Recently, the world has focused on the fighting in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine, all of which seem to be falling apart. Although the first two countries are in the Middle East and the last one is in the eastern part of Europe, they have the common problem that the state’s boundaries don’t correspond with linguistic, cultural, ethnic, or sectarian areas. Also, this is not a rare problem in the world, with other states having similar divergences that often have caused violence in certain areas – for example, the United Kingdom in Northern Ireland, Russia in the Northern Caucuses, Georgia in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, China in Tibet and Xinjiang, Spain in the Basque region, Myanmar (Burma), India, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In other states, such divergences have caused political conflict, but not violence – for example, in Canada and Belgium.
Why does the divergence sometimes cause violence and sometimes not? In the cases of Canada and Belgium, one could attribute the so-far peaceful quest for separation by certain ethnic groups to high-income levels. But Northern Ireland also has a relatively high standard of living. More likely, Canada and Belgium also have given significant autonomy to minority groups, which somewhat diffuses their secessionist desires.
This should provide a big clue with how to deal with Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine. Some sort of decentralization of power, autonomy for minority groups, or even outright partition may be needed. Talk of inclusive governments or power sharing arrangements in these nations is as naïve as Rodney King’s heartfelt statement, "Why can’t we all just get along?" That is because the history of these states has been that one group has commandeered a strong central government and used it to oppress another group or groups. The only viable solution is to reduce fear, which is induced by a strong central government, by weakening that government and its power to oppress, giving that government less control over minority regions (autonomy), or even doing away with the central government and dividing the territory into parts. Despite the fact that such decentralization or autonomy is often the best solution, many states of the international community are usually reluctant to support it, because it might set a precedent for their own restive groups to demand the same.
In Iraq, an attempted power sharing arrangement has already failed. Yet the international community is still pressing for an "inclusive government," but without Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is seen as a proponent of Shiite sectarian rule. Yet the problem is deeper than Maliki, and Iraq unfortunately will now be partitioned by force of arms, as Syria already has been. Perhaps both of these countries would benefit from the experience in multiethnic Bosnia, in which renewal of a bitter civil war has been avoided by the creation of a weak central government, susceptible to its actions being vetoed by any of the three competing ethno-sectarian groups there. Yet some do-gooders in the West say that this government is ineffectual and should be replaced by stronger power-sharing government. However, sometimes it is better to have a corrupt and ineffectual central government, especially when the alternative is a strong and competent government that slaughters some of the groups in the country. Failing the groups in Syria and Iraq agreeing to set up a weak central government or governments, it might be better for postwar stability to leave these areas partitioned into autonomously ruled ethno-sectarian areas (as I advocated in my book Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq).
Although fighting continues, some chance still exists for Ukraine. However, such hope may dim a bit because they hinge on both Russia and the West giving up their Cold War-like jousting over influence and territory in Ukraine.
Although Vladimir Putin of Russia’s method of annexing Russian-speaking Crimea by force is an aggressive and unacceptable violation of international law, the end result may be the most stable – a Russian-speaking area being transferred from Ukraine to Russia. As for Russophilic eastern Ukraine, which is undergoing a civil war between the Ukrainian military and Russian-speaking separatists, Putin ought to quit destabilizing it and reach an accord with the West to give the region substantial autonomy of governance from the rest of Ukraine. Some indication exists that he may accept such a solution. Let’s hope the Ukrainian government, which is backed by the U.S.-led West and which recently has launched an offensive to tame the Russian-speaking separatists, will also be receptive to such a stable solution – despite that it would lose substantial control over the eastern region.
Thus, decentralization, autonomy, or even partition can be viable solutions for ethno-sectarian conflict in starkly different regions of the world, provided they are done correctly and with the agreement of the groups involved.