The collapse of Arab regional order during the 2011 uprisings provided a chance to reconsider the Middle East’s famously misshapen states. Most rebels sought to control the central government, not to break away from it. Separatist, in contrast, unilaterally sought territorial autonomy or outright secession. They took advantage of the breakdown of security services to set up their own peripheral enclaves. In the last eight years, separatists have served as foot soldiers in the coalition that defeated ISIS. In Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Iraq, they were able to sustain local orders while national politics descended into chaos. Separatists offered alternative modes of governance. They controlled oil installations, ran irrigation networks, and provided to protection to civilians that was “good enough” in the midst of brutal war. Beyond touting their service to global security, separatists invoked the Wilsonian principles of self- determination that had far-reaching impact on the region at the end of World War I. They traced their ancestry to national liberation movements that had been defeated or unjustly denied during the previous century and asked the international community to reinstate their lost sovereignty.
Kurds nationalists lament the abrogation of plans for a Kurdish national homeland sketched in the Treaty of Lausanne. Brief moments of Kurdish self-rule ended in brutal repression. After the 1990-91 Gulf War, Kurdish forces managed to expel Saddam Hussein’s troops from northern Iraq. Under the umbrella of the United States no-fly zone, the Kurdish leadership launched the Kurdistan Regional Government. Iraq’s 2005 constitution granted the regional government broad autonomy and legalized Kurdish security forces. Kurdish troops were indispensable in Iraq’s anti-ISIS campaign. Regional President Massoud Barzani hoped to parlay this contribution into territorial gains and even independence. In Syria, too, efforts to ensure Kurdish autonomy after World War I failed. In 2011, Syrian Kurds associated with Democratic Union Party exploited the breakdown of government control. Although the party averred loyalty to Syria, it also proclaimed Rojava (Western Kurdistan) as an autonomous zone. The party’s troops were the largest contingent in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which fought against ISIS in Syria.
Years of virtually unfettered autonomy have emboldened separatists’ demands, but the international community has always treated separatists warily.
In Yemen, the Southern Resistance positions itself as the reincarnation the southern Yemeni republic. As Yemen’s regime transition turned to civil war between the central government and Houthi rebels, Southern Resistance activists seized control in several cities. With President Abdrabbah Mansur Hadi’s “legitimate government” decamped to Riyadh, Southern Resistance militias collaborated with the United Arab Emirates to root out ISIS and al-Qaeda. In 2015 the Southern Resistance formally declared its independence. In Libya separatist militias similarly rejected the feckless transitional government. With the country descending into civil war, they similarly sought to restore the sovereignty of the short-lived emirate of Cyrenaica. Separatist eventually aligned with the renegade General Khalifa Haftar and joined the campaigns to oust Islamists militias from Benghazi and Derna.
Years of virtually unfettered autonomy have emboldened separatists’ demands, but the international community has always treated separatists warily. Even as the U.S. and other power allies with separatists, the U.N. ritualistically affirms the norms of territorial integrity. But as regional wars begin to unwind, the separatist challenge has become more acute.
In 2017 the Iraqi Kurdish leadership went forward with a long-delayed referendum on independence. Ignoring warnings from allies like Iran, Turkey, and the U.S., Barzani declared that Kurds had earned the right to decide their fate. The results overwhelmingly favored independence. Baghdad and the international community refused to recognize the polls legitimacy. The Kurdish leadership fractured. Neighboring states blockaded the Kurdish territory. Iraqi troops forced Kurdish militias out of Kirkuk and other disputed areas. Although civil war was averted, tensions between the regional government and Baghdad remain high. The recently announced US withdrawal from Syria puts the Democratic Union Party in a precarious position. The party’s militia have no hope to stand up to the Turkish army, which opposes any Kurdish activity along its border. The party’s leaders have turned to Assad and Russia for support. The status of the Kurdish group in future constitutional negotiations is uncertain, setting up another potential round of conflict.
In Libya, separatist militias appear exhausted after years of fighting. Haftar, meanwhile, plots a march on Tripoli with the backing of Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and Moscow. The European peace initiatives for Libya so far ignore the concerns of the separatists, but any conciliation or constitutional reforms will have to reckon with their aspirations. The situation in southern Yemen is even more volatile. Upon the announcement of the December 2018 ceasefire the Southern Resistance reiterated its intent to secede. Houthi leaders accused the Southern Resistance of trying to scuttle the peace. Still, Yemen’s functionally moribund government can do little to rollback separatist control.
Separatists stand athwart the standard approach of resolving civil wars by strengthening and empowering states. Separatists loath to share power in states whose sovereignty they intrinsically dispute. Instead of integration, separatists will likely seek to block encroachment upon their hard-earned autonomy. Even if military defeated, separatist ambitions are recurrent, awaiting the next opportunity to regain power. In Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Libya, then, they are poised as spoilers to a still-nascent peace.