Iraq and Syria After ISIS and Assad:
Self-Determination on the Path to Peace

Security Studies Group (SSG)

4 year ago

June 22, 2017


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

The existing nation states of Iraq and Syria have already failed and fragmented. It is highly unlikely the Sunni regions of either can be successfully reintegrated. The populace in these regions is highly skilled at insurgency and harbors tremendous dislike of their respective central governments.


  • Self-determination can offer borders the people will be invested in
  • Both great powers and regional ones benefit from stability
  • Iraq and Syria are already split; this is just recognition of facts on the ground

We propose a ten-year international protectorate in the Sunni parts of Iraq and Syria to allow time to rebuild and reduce tensions. Coalition forces, UN troops and the Gulf Cooperation Council can enforce order during this period.

Then, the people within the protectorate should be given the opportunity to vote on three options: (1) western Iraq and eastern Syria become autonomous regions within the existing nations; (2) the protectorate becomes an independent republic, part of neither Iraq nor Syria; or (3) the protectorate becomes two independent republics.

Any post-ISIS plan that attempts to simply replace the terrorists with the repressive central governments will simply create a new insurgency. This is not necessarily a slippery slope to fragmentation of other multi-ethnic countries, but that is a concern.

A plan that offers self-determination is the most likely path to stability and the potential of peace.


There does not seem to be a fully formed policy nor a supporting strategy for handling the aftermath of either the fall of ISIS or Assad. This paper will offer an outline of such a strategy. The basic idea is that a system for self-determination is needed to produce new governments in western Iraq and eastern Syria, governments that have the support of the people there.  There are good moral arguments for respecting the self-determination of these people. Even for those unconvinced by the moral arguments, practically speaking the peoples of this region have grown too practiced at insurgency to be compelled to accept existing state borders. Peace and stability in this region will only be possible when there is a system of government that they accept for themselves. The international community built around the United Nations (UN) finds the idea of redrawing national borders uncomfortable.  This is because the UN is composed of nation-states that are reluctant to undermine their own claim to inviolable sovereignty.

The Responsibility to Protect norm adopted in 2005 in the UN’s World Summit document envisions the protection from mass atrocities like ethnic cleansing as the business of the sovereign state controlling the territory where the atrocity is taking place.  The international community’s role is limited to supporting these efforts by the sovereign state unless that state has “failed” comprehensively.  Even then, “stronger measures” are called for only as a last resort when all else has failed.  All else has failed in Syria and in western Iraq.  It is time for the stronger measure of establishing new sovereign states in those areas.  The proper question is not whether to do this, but how to do it.

We assert that new borders are proper because both Iraq and Syria have lost their claims to legitimate rule over the disputed territories. In western Iraq, the central government has failed in its attempts to use force to assert control across ethnic and sectarian boundaries. As recently as 2015, ISIS was successful at using domination by the central government as an argument in favor of accepting its own rule. The Assad regime has attempted to regain lost control of territory by disposing of the rebellious population via chemical weapons, barrel bombs, destruction of basic services, and ethnic cleansing.

This paper will lay out a brief outline of a plan for the creation of a system that will allow the peoples of western Iraq and eastern Syria to determine for themselves a mode of government that they can support. Then, this paper will consider how to make this self-determined system palatable to international powers interested in the region.

I. Answering Objections to New Borders

It is a daunting task to think about reordering the region based on sectarian or tribal affiliation. It brings to mind the arbitrary nature of many of the borders around the world that have been drawn and redrawn based on numerous rationales. One thing that has rarely been tried is self-determination.

The extant boundaries came out of great power conflict that carefully considered the interests of those powers, but almost never the people living there. Much of the oppressive nature in the history of government in this region was necessary to enforce control over these large regions with diverse populations. The people themselves were not consulted on whether they wanted to be part of those nations and therefore not invested in them. Currently the extant governments have committed war crimes against the populations they would be asked to control if the current borders were to be sustained. This is true most obviously of Assad’s government, but also of the Iranian-backed militias used by Baghdad’s government to push ISIS out of Sunni areas in Iraq. It is not plausible that groups that have been subject to such crimes would trust the extant government’s intention, and it is not reasonable to demand they do so as a condition for peace.

Great powers still exist, and they still have interests that a plan must satisfy. In addition to the specific interests facing powers like Russia, there is a general interest that all the great and even regional powers share:  That of the stability of their own borders. This plan will need to address the fear that, by endorsing the self-determination of peoples in Iraq and Syria, nations like China and Russia could be endorsing principles that could lead to their own fragmentation. In order to make self-determination palatable to the great powers, it is important to build on the idea that the fragmentation has already occurred in Syria and Iraq. The idea is not that a stable state can or should be broken up to allow for a new round of self-determination. It is that the stable states in this region have broken up, and there is no putting them back together again. New borders are inevitable, and only self-determined borders have any probability of success.

In other words, the new borders cannot serve the interests only of the great or even the regional powers.  If these borders are to work, we must also consider the smaller players – the tribes, the families, the different religious groups. Their interests deserve to be considered as a matter of justice given that they are the ones who will have to live with these borders.  More than that, no plan can succeed that does not consider these smaller players. Governments not founded on popular commitment to their success are too weak to fight the advanced insurgency models that have been developed in Iraq and Syria. If victory over ISIS is not simply to spawn another cycle of insurgency, popular commitment to the new government must be obtained.

Is it plausible that a commitment to self-determination could win new loyalties in this shattered region?  There is already one partly successful example in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. Indeed, as recently as 2015 the KRG looked like a fully functional state minus only international recognition. The KRG’s success has been tested by intense pressure from ISIS, and the unfriendliness of both the government in Baghdad and neighbor governments in Turkey and Iran. As a consequence, the KRG has become less free and consensual. If an international commitment to respecting self-determination reinforced the KRG’s security, it is likely those recent shifts could be reversed.

There is reason to think that a similar solution could work in the Sunni regions in western Iraq and eastern Syria. One of the main recruiting tools for ISIS was a deep unhappiness with the oppressive nature of the central governments of both Iraq and Syria toward their Sunni populations. It seems unlikely these areas in either country can be easily reintegrated into those countries without significant force being used against the populace. A Sunni region, aspiring to emerge as a state (or states) has a better chance of encouraging the populations to work toward their own safety and security.

II. What Would a System of Self-Determination Look Like?

For an example of how this can be done we can look to Iraq during the surge. Successful self-determination would look like the Awakening movement that turned the Sunni tribes against al Qaeda in Iraq. Tribal leaders and other stakeholders would be invited to councils at which they would engage in diplomatic work to draw up borders and resolve conflicts. Unfortunately, ISIS learned from its predecessor and waged a careful campaign of assassination designed to disrupt the tribal networks that were leveraged successfully in the Awakening movement. Tribal systems are organic, and thus will heal with time. However, in their absence there is not an obvious leadership to which to appeal.

Nor is attaining a just self-determination as simple as holding a plebiscite, not while basic services and fear remain rampant. Even if the election could be held securely, people are too exposed to hardship and coercion in the current environment. Additionally, a large part of the interested population has fled the country and would need to be allowed time to return, which includes time for the infrastructure to support them to be rebuilt so that they can return.

For these reasons, following a collapse of ISIS and a resolution to the question of Assad, the international community should create a protectorate in eastern Syria and western Iraq.

The Kurdistan regional Government (KRG) should be recognized as an independent state immediately on their application. They should determine for themselves when they are ready to take that step.

The remaining region should be defended by the United Nations for a period of ten years.  During this time, repatriation of refugees can occur as the rebuilding efforts enable it. This will also give time for communities to rebuild, to consider their future, and to make an informed decision in conditions of peace.

Once the ten years are up, the people of western Iraq and eastern Syria should be given the opportunity to vote on three options.

  1. Western Iraq and eastern Syria each become autonomous regions within their respective nations.
  2. That the protectorate should become an independent republic, part of neither Iraq nor Syria.
  3. That the protectorate should become two independent republics, one comprising western Iraq and another comprising eastern Syria.

In this way, the peoples of this region can self-determine their future course.  The international community will at that point have completed its mission.

III. Considering Practical Problems

One obvious practical problem with this plan is oil revenue. Oil revenue is a matter of significance to this region even though global markets in oil are flooded, as even at greatly reduced prices oil provides one of the few sources of ready cash. For the ten years of the protectorate, the international community should pledge to devote all such revenue to the rebuilding efforts. The final resolution of the oil question will depend on the outcome of the independence vote.

Great and regional powers already involved in Syria and Iraq also have the capacity to derail this plan. At least some of them need to be swayed to support the plan instead. Their interests might sometimes be useful as levers to move them to supporting the plan. An obvious case is the Russian interest in access to the naval ports in Syria. It is unlikely that Russia can walk away from their warm water port, or that they would if they could. Their need in this area is strong enough that it could be used strategically to gain their support for the plan.

By contrast, some of the powers involved probably cannot be persuaded, and therefore must be controlled.  The most obvious case here is Iran.  Iran’s clear strategic aim is to establish a hegemony across Iraq and Syria backed by the Shia militias it has been supporting and training. Iran is unlikely to be satisfied with any version of any plan that rolls back the control of their proxies over the disputed areas. They may attempt to influence the final vote in favor of keeping the current borders, or they may resist the plan in other ways.

Similarly, the Turkish government is unlikely to be satisfied with a plan that recognizes any independent Kurdish state. Iran and Turkey both host Kurdish populations that might wish to join such a state.

To sway Turkey and Iran to accept a plan they will not support, it will be necessary for the broader international community to come together in support for this plan. There is reason to think that Russia and China could be brought on board. Russia extended its expeditionary capability to exert influence in support of Syria and to take advantage of a partial vacuum in the counter-ISIS fight due to US policy. They gain little in the way of additional resources for continuing this deployment and their operations. If offered assurances of gaining their strategic aim of a continued port in Syria, they may be amenable to ending their combat deployment to support this path to potential stability.

China has not been a significant player so far, but its new Silk Road initiative is proposing significant investment that could be at risk from instability in this region.

Meanwhile, an additional source of support exists in the Gulf Arab States. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar have been quite concerned about Iranian expansion as a whole and especially their intrusion into Sunni areas of Iraq and now Syria.

The Shia militias raised by Iran, meanwhile, have been motivated by Iranian claims – plausible, in the face of ISIS – that sacred shrines and other holy ground was under direct threat. This threat needs to be assuaged in order to lower the motivation for participation in such militias. The sacred sites in question should receive a two-tiered defense during the period of the protectorate. The militias themselves can be allowed to occupy and defend the actual ground of these sites. International forces should then create a surrounding perimeter to each such site occupied by these militia forces. In part this will serve to assist in the defense of the site, such that membership in the militia becomes redundant (and is thus less motivated). In addition, it provides an opportunity to keep watch on the activities of Iran vis a vis these militias.


In spite of its difficulties, this proposal has both moral and practical advantages. The moral advantage is that it respects the right of self-determination for those who will actually have to live with the final resolution of this crisis. The practical advantage is that only a plan that respects the self-determination of these peoples can gain the consent without which another insurgency is certain. Given the weakness of governance in this region, obtaining that consent and avoiding another insurgency is the most likely path to a stable peace.

While the neighboring states of Turkey and Iran will oppose this plan, there is a potential international coalition that is large enough and strong enough to make the plan effective. The member countries of the European Union can be persuaded by the opportunity to help the refugees who have fled there during this crisis return to a stabilized home. Russia may be persuaded provided that its strategic interests are respected in the final outcome. China may be persuaded by the promise of a stability that would protect its new, significant investments in the region. The Gulf States will be persuaded by the very constraint on Iranian hegemony that Iran will dislike.

Careful diplomacy and a long period of sustained rebuilding lie ahead. However, there is reason to believe that strong US leadership using this strategy can obtain a just and stable peace.

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Security Studies Group (SSG)

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