengthy and full-fledged civil war (as appears very possible), the international support for dividing up Libya may not be hard to find.

What makes the Libya problem so difficult is that it appears to be a situation not unlike Iraq. Though the Shi’ite/Sunni angle is not as prevalent in Libya as it is in Iraq, both nations are themselves tripartite states without a great deal of history as a cohesive union, and the result of that lack of social cohesion has been an oscillation between tyranny and anarchy. Let us note that so far in both Libya and Iraq the focus has been on two of the three groups, but there are three, and the breakup of a nation like Iraq or Libya is ominous for regional stability more because of the forgotten “third” group than because of the actions of the other two.

In Libya the three provinces (Tripoli, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan) were brought together only because of the Italian conquest of the three provinces from the Ottoman Empire, as they were separate provinces under that government. By forcing these three provinces together which lacked a common culture or history, Italy (not surprisingly one of the lead nations in the NATO effort) is responsible for creating the Libya problem to begin with. In much the same way, Great Britain was responsible for creating the Iraq problem by putting together three peoples (Shi’ite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds) in what had been a border territory between the rival Persian and Ottomon Empires. In both cases the interests of European Imperialism created a problem by trying to simplify colonial administration by consolidating separate colonies in larger groupings.

In both Libya and Iraq, the solution to this massive asabiya problem was to place a monarchy to rule over the people. In Iraq this monarchy was set up from the Hashemite Dynasty (the same dynasty that rules over Jordan and once served as the Sharifs of Mecca), and in Libya a similar situation took place when the Emir of Cyrenaica became King Idris I of Libya. In both Iraq and Libya, the monarchies were overthrown and the nations eventually led by expansionistic dictators that were a threat to the security of their neighbors (Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein) and who showed no compunction using terror against their own people in the absence of legitimacy.

The greater similarity and problem between the two nations, though, is that neither Iraq nor Libya appear to have the requisite asabiya to stay together by consent rather than force. It may be possible in Libya to form a fairly weak coalition government with a high degree of autonomy for local reasons (for the current Libyan crisis is the result of longterm separatist pressures within Libya as well as the opportunistic rising of an anti-authoritarian mood throughout the region). Greater regional autonomy is only a short-term solution, as quite a few nations of the region (Libya, Iraq, Yemen, the Palestinian territories) appear to lack enough cohesion for unity. Like Belgium [2] and Somalia, these nations appear destined to break up along long-exposed fault lines and rifts.

It is these rifts that have invited the activity of neighboring powers on behalf of the separatist areas. For example, Egyt’s support of a free Cyrenaica would appear to be for a few reasons. For one, Cyrenaica was long a part of Egypt under the Fatimid dynasty, and a free state in that area would serve as a buffer between Egypt and Libyan ambitions, and likely to win their approval. Likewise, Iran supports the breakup of its neighbor Iraq because that removes a powerful threat to its western borders and allows for the existence of a friendly neighboring Shi’ite state. It should be noted as well that Ethiopia’s support of Somaliland (and South Sudan) springs from similarly opportunistic grounds of desiring to see the weakening of a powerful neighbor through partition.

Though Cyrenaica, like Somaliland, was one a recognized and separate area of its own under autonomous government (a precedent that may be useful if and when the international community decides that partitioning Libya is a good call), and though the existence of a Sunni Arab state (possibly in a union with Syria) in Iraq would acceptable, and probably a Shi’ite Arab state as well, it is the third parties in the tripartite state that present the biggest complication. And it is these third parties that serve to greatly complicate matters.

In both Iraq and Libya, the often forgotten third provinces (Kurdistan and the Fezzan) present the most intractable international relations problems. Both of the provinces provide a small proportion of the population of their nations (about 8% for the Fezzan and 12% for Iraqi Kurdistan), but both the Fezzan and Kurdistan present the implications that any separate regime will serve to destabilize its neighbors.

The reason for this is that the Fezzan and Kurdistan contain two of the world’s most notable examples of stateless nations. The Fezzan is home to Berbers and Tuaregs who form a separatist threat all over the region of North Africa (Algeria, Mali, Niger, and Chad all have a longstanding Berber-Tuareg separatist issue), and the establishment of a large but thinly populated Berber-Tuareg State (the apparent goal of the desert nomads of the region) appears not to be in the plans and cards of anyone involved in the Libya crisis to date. Similarly, the Kurdish problem is a massive internal problem all over the Middle East, including Turkey, Iran, and Syria (in addition to Iraq). The establishment of an independent Kurd state would likewise be seen around the world as an instant legitimacy of the separatist desires of the Kurds in those nations. And again, it does not appear as if a separate Kurdistan is part of the desires of any nation in the international community for precisely that reason, regardless of the justice of the matter.

Therefore, Libya and Iraq paint similar pictures of the perils of partition. For the fact that while two of the three separate elements in each nation possess powerful allies and legitimate reasons for separation under democratic and peaceful rule, the third element promises to serve as a “free radical” that will then push the crisis into neighboring countries, expanding the threats of anarchy and instability to areas that have remained (relatively) calm during the current crises. It is that concern that makes the problems of Libya and Iraq so intractable. If no strong but consensual regime can exist, granting separation to clearly inharmonious parts only establishes the precedent for other nations to break up along similar lines. Where does it all end? Nobody has the slightest clue.



About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, International Relations, Middle East, Military History, Musings and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Libya, Iraq, and the Perils of Partition

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