The astonishing ability of the militia forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to take over several Iraqi cities reveals more about the dismaying weakness and divisions within Iraq than it does about the military prowess of ISIS. Yet this is not some jihadi apocalypse. ISIS as a strategic military force in Iraq is not to be feared. What is to be feared is the ideological defection of large numbers of Sunnis who will no longer fight for the state they see as no longer theirs.
The reasons for Sunni alienation are well known. They were the supreme losers after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2002, overthrew Saddam Hussein, destroyed the ruling Ba’th party–the bulwark of Sunni control–and dismantled the Iraqi military. The oppressed Shi’ite majority took over the state, determined never again to be relegated to political weakness. Sunni Iraqis spearheaded armed resistance against the decade-long U.S. occupation–along with some Shi’ite forces. In a country driven by fierce nationalist sentiments, even secular former Ba’thists made common cause with Sunni Islamists and jihadis to expel the U.S. occupiers. We are now reaping the whirlwind of destruction.
The Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could have built a new national consensus based around a broader “Iraqi nationalism,” but the newly ascendant Shi’a always feared the Sunnis would try to reverse the political equation and seize supreme power again. Saudi Arabia’s open contempt for new Shi’ite power in Baghdad reinforced Shi’ite fears, particularly when Riyadh went all out to back even the most radical Sunni forces to overthrow the (nominally Shi’ite) Asad regime in neighboring Syria.
In his own paranoia and penchant for Iraqi-style strongman rule, Maliki further alienated Sunnis by excluding them from positions of power in Baghdad. The new Iraqi army became essentially an instrument of Shi’ite power operating with a heavy hand in Sunni areas. Today the presence of Sunni jihadis enables Maliki to link all Sunni political activism with “terrorism.”
Most Iraqi Sunnis have little sympathy for the extremist ideology and tactics of the ISIS and its jihadi predecessors. But they also see it as a key instrument for restoration of Sunni power–if not to rule the country, at least to maintain a powerful traditional voice in governance. If the stunning rise of ISIS upsets Maliki and his government, all the better, say the Sunnis–perhaps Maliki will see reason and embrace a more inclusive government. In the meantime, ISIS operations establish the groundwork for greater Sunni regional sovereignty – in what is emerging as a likely three-way federalist structure of Sunni Arab, Shi’ite Arab and Kurdish regions–the only way Iraq can survive intact for the foreseeable future.
There is no way Washington should attempt to reenter this Iraqi agony again. The U.S. already destroyed the political, economic and social infrastructure of Iraq, turning it into an anarchic free-for-all of every clan for itself. We in the West try to deny the ugly consequences of our own actions by shrugging our shoulders and noting that Iraqis are, after all, “eternally tribal.” But who do you turn to when the proverbial excrement–the destruction of your country–hits the fan? Most people revert to their core social identities–their clans, tribes, sectarian or regional groups–the only ones that can provide security against anarchy and enemies. There is no longer any state to provide protection. And you do not dare turn your security over to an untested, untrusted new state structure for a long, long time.
There are in fact two regional players with some clout and credibility in the region–Turkey and Iran. They maintain a modest rivalry. But Turkey does not seek to be the “champion of the Sunnis.” Nor does Iran simply seek to be the “champion of the Shi’a.” Iraqi Shi’a are grateful for Iranian support in time of crisis, but they are an ancient and proud Arab people; they are not Iranian and will resist Iranian efforts to dominate them. Both Turkey and Iran clearly share a desire for a united Iraq under some sectarian balance. Neither Turkey nor Iran want jihadis to rule Iraq, or even the Sunni regions. Turkey does want greater acknowledgment of Iraqi Sunni rights. Actually Iran wants the same–once the jihadi threat has passed–because an unstable Iraq wracked by civil war does not serve Iranian interests either.
The single most destructive regional power at this point is Saudi Arabia and its satellites who bankroll the extremist Sunni jihadis in both Syria and Iraq. Its blatantly sectarian stance has everything to do with Gulf geopolitics and little to do with Shi’ism as such: Iran would be a rival to Saudi Arabia even were it Sunni to the core.
Iraq, perhaps with help from its two neighbors, must come to terms with its own internal crisis. It can do so; sectarianism as a guiding obsession is not written in stone. Strong sectarian identity currently reflects the insecurities and fears of a complex society in chaos and political and social transition. U.S. intervention, already once disastrous, can only delay the day when Iraqis must deal with each other again. We cannot fix it. Television images of ISIS aside, the problem belongs to the region more than it does to us.