Iraq’s Sunnis

Someone asked me last week to introduce a discussion of Iraq’s Sunnis. Here are the speaking notes I used:

1. For much of the time since 2003, Iraq’s Sunnis have been the proverbial puzzle piece that didn’t fit for the Americans.

2. We knew and liked the Kurds because of the no-fly zone we imposed on northern Iraq in 1991 and their gradual political evolution in a relatively democratic direction, not to mention their good relations with Israel and their now improved relations with Turkey.

3. We knew the Shia and ignored their Iranian connections, because they were inevitable winners in a democratic Iraq.

4. The Sunnis were the odd ones out: they had pretensions and grandiose ideas but little clout. They didn’t like to be called a minority. They resisted the American invasion and lynched American operatives. Only during the relatively brief period of the Awakenings did we have a clue how they might fit.

5. The Sunnis were also divided: some clung to Saddam and manned a persistent stay-behind operation, others were attached to religious organizations that lacked the clarity and hierarchy of the Hawza but still mounted a serious insurgency, others were tribal, whatever that meant.

6. I’ve always been struck by the opening sentences of the 2005 Iraq constitution: “We are the people of the land between two rivers, the homeland of the apostles and prophets, abode of the virtuous imams, pioneers of civilization, crafters of writing and cradle of numeration. Upon our land the first law made by man was passed, the most ancient just pact for homelands policy was inscribed, and upon our soil, companions of the Prophet and saints prayed, philosophers and scientists theorized and writers and poets excelled.”

7. Those are the only words in the constitution intended to warm Sunni hearts. For the rest, they were losers. The Kurds got recognition of their language and their regional government as well as the presidency. Shia gained control of the Baghdad government, upending more than 80 years of Sunni rule.

8. The Sunnis got the parliament speaker and three provinces in which they were the clear majority: Ninewa, Anbar and Salaheddin. Those three provinces came close to rejecting the constitution, but missed by a few thousand votes according to the official count. They are the three provinces that led the protest movement against Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki in 2011/12. They are the three provinces that fell easily to Islamic State control in June 2014.

9. We’ve got a Sunni problem. What happens to it next?

10. Sectarian tensions have certainly heightened dramatically in Iraq since the fall of Saddam, who was a Sunni nationalist but made sure that Shia participated and benefited from his dictatorship.

11. Today, a good number of Sunnis loathe and fear Shia domination. While many Sunnis still claim to identify as “Iraqi” and say they are not sectarian, we should not be fooled. Sectarianism is strong when it comes to how power and status should be distributed in the society.

12. Most of those who welcome ISIS into their communities did not do so because they liked its religious discipline and brutality. According to the Iraqi pollster Munqith Dagher, support for ISIS among Iraqi Sunnis is low and support for the anti-ISIS coalition is high. But Sunnis felt the need to protect themselves from what they viewed as a sectarian, Iranian-dominated government bent on repression of Iraqi identity. They prefer ISIS to Shia militias.

13. Some would conclude from this that partition is a good idea. It is not. I don’t know any Iraqi Sunnis who want a future state of their own without Baghdad, which is now predominantly Shia. Nor are there sufficient resources in the Sunni provinces to finance a serious state.

14. There is no agreement on the lines that partition would necessarily draw between Sunnistan and Shiastan, or between Sunnistan and Kurdistan. Those lines, if they are to be drawn, will be drawn by war, especially as there is oil and gas at stake. Partition is a formula for another 10 years or more of armed conflict.

15. What other scenarios can we contemplate for Sunni Iraq?

16. It might still be possible to reintegrate Sunnis into Arab Iraq, but only if they were to get an equal share of power with Shia in Baghdad. Such things have been done—in the Balkans, where ethnic powersharing built on the Ottoman millet system is the rule in Bosnia, for example.

17. The Federation Council—the upper house of the Iraqi parliament included in the constitution but never created—could provide a power-sharing mechanism of this sort, with mutual vetoes, which is what powersharing of this sort requires.

18. The advantage is inclusion. Nothing could be accomplished without Sunni support. The disadvantage is dysfunctionality. In my way of thinking, the disadvantage outweighs even the very considerable advantage, but that is largely because I’ve seen how mutual vetoes have rendered the Bosnian state virtually useless.

19. I also am at a loss to explain how to convince Shia to yield veto power to Sunnis at the national level. It would imply a virtual reversal of everything they have gained since the fall of Saddam.

20. More reasonable is devolution to geographically defined units. There are two obvious options: one is a Sunni Regional Government analogous to Kurdistan’s, which was one of the demands of some Sunni protesters. The procedures for creating a region are outlined in the constitution and relatively easy to fulfill, though how three provinces join into one is not so clear.

21. You cannot expect the Shia to welcome Sunnistan. The only experience they have of it is Kurdistan, which from the Shia perspective has presented a serious challenge to the integrity of the Iraqi state they now control. I’m not sure even Kurds would welcome a unified Sunni region, as it might pose a threat, though I suppose they would be hard put to oppose it in principle.

22. The second option is devolution to the existing provinces, perhaps even making each of them separately its own region.

23. This to me makes more sense, as it is likely more acceptable to the Shia and Kurds.

24. In addition, each of the Sunni-majority provinces has its own character, tribal configuration and leadership, though precisely who will be in power after liberation from ISIS is not so clear to me. I expect Ben to enlighten us on that. But let me talk a bit about each of the provinces.

25. Anbar has seen a good deal of resistance to ISIS. Its tribal leaders spearheaded the Sahawat against Al Qaeda in Iraq a decade ago and will likely play a role after liberation, especially those who have fought hard against IS in the past year.

26. ISIS has deeper roots in Ninewa, Mosul in particular. The Awakenings never really caught on there. Craig Whiteside has argued it would even be a mistake to attack the IS in Mosul, not so much because the anti-ISIS forces wouldn’t win but because they couldn’t hold it, not to mention collateral damage. It might be better to let it wither on the vine, especially as there are many civilians still there.

27. In any event, the liberation of Mosul will clearly have to be done principally by Sunnis, and there is no sufficient Sunni force yet on the battlefield to do it. Governor Nujaifi has been begging for support to his people—mainly former police who are holed up in Kurdistan—but the Governor’s credibility and legitimacy after ISIS is defeated is doubtful.

28. ISIS in some attenuated form is likely to continue to play a continuing role in Ninewa. You can’t kill them all, and if you try there will be retaliation. Protection for minorities in the province will however be a big problem. My guess is that few of those who have left will return. Those who do will want their own autonomous areas. That’s another level of complication in Ninewa.

29. In Salaheddin, so far as I am aware no post-liberation plan has ever been published even for Tikrit, which admittedly is depopulated. Is it possible to think of Saddam’s province as completely cleaned of Ba’athists? I imagine they will continue to play a role.

30. I think this province-by-province approach is more likely to be successful than a unified Sunni region, in part because a unified Sunni leadership seems so unlikely. I would be glad to see one emerge if it were relatively moderate, but the days when Sunnis united to back Ayad Allawi aren’t coming back. Rafe Eisawi, the Nujaifis, Saleh Mutlaq all seem to me dubious reeds to lean on for unified Sunni leadership, though each may well have a role to play in his own province.

31. The province-by-province approach is likely to be particularly important if the National Guard legislation ever passes, since then the Sunni forces would then be formally associated with each province. But it seems to me that is already the case. Even if no one is telling the Sunnis they have to organize themselves by province, that is what comes naturally.

32. What does this mean for US policy? I understand why the Administration has wanted to do everything through Baghdad. Support for Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is important.

33. The trouble is it may not be the most militarily effective approach, especially since the National Guard legislation seems stalled, or at least slow-moving. Can’t we get some leeway from Baghdad to at least provide some minimal direct support to Sunnis committed to fighting IS?

34. I realize of course that I am posing more questions than answers. That is not good. As I understand General Petraeus is advising the White House, if you don’t know what you are going to do to stabilize and govern a territory, you likely would do better not to liberate it.

35. That leads me to a concluding thought.

36. The war we are fighting in Iraq and Syria began in Afghanistan in 2001, if not earlier. It is clear that we can and do kill large numbers of Islamic extremists. That is not the problem.

37. The problem is that we have also unintentionally boosted extremist recruitment and encouraged extremists to disperse in perhaps a dozen countries in the greater Middle East.

38. There are certainly more terrorists worldwide today than there were 15 years ago, and they have infected many more countries. We need to be careful not to repeat the pattern of whacking the moles but encouraging them to reproduce and spread.

39. Even a resounding military defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria—which for the moment seems beyond our capabilities, though ISIS collapse is a possible scenario—would not solve the problem. It might even make things worse, if more extreme monsters than ISIS fill the vacuums we create.

40. We and the Iraqis need to have clear ideas not only how to clear IS, but how to hold and build after that. I am not seeing much clarity on those issues, which are vital to obtaining the Sunni support we seek.

Some people suggest that Iran might like partition of Iraq and that Turkey is no longer so opposed as once it was. The latter point I think true, but I still think Iran opposes partition of Iraq, because of the implications for its own internal politics. Iran is not much more than 50% Persian in ethnicity. Eastern Kurdistan is a province of Iraq. Any partition of the existing states in the region will generate internal pressures that the Iranians I’ve talked with want to avoid.

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