In the first of two articles, a Westerner with extensive on-the-ground experience in Syria and Iraq explains how the West’s understanding of sectarian identity in the Middle East is fatally flawed. He reveals new information on these civil wars and their participants.
Editor’s Note: This author is writing under a pen name. I know the author’s identity and while his arguments are surely controversial, I am confident in his sourcing and subject matter expertise. I have decided to allow him to write under a pen name because he can reasonably fear for his safety and professional employment. -RE (Update 8/17 – We have made an important factual correction explained at the bottom of the article).
In Iraq, the senior Shia leaders of the Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.) recently gathered for a meeting. Among them was a leading Sunni P.M.F. commander, who later recounted this story to me. When the men broke for prayer, a Shia leader noticed they were not being joined by their Sunni comrade, who remained seated. The Shia leader asked, “Why don’t you join us?”
He responded, “I don’t pray.”
“What do you mean, you don’t pray?” asked his Shia counterpart.
“If I prayed,” answered the Sunni leader, “I would be with the Islamic State fighting you.”
If you read Western media outlets, including War on the Rocks, you might think that most of the problems in the Middle East can be traced to Sunni disenfranchisement, especially in Syria and Iraq. The broader Western debate about the ongoing civil wars in the Middle East is plagued by a false understanding of sectarian identities. Washington elites imagine a broader Sunni sense of identity that does not exist outside the confines of Saudi Arabia and territories held by jihadist groups. This has the malign effect of encouraging polices that add fuel to the fires consuming Syria and parts of Iraq. Alongside this narrative exists another that portrays Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces as bloodthirsty sectarian militias engaged in constant abuses against Iraq’s Sunni Arabs — but this is simply not the case.
Similarly, these same voices describe the Syrian government as an “Alawite regime” that rules and oppresses Sunnis. However, Sunnis are heavily represented at all levels of leadership in Assad’s government. The territory it controls at this point in the war and at all points past is majority Sunni. And the Syrian armed forces are still majority Sunni. Alawites may be overrepresented in the security forces, but all that means is that they get to die more than others. It if it is an “Alawite regime,” isn’t it odd that includes and benefits so many non-Alawites?
Sunnis not only have political power in Syria, but they also have social power, more opportunities, and a greater range of choices in life compared to other states in the region ruled by Sunni heads of state. At the heart of this negligent misapprehension of what is actually happening in the Middle East is an acceptance and mainstreaming of notions of Sunni identity propagated by the most extreme voices in the Sunni world: Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Some American analysts have accepted the shrill claims of those who purport to represent the Sunni Arab world, such as Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir. They have accepted the sectarian victimization narrative as articulated by Syrian insurgents and their spokesmen — as if these voices represented the majority of Syrian people or even most Syrian Sunnis. They have accepted appeals for support from the angriest Iraqi Sunni rejectionists, as if giving in to their demands would push them to fight ISIL or move toward reconciliation to Iraq. By rejectionists, I mean those, whether Baathist or Islamist, who do not accept the new order and instead seek to overthrow it. Based on my years living and working in the Middle East, these voices do not represent those they claim to speak for. The Saudis’ only appeal to other Arabs is the money they have to offer. The Syrian rebel spokesmen represent only a fraction of Syrian Sunnis. The self-appointed Iraqi Sunni leaders control neither men nor territory. The United States is listening to the wrong Sunnis. When President Obama or Gen. David Petraeus or others repeat the myths of disenfranchisement these voices propagate, they reinforce and legitimize a dangerous sectarian narrative that should instead be countered.
The alternative ideology to the self-proclaimed Islamic State, whether in the Middle East, in Europe’s slums, or the former Soviet Union, is not to promote a Sunni identity — what the Bush administration pursued with its mantra of “moderate Sunni allies.” Instead, a counter-ideology should promote citizenship and secular states. This is the model that the West helped destroy in Egypt after Gamal Abdel Nasser died and the model it is currently destroying in Syria. In two articles, I will describe why the West’s view of sectarianism gets the region terribly wrong, resulting in policies that perpetuate rather than resolve the interconnected civil wars that plague the Middle East. In this first part, I use facts on the ground gathered in my years of working in the region to explain how Washington’s view of Syria and Iraq do not comport with what is actually happening there. In the second part, I will offer a counter to the Western narrative of sectarianism in the region and propose a dramatic re-think of how the West and the United States in particular should approach the Middle East. What I have to say will surely strike you as controversial. Some of you will dismiss me out of hand, especially because I am writing under a pseudonym. I only ask that you approach the facts and analysis below with an open mind and critically assess whether the dominant Western policy approach to the Middle East truly serves American interests. I, for one, do not think it does. And it has led to the region’s descent into hell.
Misreading Sectarianism in Syria
There is a cacophony of voices constantly complaining that the U.S. government does not sufficiently support the Sunni sectarian insurgents it backs in Syria. At this point in the conflict, these voices are open about the fact that these Sunni Arab “moderates” cooperate with al Qaeda, but go on to say they still deserve Washington’s support. Sometimes, it seems they argue that we help al Qaeda win in Syria so that its men don’t flee further west to us. At War on the Rocks, Faysal Itani bemoans the idea that Russia and the United States might cooperate to degrade Jabhat al Nusra, an avowed Salafi jihadist group that until very recently operated as an al Qaeda affiliate.
These advocates too often ignore that the Sunni insurgents have been receiving ample assistance and that Syria’s political and military elite is majority Sunni. Yes, I am talking about the Assad regime. Those who lament the meager assistance provided by the United States to Syrian insurgents overlook the fact that this is one of the best-supported insurgencies in history. Moreover, they discount how successful Syria’s insurgents have been at driving Assad’s forces out of most of the country. Most of the country has fallen into chaos or into the hands of the jihadists who cooperated with U.S.-backed groups. In fact, external aid to Syria’s insurgents was so successful that it forced the Russian military to directly intervene to prevent the total collapse of Syria. Earlier this month Salafi-jihadists led by a Saudi cleric usedsuicide attackers and foreign fighters to nearly storm into the government-held half of Aleppo. And yet they were lauded as heroic rebels by Western media and applauded by the official Western-backed Syrian opposition leadership.If they succeed, over one and a half million residents of the government-held area of Aleppo will be at great risk.
These same Western voices who criticize the White House for not supporting Syria’s rebels more robustly are also often quick to argue that more support to “moderate” insurgents earlier on would have prevented the rise of the jihadists and brought down the Syrian government.
These voices were and remain wrong because they underestimate the extent to which sectarianism and Salafism were already important trends among Syria’s Sunni rural class and its urban poor. These segments of society have always formed the core of the insurgency. Their movement was dominated by Sunni sectarian Islamists who could finally express themselves freely after they expelled the state from their areas. The logical outcome of this movement is extremism. You cannot blame all or even most of this on the Syrian regime’s harsh methods. Advocates of more support to so-called moderates early on forget what happens when states collapse and militias emerge. People embrace more primordial identities and extremist militias dominate.
Moreover, Western critics of Washington’s less than full-throated support for the armed Syrian opposition have always underestimated the commitment of Syria’s allies. And they forget that Syria was taking place in a regional context where sectarian scores had to be settled. The Saudis and Qataris hoped to overthrow the Syrian government and turn it into a “Sunni” regime, and they saw Syrians as tools to achieve those goals. Iran was and remains committed to stop this from happening. These Gulf states were crucial in fostering the insurgency, but this left the rebellion reliant on external actors.
All this external support the Syrian insurgents received made these groups less closely involved with their own society. Effective insurgents are organically connected with their communities and place great emphasis on their well-being. This is often because they need communities to provide resources, shelter, and other forms of support. If a group is financed from outside the country, it can operate independent of these concerns and impose a reign of terror on a community or ignore the fact that its actions lead to the community’s destruction.
From my perspective as someone living and working in the region, American analysts seem even more sectarian than most people in the Middle East in promoting and legitimizing the Sunni-Shia divide. Sectarian-based movements and this American pro-Sunni sectarianism are seen by modernist and progressive Arabs in both the Sunni and Shia camps as abhorrent and dangerous. For those who want a Sunni force, they have ISIL, the Sunni militia par excellence. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been fellow Sunnis.
It is commonly argued that only a Sunni Arab force can defeat the Islamic State. It is likewise argued that ISIL cannot be defeated as long as Assad is president because he is a magnet for jihadists, because the United States needs Sunni allies, and because Sunnis feel like they lost everything since 2003 and remain oppressed. These are flawed notions that rely on false assumptions about identity in the region, and they pose a grave danger for Syria, Iraq, and the Middle East as a whole.
This faulty American thinking on sectarianism in the Middle East was recently typified by former ambassador Robert Ford in The New Yorker. Referring to the so-called “dissent cable” written by hawkish State Department officials, Ford said:
The dissent message makes clear that the focus on the Islamic State will not win the hearts and minds of enough Syrian Sunni Arabs to provide a long-term, sustainable solution to the Islamic State challenge in Syria. The Syrian Sunni Arab community views the Assad government as a greater problem than the Islamic State.
In Syria, a majority-Sunni military force exists. It represents the only national institution remaining in a state that does not make nearly as many sectarian distinctions as its opponents seem to think. Yes, I am talking about the Syrian armed forces. The majority of Syria’s state employees, government officials, and soldiers are Sunni, even today. The majority of the still-powerful urban capitalist class is Sunni. As someone who has been been interacting with people on every side of the civil war for its entire duration, I have learned that even some of Assad’s top security chiefs are Sunni, such as Ali Mamluk, the head of national security who supervises the other security agencies. Colonel Khaled Muhamad, a Sunni from Daraa, is in charge of securing Damascus for the feared Department 40 of the Internal Security. Deeb Zeitun, the head of state security, and Muhamad Rahmun, the head of political security, are both Sunni, as are the head of foreign intelligence, the minister of defense, senior officers in air force intelligence, the minister of interior, the head of the ruling Baath party, the majority of Baath party leaders, and the president of the parliament. The commander of the National Defense Forces (N.D.F.) in Daraa is a Sunni man of Palestinian origin. The commanders of the N.D.F. in Quneitra, Raqqa, and Aleppo are likewise Sunnis. One of the regime’s leading anti-ISIL fighters who receives support from all regime security branches is Muhana al Fayad. He leads the large Busaraya tribe between the Derezzor and Hassake areas and is also a member of parliament. Even some pilots dropping barrel bombs on insurgent-held communities are Sunni. Many heads of military intelligence branches are also Sunni.
Sunnis in the Syrian government include many hailing from ISIL-held areas, such as Derezzor and Raqqa, or insurgent-held areas, such as eastern Hama, Daraa, and the Aleppo countryside. This is key to understanding the regime’s survival. The head of security in the northeastern Hassake province which borders ISIL-held areas is himself a Sunni from the town of Muhassan in Derezzor. His town is held by ISIL, and he has relatives who defected from the Syrian security forces to join various insurgent groups. Muhamad Rahmun, the aforementioned head of political security, is from Khan Sheikhun in Idlib, and he has relatives in groups such as Jabhat al Nusra. As a result, the regime never cut off links to areas held by insurgents and ISIL and still pays civil servants in some of these places. This leaves a door open for people to return to the state. The regime continues to fight tooth and nail to maintain control over Aleppo and Derezzor, two Sunni-majority cities, and it struggles to provide state services to these communities. Finally, the leaders of the delegations representing the Syrian government that have gone to Geneva to negotiate the political process have all been Sunni, as have nearly all of their staffers.
When Robert Ford claims as that Sunni Arabs in Syria are more worried about Assad than the Islamic State, he is dangerously mistaken. Most of Ford’s “Syrian Sunni Arab community” remains in government-held areas and did not rise up. Damascus is an overwhelmingly majority-Sunni Arab city. If they viewed the Assad government as a greater problem than the Islamic State, then Damascus would have fallen to insurgents or at least would have endured the same constant car bombings that Baghdad has. Baghdad has proportionally far fewer Sunnis than Damascus, but jihadists are still able to find safe havens there and launch more attacks than Syrian insurgents in Damascus. But Damascus, of course, has not been immune to these attacks. The two Syrian cities most hit by insurgent rockets and mortars are Damascus and Aleppo, both overwhelmingly Sunni cities. Most of the many hundreds of dead civilians from indiscriminate insurgent attacks on government-held areas have been Sunnis, which is why the Sunnis of government-held west Aleppo cheered when government forces recently made gains against insurgent-held east Aleppo. Even the pro-regime militias in Aleppo are Sunni, such as Liwa Quds and the clan-based militias that have remained loyal to the state. Of course the vast majority of the government’s victims have also been Sunni, and this has driven some to extremism. This war, however, is very much Sunni vs. Sunni in many places.
Not all Sunnis in Damascus love Assad, of course, (although more do than you would expect), but when I speak with them, it is clear they oppose the opposition and prioritize stability. The alternative vision equates Sunni Arabs with radicals and proposes that the United States radicalize its policy enough to win them over.
This obsession with supporting “Sunni Arabs” has led the United States to support unruly and corrupt militias who happen to be Sunni and Arab, but aren’t al-Nusra, al Qaeda, or ISIL. The mainstream Syrian insurgents (the Free Syrian Army, or FSA) are not located in the right areas to launch assaults on ISIL and do not possess the right incentives to do so. Over the last few years, FSA groups have become increasingly parochial. They fight for local issues, defend their villages and neighborhoods, reach accommodations with whomever they can, and lack motivation to go further. The many agreements the regime has reached with insurgent-held towns around Damascus, in southern Syria, and elsewhere evidences the exhaustion of these groups and their desire to find a settlement at the local level. The FSA lacks the mobility required to engage in the remote battles that the war on ISIL requires. When the so-called moderate opposition fights the jihadists, it gets beaten or melts away.
There are also Islamist insurgents such as Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham, or Nuredin al-Zenki (now famous for itslatest beheading video). They fight ISIL only when it attacks them, and even then, many of their men are reluctant to fight against fellow Sunni Muslims. It is ironic that the P.M.F., which contain many thousands of Sunnis and are part of the Iraqi state, are called Shia militias while the Syrian insurgents who are entirely Sunni and explicitly fight for Sunnis are described as rebels. Islamist insurgents possess ideological and political aims inconsistent with U.S. interests (or with those of most Syrians, for that matter) and actually bear no small resemblance to those of ISIL. Ahrar al Sham is incapable of fighting without Jabhat al-Nusra alongside it or without getting approval from Jabhat al Nusra. And while Jabhat al-Nusra recently dissociated itself from al-Qaeda, this move was blessed by al Qaeda — not exactly a good recommendation. Al-Qaeda understood that an independent al-Nusra, or one that at least seems independent, is better for its jihad and would allow its assault on Aleppo to be described by western journalists as being carried out by “rebels.” Of the thousands of insurgent groups running rampant in Syria, some lack an ideology and are accidental guerillas — but this dominant Salafi jihadi ideology was imported from abroad. It rejects freedom, progress, and modernity. The language of these groups when talking to the West is seductive — or at least the language of their “activist” apologists — but their discourse in Arabic is indistinguishable from al Qaeda or ISIL. They differ only over who should have power and whether it is legitimate to establish a caliphate today. Anybody with basic Arabic can hear their voices calling in unison for the extermination of rival sects as the main objective of their war. They are not fighting for democracy, freedom, or human rights.
In Syria, moderate Sunnis are fighting al Qaeda and ISIL. One of these is Khaled Abaza, a Sunni commander of a paramilitary unit in the south who has been fighting against Jabhat al Nusra and other extremist groups for several years. I have personally observed former insurgents who now fight ruthlessly alongside government forces and against both Jabhat al Nusra and ISIL, such as fighters from Aqnaf beit al Maqdis (a group that was based in the Yarmuk camp).
Iraq and the Myth of the Bloodthirsty Shia Militias
The Western narrative of the nature of the ongoing conflict in Iraq similarly matches up only poorly with facts on the ground, especially as it concerns the role of sectarian identity and persecutions on every side. This is evident nowhere more than the Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.), an umbrella group of institutionalized militias mobilized to fight against ISIL. During the now concluded battle for Falluja, a new genre of articles emerged warning hysterically about the role of the P.M.F. in Iraq. These articles incorrectly described the P.M.F. as sectarian or Shia militias devoted to persecuting Sunnis. In fact, these units are part of the Iraqi state, coordinate with the Iraqi Security Forces, and answer to the Iraqi prime minister. Because they were largely established in response to a sudden and immediate threat, their organization has been a gradual process, culminating in the 2016 decision to transition away from factions and into a formal military structure. With a few exceptions, P.M.F. units have not engaged in widespread abuse of Sunni populations during this war against ISIL. While most P.M.F. units are Shia, interlocutors in my meetings with Iraqi P.M.F. officials and members of the Iraqi government have told me that there are 30,000 Sunnis receiving P.M.F. salaries. These include leaders such as Yazan al Jiburi, who liberated Tikrit in cooperation with Iranian-backed units, and Wanas Hussein, whose tribe bravely resisted ISIL and whose sister Omaya Jabara was the first woman to die fighting ISIL. Some of these Sunni units are tribal holding forces, while at least 7,000 proper fighters fall under the P.M.F. chain of command. There are also hundreds of Sunnis in majority-Shia units and a few thousand Sunnis who fight alongside these units but are not yet officially registered and do not receive salaries. Further, these units do not engage in any more violations than the forces the American-led coalition supports. Some, such as Saraya Salam (formerly known as the Mahdi Army), are in fact the least sectarian and most disciplined of the various military and paramilitary units fighting in Iraq today.
Many Western analysts seem to think that just because a security force is majority-Shia that it will somehow be unable to resist killing and persecuting Sunnis. Some in the West even questioned whether the government of Iraq should have liberated Falluja, a city less than an hour away from Baghdad, from ISIL (just as they doubt whether the Syrian government should retake the half of Aleppo occupied by jihadists). These voices seem more worried about the Iraqi government treatment of Falluja than about ISIL, as if this jihadist group treats its residents well on account of a shared Sunni identity. One merely needed to look at Samara or Tikrit, cities already liberated from ISIL, to see that Sunnis are not being abused after their liberation from ISIL.
Baghdad stands as another example — a Shia-majority city with dense Sunni enclaves, such as Aadhamiya, Amriya, and many others. Its Sunni neighborhoods used to be insurgent strongholds. Now, Shia-majority security forces secure these neighborhoods, which are also full of displaced Sunnis from Anbar province. They are safe and unharmed. Cafes, restaurants, tea houses, and shops are busy day and night. The biggest danger in Baghdad is ISIL. If Shia vigilantes in the security forces wanted to target all these unarmed and vulnerable Sunnis, they could — but they do not. The Anbar provincial council is based in Baghdad’s Mansur district and protected by Shia-majority security forces.
The P.M.F. are a majority-Shia force fighting to liberate majority-Sunni areas from ISIL on behalf of Sunnis. Surely, abuses have taken place. Houses and mosques have been destroyed and there have been extrajudicial killings. But these violations pale by comparison to events of the Iraqi civil war during the American occupation. Iraq may have actually transcended the Sunni-Shia paradigm in a way that will seem counterintuitive to Washington-based analysts. Today, the threat is inter-Sunni violence, inter-Shia violence, inter-Kurdish violence, and Arab-Kurdish violence.
The Sadrists, one of the Shia political factions in Iraq, know that their competition in Iraqi politics does not come from Sunnis but from their Shia rivals in Dawa, Badr, and the Supreme Council. The Sadrists admit that Iraq cannot be ruled without its Sunnis. This is why Sadr has opened up to the Saudis. If Iran’s regional rivals were smart, they would not try to counterbalance Iran in Iraq using a handful of Sunni rejectionists too few in number to pose a threat. Instead, they would support the large Shia bloc that opposes excessive Iranian influence in Iraq. When Sadrist supporters stormed the Green Zone and Iraqi Parliament in April of this year, they stole from Sunni hardliners what they had dreamed of for over a decade: marching into the Green Zone to ransack the Shia government. Iraq can no longer be simplistically divided into a Shia government and Sunni opposition. Instead, there are Shias and Sunnis in the government, as well as in the opposition. Sadrist supporters chanted nationalist slogans, including calls for Iran to get out and rejecting Qassem Suleimani. The Sadrists proved that Iraqi Shia can be patriotic Iraqis rather than tools of Iran. And in Iraq today, the politician most popular among Sunnis is Ayad Alawi, who is Shia!
The battle to retake Falluja ended in a victory. The key element was the participation of thousands of P.M.F. fighters, as I observed and as my research with commanders on the ground confirms. Initially, the P.M.F. was assigned to retake the countryside around Falluja while the army and police assaulted the city. After these forces failed, the P.M.F. contingent entered the city and liberated it. These men, almost all Shia from the Badr forces, were at first dressed in police uniforms. But by the time they defeated the enemy, they were open about their role as P.M.F. members.
Yet it is undeniable that abuses typical of counterinsurgency campaigns took place in Falluja: Western human rights researchers who conducted field work in Anbar confirmed to me that there are between 600 to 900 men missing after the various Anbar operations and that about 600 men who fled the Falluja area were beaten or tortured. The P.M.F. needs a penal code, and it must publicly punish wrongdoers and conduct transparent investigations to demonstrate accountability. If the P.M.F. wants to become a permanent Iraqi institution, as seems likely, this could be supported by the United States and other members of the anti-ISIL coalition in a way that increases accountability for the force and helps ensure that human rights abuses are dealt with. The United States and its European allies can place conditions on support the Iraqi government receives to force better behavior among militias.
Much of the destruction in Iraq results not from battle but instead from revenge by both the P.M.F. and by tribes, including Sunni tribes. Deliberately destroying homes to punish a community is a war crime, and the international community is offering stabilization and reconstruction money to Iraq. Donors could impose conditionality on funding, refusing to pay to fix the damage resulting from war crimes committed by the P.M.F. or Iraqi security forces. The United States and the international community should engage with the P.M.F. to encourage better discipline, just as it does with partner military forces around the world. Some Iraqis might be skeptical about American admonitions, however. Iraqi security forces emerged during the American occupation of Iraq, when innocent prisoners were abused, brutal solutions were sought, and men were rounded up en masse. It was in this period that the Sunni victimization narrative arose.
So while abuses surely have occurred, claims that Sunnis are being persecuted wholesale in Iraq overlook a far more nuanced reality. Some Sunnis are indeed persecuted, including men from certain places under a policy of guilt by association (something the Syrian government engages in as well). So a man from Falluja, Jurf Assakhr, or other towns perceived to have a history of harboring al Qaeda and the Islamic State may be persecuted — but not all Sunnis. The Sunnis of Baghdad are not being targeted, for example. It is not 2006, when Sunni bodies were found in dumpsters every day. Even after mass-casualty attacks targeting Shia civilians such as the July 3 attack that killed about 200 or another attack this past May, there were not retaliatory attacks against Sunnis.
Moreover, the persecution of Sunnis in Iraq that exists, while inexcusable, is not indiscriminate. Based on my interviews and research, men who fled from ISIL-held areas early on and sought shelter in government areas, including in majority-Shia areas, are not suspected of ties to the jihadist group and are left to live their lives. However, those who remained behind or fled more recently are sometimes persecuted under the often unfair assumption that they sympathized with terrorists. From the point of view of security services, these are men who have chosen to stay in Falluja for the last two years, unlike the many Fallujans who fled ISIL early on and sought safety in Baghdad. Security services have a right to worry that some ISIL fighters had infiltrated the ranks of the fleeing civilians. In a significant improvement over what Iraqis call the period of “sectarianism” that ended in 2008, the violations today involve far less killing but instead the destruction of homes and villages in revenge for a perception that residents supported ISIL. The P.M.F. are imperfect, as is every security force in the Middle East. Given the role of Falluja as a safe haven for those beheading Shia and supporting insurgents, it is surprising how restrained the P.M.F. have been. Outside observers can debate about whether the Iraqi government should have prioritized the liberation of Falluja, but Baghdad does not have that luxury. Falluja is 50 kilometers away from the capital and not far from the key shrine city of Karbala. It also straddles the highway to Amman that is a key trade route.
While the P.M.F. benefit from Iranian advisors and assistance, these units are commanded by Iraqis and remain under the authority of Iraq’s prime minister. At first the P.M.F. allowed the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service (CTS), police, and army to attempt and fail to take the city. Meanwhile, the P.M.F. respect the orders of the Iraqi prime minister, contradicting those who claim the units simply represent an extralegal force controlled by Iran. Western media (and some Arab satellite channels) have stoked Sunni fears and turned Falluja into a rallying cry, but it is not the P.M.F. themselves that are the cause of the rallying cry.
Finally, the P.M.F. is a clearing and supporting force rather than a holding force. It liberates territory from ISIL or supports the Iraqi Security Forces (itself majority-Shia) when they do so. Then the P.M.F. move on, leaving local (Sunni) forces to hold and the government to (hopefully) build.
The Iraqi army and security forces are also majority Shia, just like the P.M.F. . There is no alternative to the P.M.F. in Iraq, as their recent key role in liberating Falluja proved. Since the P.M.F. took Tikrit, most of its residents have returned and life has returned to normal. Because the P.M.F. were not allowed to participate in the liberation of Ramadi, the city had to be destroyed for lack of a willing ground force to take it. None of this is to say that the P.M.F. are the ideal force. It is an emergency solution in response to an existential threat, and it has saved Iraq from total collapse. Instead of eschewing the P.M.F. , the United States should engage with it. Instead of preventing the P.M.F. from participating in operations to liberate towns, the United States should be incorporating it into its planning alongside the conventional Iraqi security forces. This will help integrate the P.M.F. further into the Iraqi state.
Whither the Western Sectarian Narrative?
As I have explained, the Western narrative of these conflicts and the role of sectarian identity in particular simply does not match up with facts on the ground. This has led to poor policy choices at every turn.
None of this is to excuse the abuses of the Syrian state and the Iraqi state. In Syria in particular, the government has unleashed desperate levels of brutality, using collective punishment, indiscriminate attacks on insurgent held areas, and harsh siege tactics to prevent insurgents from penetrating state-held areas and to force them to accept ceasefires. This has certainly led to radicalization as violence always does. This legacy of war crimes committed by all will hopefully be dealt with, but the first priority must be ending the wars. But there are broader issues that Washington must confront.
In my next article on this topic, I will discuss how we got here, the crisis of Sunni identity that sits at the heart of these conflicts, and how Western and, in particular, American policy should change to accommodate the realities of the Middle East and to focus on building and reinforcing non-sectarian national institutions and national forces.
Cyrus Mahboubian is a pen name for a security consultant to the humanitarian community in the Levant and Iraq.
Correction: This article originally inaccurately portrayed a proposal by Gen. David Petraeus as a plan to arm al-Qaeda against ISIL. In reality, Gen. Petraeus proposed trying to split less ideologically dedicated members of Jabhat al-Nusra (until recently, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate) away from jihadist groups, much like the U.S. military was able to do in the fight against jihadists in Iraq.
PART 2 - WASHINGTON’S SUNNI MYTH AND THE CIVIL WARS IN SYRIA AND IRAQ
Editor’s Note: This is the second of two articles on this topic, the first of which was published last week. There has been some controversy over my decision to allow this author to write under a pen name. I know the author’s identity and while his arguments are surely controversial, I am confident in his sourcing and subject matter expertise. I carefully considered his request to use a pen name. I decided that this case reasonably meets the standards for such protection published on our site. The author, in my view, can reasonably and seriously fear for his professional employment and safety publishing under his real name. -RE
I was not surprised to see my first article greeted with so much outrage by those who adhere to the conventional Western narrative of the civil wars in Iraq and Syria as well as the larger tumult of the Middle East. In truth, these conflicts are not so easily defined by the easy sectarian narrative offered in the Western press. I argued that Western elites were surrendering to and even embracing the Saudi definition of what Sunni identity should mean. And I provided accounts of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq that do not comport with what you likely have been reading in the newspapers.
But there is far more to the story. It is worth recounting how we got to this point. In the aftermath of the toppling of Saddam and his regime, Iraq’s Sunnis were betrayed by many of their own religious, political, and tribal leaders who demanded that they boycott the post-2003 political order by waging an insurgency against the world’s most powerful military and the government it sought to stand up and support. Of course, it did not help that the U.S.-led occupation and the security forces it empowered victimized Sunni Iraqis disproportionately. The American military’s posture was more aggressive in Sunni-majority areas, and Iraqi security forces collaborated with Shia death squads in pursuit of a vicious counterinsurgency strategy that saw bodies piled up and neighborhoods cleansed. Iraqis en masse suffered from a collective trauma that will take decades to recover from. But hardline Sunni rejectionists and their Western backers have claimed that if Sunnis are not “empowered” then there is no alternative available to them but the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). When adopted by Westerners, this argument seems to support Sunnis but actually represents a very low opinion of them because it holds that Sunnis require disproportionate political power to avoid becoming terrorists. Since 2003, Sunni rejectionists have pushed this narrative to hold Iraq hostage,blackmailing Baghdad and its allies like gangsters in a protection racket.
If Sunni leaders did not receive the government position or the business contract they wanted, they would then claim persecution on account of their Sunni identity, switch sides, gather their relatives, and use violence. Examples of this phenomenon from early 2013 include:
Rafi al Essawi, former finance minister and deputy prime minister who is alleged to have allowed Sunni extremists into Anbar province;
Rafi al Mishhin, the son of the Jumaila tribal leader and a former leader of the U.S.-established Awakening groups;
Ali Hatem Suleiman, a tribal sheikh from Anbar who worked with Americans as a contractor and served as a disgruntled member of Maliki’s State of Law list and who later joined the demonstrations that welcomed al Qaeda (and future ISIL members) into their ranks and called for attacks against the Iraqi Army (but not Iraqi Police, because they might be local Sunnis);
And Khamis Al-Khanjar, an influential businessman from Falluja financed those same demonstrations anddescribed the initial ISIL attacks as a tribal revolution.
Still, the West has pressured the Iraqi government to allow into its ranks Sunni representatives like the above, who oppose the very legitimacy of the government and the notion of a Shia ruler. There were no Shias in the Anbar or Ninawa provinces to threaten Sunnis. At best, they were politically disgruntled, which is an insufficient reason to embrace the world’s most vicious terrorist organization.
The Jihad Returns to Haunt Syria
The interplay between the conflict in Iraq and the Syrian civil war created a perfect storm. The U.S.-led occupation of Iraq and the sectarian war it ignited influenced how Syrian Sunnis thought of themselves. The Syrian government was warned that it was next in line for regime change, and it took preemptive measures to scuttle the American project in Iraq. By supporting or tolerating insurgents (including al-Qaeda) for the first three years of the occupation, Damascus sought to bog the Americans down. But by then, the Syrian government had lost control of its eastern border. After 2006, at least one million mostly Sunni Iraqis fled into Syria, including some with ties to the insurgencywho either came to Syria to facilitate insurgent operations in Iraq, to find a safe place for them and their families, or both. Many former al-Qaeda in Iraq members had fled to Damascus and were living normal lives as family men and laborers before the Syrian crisis erupted in 2011. In my own interviews with detained members of Jabhat al-Nusra, I learned that when the Syrian insurgency started, these men were contacted by old friends who told them, in effect, “We’re putting the band back together.” Many of these Iraqis formed the early core of al-Nusra, which until recently was al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.
By 2010 or 2011, Iraq appeared to be stable. When the uprising started in Syria and the country became unstable, many of the Iraqi Sunni rejectionists returned to Iraq from their Syrian exile. Insurgents in Syria had created failed state zones, power vacuums full of militias, and a conservative Islamist Sunni population mobilized on sectarian slogans. The Turks were letting anyone cross into Syria, which was exploited most successfully by jihadists. By the summer of 2012, many local Syrians saw the arrival of foreign fighters in a positive light, as if they were members of the Lincoln Battalion of foreign volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. As I myself witnessed, they were welcomed and housed by Syrians, who facilitated their presence and cooperated with them.
These thousands of foreign fighters in Syria eventually sided in large numbers with ISIL, seizing parts of Syria. From there, the group was able to launch its offensive into Iraq in the summer of 2014 (although the ground in Mosul had been prepared by the jihadists for quite some time). The prospect of a Sunni sectarian movement seizing Damascus evoked their dreams of expelling the Shia from Baghdad (although the difference, of course, is that Baghdad is a Shia-majority city, unlike Damascus). The Syrian uprising mobilized public and private Gulf money for a larger Sunni cause in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the region. A lot of this support went to the Sunni rejectionists of Iraq, whostaged sit-ins and demonstrations in majority-Sunni cities in Iraq. Meanwhile, Al Jazeera had transformed from the voice of Arab nationalism into the voice of sectarian Sunnis, virtually promoting al-Qaeda in Syria and celebrating the initial ISIL “revolutionaries” in Iraq.
From Syria, Back to Iraq
In 2012, as jihadists gathered in centers of rebellion around Syria, Sunni rejectionists in Iraq allowed jihadists to re-infiltrate their ranks as they launched this campaign of demonstrations, thinking they could use the presence of these men as leverage against the government. At the time, al-Qaeda and ISIL forerunner Islamic State of Iraq were still united. They had systematically assassinated key leaders of the “Awakening” movement, neutralizing those that could have blocked the jihadist rapprochement with Sunni leaders in Iraq. From 2006 to 2009, they also assassinated many rival insurgent commanders to weaken alternative armed movements. Former insurgents described to me how just before the Americans withdrew from Iraq in 2011, insurgent leaders from factions as politically diverse as the Naqshbandis, the Islamic Army, the Army of the Mujahedin, and the 1920 Revolutions Brigades all met in Syria to plan to take the Green Zone in Baghdad (an ambition that was, ironically, accomplished this year by Shia rather than Sunni masses). While these groups initially lacked the ability to take the Green Zone, they made their move when the demonstrations started with the help of the Islamic State, which saw utility in cooperating with these groups, for the time being.
When Sunni protestors in 2012 and 2013 filled squares in Ramadi, Mosul, Hawija, Falluja, and elsewhere chanting “qadimun ya Baghdad (“we are coming, Baghdad”), it was hard for the government and average citizens in Baghdad not to interpret this as a threat from various Sunni-majority cities. These were not pro-democracy demonstrations. They were rejecting the new order — an elected government — and calling for overthrow of the Shia.
Sunni rejectionist leaders rode this wave of support and became a key factor in how easily ISIL later seized much of the country. According to Iraqi insurgents I spoke to, ISIL’s leaders initially thought that they would have to depend on former insurgents, including Baathists, as a cover to gain support. While ISIL’s jihadists did initially cooperate with some of these groups, it was not long until ISIL discovered it did not need them and purged them from its newly seized territories. Many Sunni rejectionist leaders, now understanding the horror of what they helped to unleash, then fled, leaving their populations displaced, destroyed, and divided. Likewise in Syria, Sunni rejectionists and their Western supporters argued that the only way to defeat ISIL is to topple Assad, and thus placate their sectarian demands. And the West somehow believes that they are representative of Syria’s Sunnis writ large. The secular or progressive opposition activists amenable to pluralism unfortunately have no influence because they have no militias of their own.
The Evolution of Sectarian Identity in the Modern Middle East
There is a major crisis within Sunni identity. Sunni and Shia are not stable, easily separable categories. Twenty years ago, these terms meant something else. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the geopolitical equivalent of the asteroid that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Just as species were killed off or arose thanks to that cataclysm, so too in the Muslim world, old identities were destroyed while new ones were created, as discussed by Fanar Haddad at the Hudson Institute. One of these new identities was the post-Saddam “Sunni Arab,” treated by their Western taxonomists as if they were an ethnic group rather than a fluid, fuzzy, and diverse religious sect. For centuries, Sunni identity was conflated with “Muslim” and the identity of “Muslim” was distinct from members of heterodox or heretical sects. Generally speaking, Shias living in areas dominated by Sunnis were subordinate to them juridically and by custom. The war in Iraq helped create a sense of “Sunni-ness” among otherwise un-self-conscious Sunni Muslims, and it also overturned an order many took for granted. To make matters worse, not only were Shia Islamist parties (such as Dawa and the Supreme Council) brought to power (as well as Sunni Islamist parties such as the Islamic Party), but Sunnis bore the brunt of the occupation’s brutality (while Shias bore the brunt of the insurgency’s brutality).
The result is that we now see Sunni identity in the way that the Saudis have been trying to define it since they began throwing around their oil wealth in the 1960s to reshape Islam globally in the image of Wahhabism. Haddad explains:
[T]he anti-Shia vocabulary of Salafism has clearly made some headway in Iraq and indeed beyond. This is only to be expected given that Salafism offers one of the few explicitly Sunni and unabashedly anti-Shia options for Sunnis resentful of Shia power or of Sunni marginalization.
In other words, we now see a Sunni identity in Iraq that dovetails with Saudi Wahhabism. And the response in the West is to reinforce this!
Ironically, we do something similar with Shia identity. Westerners (and sectarian Sunnis) believe Shia are all the same and all an extension of Iranian (Persian) theocratic power — but they are not, and assuming this is the case has negative effects in the region. It is true that there is far more political coherence to Shia religious identity in the Middle East compared to the Sunni, but placing the center of Shia identity in Iran dramatically misconceives the center of power in the Shia Arab world. To be a sect, you need to have a sense of coherence with centers of power through which someone speaks on your behalf. Shias know what they are and who their leaders are. In Iraq and even beyond its borders, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani looms larger than others for Shia, especially but not exclusively in the Arab world. The Sunnis have no equivalent leader.
We tend to view Hizballah or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps solely as threats to the West or Israel, but they are also mature local actors with influence on other Shias. Before 2011, the Shia axis was merely an idea. Compared to the Shia of Lebanon, Syria, and Iran, Iraqi Shias were relatively isolated from neighboring countries and struggles. They were insular, and their aspirations were more mundane, as they were discovering middle-class life. Just as Sunni rejectionists playing ISIL’s game in radicalizing their populations, this process also radicalized many Iraqi Shia, mobilizing them in self-defense and even launching some of them into Syria to support Assad. Now Shias from Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere are cooperating on the battlefield. From 2003 until the present day, Shia civilians have been targeted in Iraq nearly every day, not to mention in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
Despite this virtual war on Shias supported and condoned by major Sunni religious leaders, Shias have remained much more restrained than their Sunni counterparts. What is keeping Lebanese, Iraqi, and Syrian Shias from committing massacres and displacing all Sunnis in their path? By and large, it is a more responsible religious leadership guiding them from Qom or Najaf, organizing Shias and offering structure and discipline. According to interviews I have conducted in the region, Hizballah leaders privately complain to Iraqi Shia leaders about their behavior, condemning them for alienating and failing to absorb Sunnis. They scold these leaders for their violations, reminding them that when Hizballah expelled the Israeli occupation, it did not blow up the houses of the many Christian and Shia collaborators or violently punish them.
When we say Sunni, what do we mean? There are many kinds in too many countries: Sunni Kurds, Uighurs, Senegalese, tribal Arabs, urbanites in Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Bedouins, and villagers. You cannot make Sunnism into a politically coherent notion unless you are willing to concede to the narrative of al-Qaeda, ISIL, or the Muslim Brotherhood. The latter has historically avoided the explicit, toxic sectarianism of the jihadi groups, but it is also a broken and spent force as its projects in the Arab world having largely failed.
Before the rise of the modern Arab nation-state, cities possessed a state-sponsored moderate Islam that was involved in the law. Urban Sunnis were largely part of the moderate Hanafi school of Sunni jurisprudence. This school, one of four mainstream Sunni schools, is the most tolerant and flexible. The countryside historically practiced folk Islam or considered itself Shia, Sufi, or Alawi. Hanafization took place because it was the religion of elites, the religion of empire, the religion of Ottomans. Today, there is no state Hanafi Islam and other moderate institutions. traditional Sunni Islam of the state has crumbled.
It is therefore impossible to find a genuine center of Sunni power. It is not yet Saudi Arabia, but unless the West changes the way it sees the Middle East, that will become a self-fulfilling prophecy with cataclysmic results.
Saudi Arabia is the dominant state supporting Sunni Islam today via mosques, foundations, and Islamic education. As a result, Salafism — a movement that holds Islam should be practiced as it was by the Prophet Mohammad and his companions — is the new religion of empire and its rejectionist tendencies are a danger to all countries with a Sunni population, from Mali to Indonesia. One reason why Syrian Sunnis became so radicalized is that many of them spent years working in the Gulf, returning with different customs and beliefs. When a Gulf state supports the opening of a mosque or Islamic center in France or Tanzania, it sends its Salafi missionaries and their literature along with it. Competing traditions, such as Sufism, are politically weak by comparison. Muslim communities from Africa to Europe to Asia that lived alongside for centuries alongside Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus are now threatened as Sufis and syncretic forms of Islam are pushed out by the Salafi trend.
I have come to understand that in its subconscious, the institutional culture of the Syrian regime views this transnational Sunni identity as a threat and it is one reason why Alawites are overrepresented in the Syrian security forces. This is partly for socioeconomic reasons, but it is also seen by the regime as key to preserving the secular and independent nature of the state. Their rationale is that Alawites as a sect have no relations or connections or loyalties outside of Syria. As a result, they cannot betray the country by allying with the Saudis, Qataris, or the Muslim Brotherhood, nor can they suddenly decide to undo the safeguards of secularism or pluralism inherent in the system.
The vision propagated by the Islamic State is consistent with the Salafi interpretation of Islamic law, which is why Egypt’s al-Azhar or other institutions of “moderate Islam” cannot be counted upon to stem the tide of Salafism. Al-Azhar, traditionally the preeminent center of Sunni Islamic learning, failed to reject ISIL as un-Islamic. Leading Sunni theologians in the Arab world have condemned ISIL on the grounds that the group is excessive, applying the rules wrong, or pretending to have an authority it does not legally possess, but they do not cast the movement as un-Islamic and contrary to Sharia. Only technical differences separate the ideology of Jabhat al-Nusra from that of ISIL or Ahrar al-Sham or even Saudi Arabia. The leadership of al-Nusra also holds takfiri views, and their separation from al-Qaeda did not involve a renunciation of any aspect of its toxic ideology. Ahrar al-Sham likewise appeals to the same tendencies.
Curiously, U.S. political leaders seem more dedicated than anyone in the world to explaining that ISIL is not true to the tenets of Sunni Islam. The problem is that Muslims do not look to non-Muslim Western political leaders as authoritative sources on Islam.
The irony, of course, is that the main victims of Salafization are Sunnis themselves. Sunni elites are being killed, and the potential to create Sunni civil society or a liberal political class is being made impossible. ISIL seized majority-Sunni areas. Main Sunni cities in Iraq and Syria are in ruins and their populations scattered, and, obviously, the Syrian Arab Army’s brutal campaign has also contributed to this. Millions of Sunnis from Syria and Iraq are displaced, which will likely lead to a generation of aggrieved Sunni children who will receive education that is extreme, sectarian, and revolutionary or militant in its outlook — if they get any education at all. Already, many live in exile communities that resemble the Palestinian refugee camps, where a separate “revolutionary” identity is preserved.
The Sunni public has been left with no framework. Sunnis represent the majority of the Middle East population, and yet having in the past embraced the state and been the state, they now have nothing to cohere around to form any robust and coherent movement or intellectual discourse. A movement built around the idea of Sunnism, such as the foreign-backed Syrian opposition and some Iraqi Sunni leaders, will create an inherently radical region that will eventually be taken over by the real representatives of such a notion — al-Qaeda, ISIL, or Saudi Arabia.
State Collapse and Militias Fighting for Assad
Five years of bleeding has weakened the Syrian army and forced it to rely upon an assortment of paramilitary allies, nowhere more so than in Aleppo. On July 28, the Russians and Syrians offered insurgents in east Aleppo amnesty if they left, and they invited all civilians to come to the government-held west Aleppo. This offer was explicitly modeled on the 2004 evacuation of Falluja’s residents, which came at a high price, in order to retake the city from al Qaeda in Iraq. In response, Sunni extremists called for an “epic” battle in Aleppo. The jihadist offensive was named after Ibrahim al Yusuf, a jihadist who killed dozens of Alawite officer candidates at the Aleppo military academy in 1979 while sparing Sunni cadets. It is led by Abdullah Muheisni, a shrill Saudi cleric who called upon all Sunnis to join the battle and who marched into the city triumphantly. Up to two million people in west Aleppo are threatened by the jihadist advance, protected by an army hollowed out after five years of attrition.
This has forced the Syrian regime to rely on Shia reinforcements from Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iran. There is a big difference between these Shia reinforcements and their jihadist opponents. The Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and others have come to Syria to help the Syrian army prevent further state collapse. They would not be there had a foreign-backed insurgency not weakened the army. The foreign Shia militias do not interact with Syrian civilians and are only on the frontlines. They are not attempting to impose control. Even the worst of the Iraqi Shia militias avoid overt sectarianism and work hard to stress that the enemy is not all Sunnis but rather those who advocate for a violent Wahhabi ideology. Moreover, I learned in interviews that the regime has arrested and even executed unruly Shia militiamen.
Meanwhile, Muheisni and his hordes represent an explicitly totalitarian and genocidal ideology that endangers all people of the region who are not Salafi men. The Shia PMF units in Aleppo such as Kataeb Hizballah and Nujaba have plenty of Sunnis in Baghdad that they could massacre if they had an anti-Sunni agenda, and yet they leave them alone just as they do the Sunni civilians of government-held portions of Aleppo.
Finally, Iran and its non-Syrian Shia partners cannot establish roots in Syria or change its society as easily as some seem to think. As much as the Alawite sect is called Shia, this is not entirely accurate and they do not think of themselves as Shia. They are a heterodox and socially liberal sect that bears little resemblance in terms of religious practice or culture to the “Twelver Shias,” such as those of Iran, Iraq, or Lebanon. There is only a very tiny Twelver Shia population in Syria.
Many of the soldiers fighting in the Syrian army to protect Aleppo are Sunnis from that city, and most of the militiamen fighting alongside the army in various paramilitary units are Sunni, such as the mixed Syrian and Palestinian Liwa Quds and the local Sunni clan-based units. In Aleppo, it is very much Sunni versus Sunni. The difference is that the Sunnis on the government side are not fighting for Sunnism. Their Sunni identity is incidental. By contrast, the insurgents are fighting for a Sunni cause and embrace that as their primary identity, precluding coexistence. This does not, of course, mean the government should drop barrel bombs on their children, however.
The presence of Iraqi Shia militiamen is no doubt provocative and helps confirm the worst fears of some Sunnis, but the fact that these foreign Shia are supporting their Syrian allies does not negate the fact that there are many more thousands of Sunnis on the side of the government. Those foreign Shia militias believe, according to my interviews, that if they do not stop the genocidal takfiri threat in Syria, then Iraq and Lebanon will be threatened. Alawites and other minorities believe this too of course. But in Syria there is still a state and it is doing most of the killing, though not for sectarian reasons but for the normal reasons states use brutality against perceived threats to their hegemony. There have been exceptions such as the 2012 Hula or 2013 Baniyas massacres in which ill-disciplined local Alawite militiamen exacted revenge on Sunni communities housing insurgents, targeting civilians as well.
What is Washington to Do?
U.S. policy in the Middle East, especially in conflict zones and conflict-affected states, should be focused on (1) doing no harm and (2) making every effort to stop Saudi Arabia from becoming the accepted center of the Sunni Arab world or the Sunni world writ large, while (3) building and reinforcing non-sectarian national institutions and national forces.
America’s Troublesome Saudi Partners
As regards Saudi Arabia, many American thought leaders and policymakers have long understood the fundamental problems presented by this longstanding U.S. partner but the policy never changes. Indeed, U.S. policy has in many ways accepted and even reinforced the longstanding Saudi aim to define Sunni identity in the Arab world and beyond. It is dangerous to accept the Saudi narrative that they are the natural leaders of the Sunni world given the dangerous culture they propagate. Promoting a sectarian fundamentalist state as the leader of Arab Sunnis is hardly a cure for ISIL, which only takes those ideas a bit further to their logical conclusions.
Washington may not have the stomach to take a public position against the form of Islam aggressively propagated by its Saudi “partners,” but there must be an understanding that Wahhabism is a dangerous ideology and that its associated clerical institutions represent a threat to stability in Islamic countries around the world. The United States could seek to sanction media outlets, including satellite channels and websites, that promote this form of Islam. Think this is unprecedented? Washington has targeted Lebanese Hizballah’s al-Manar station with some success.
Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis are not holding their breath waiting to hear what Gulf monarchs will say. They wait only to see how much money might be in the envelopes they receive for collaboration. For leadership, Iraqi and especially Syrian Sunnis should be encouraged to look closer to home — to their own local communities and the state. The state should be strengthened as a non-sectarian body.
The Need for Non-Sectarian Institutions in the Middle East
In Washington’s policy circles, we often hear calls for Sunni armies and militias to “solve” Iraq and Syria. Yet Sunni armies already exist in these countries in the form of ISIL, al-Qaeda, and Ahrar al-Sham. The answer is not more Sunni armed groups.
If the goal is to excise jihadism, do not try to coexist with Sunni rejectionists advancing Saudi notions of Sunni identity. If Assad were fed to the jihadists as a sacrifice, then the next Alawite, Christian, Shia, secular, or “apostate” leader would become the new rallying cry for jihadists. Their goal is not merely the removal of one leader, but the extermination of all secularists, Shias, Alawites, Christians, and Jews, and others who are different — including fellow Sunnis. The Syrian government is often criticized for making little distinction between ISIL, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and the “moderates” who cooperate with them, but this misconceives how the Syrian state forces see the conflict. To them, any insurgent force with Islamist slogans is a slippery slope leading to the same result. Critics may complain that at various points in the war Syrian state forces spent more resources fighting the American-backed insurgents than ISIL, but this is because ISIL emerged largely in areas where the Syrian government had already been driven out. Meanwhile, the so-called moderates were the main day-to-day threat to government-held population centers such as Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Damascus, and Daraa.
It is irrational for the West to expect the Syrian government to focus on the enemies the West wants to see defeated while Western powers, along with Gulf countries and Turkey, are supporting insurgents that attack government forces which secure cities. The Syrian security forces have a finite amount of men, ammunition, fuel, and other resources, and they need to protect a great deal of military infrastructure, terrain, population centers, and supply lines. This naturally forces the regime to make choices. When foreign-backed insurgents attack state-held areas, the state’s security forces are less able to conduct operations elsewhere. For example, when American-backed insurgentscooperated with al-Qaeda and foreign fighters to seize cities in Idlib province last year, the Syrian Arab Army sent reinforcements from the east to Idlib. This left Palmyra wide open for ISIL to attack, which they did, seizing the ancient city. In February of this year, with the Cessation of Hostilities in place, the Syrian state was able to focus more resources on ISIL and retake Palmyra with Russian backing. ISIL and al-Qaeda thrive in stateless zones throughout the Muslim world. Supporting insurgents to create more such zones will only give such groups more space to occupy.
Every proposal to further weaken regime security forces leads to a greater role for Shia militias and the ill-disciplined militias the regime relies upon for support. Escalation by supporting proxies does not pressure the regime to negotiate. It only pressures the regime to use even more repressive and abhorrent tactics. The only compromises it makes are about which actors it will rely upon to defeat its enemies. As law and order breaks down, even Alawite militias have lost respect for the security forces. What is left of the Syrian state is failing, and the West bears some responsibility for that.
As jarring as this may sound to many Western readers, the Syrian government offered a model of secular coexistence based on the idea of a nation-state rather than a sect. This is a model wherein Sunnis, Alawis, Christians, Druze, Kurds, Shias, and atheists are all citizens in a deeply flawed, corrupt, and — yes — repressive system in need of improvement but not in need of destruction. The Syrian state has clearly become progressively more brutal as the civil war has dragged on. Still, the regime is not sectarian in the way most in the West seem to think. It is also not purely secular in that it encourages religion (a bit too much) and allows religion to influence the personal status laws of its various sects.
The regime has always felt insecure vis-à-vis its conservative Sunni population, and it has gone out of its way to placate this group over the years by building mosques and Quranic memorization institutes across the country. But denying that the regime is sectarian is not a defense of the regime’s moral choices. Rather, it just shows that it commits mass murder and torture for other reasons, such as the protection and holding together of what is left of the state. This is not an apology for the massive and well-documented human rights violations committed by the Syrian government throughout the course of this war. But until 2011, it offered a society where different religious groups and ethnicities lived together, not in perfect harmony, but at peace. If you do not believe me, look at the millions who have fled from insurgent-held areas to government-held areas and have been received and treated just like any other citizens.
This is far preferable to the sectarian model advanced by much of the Syrian armed opposition, which seeks to create something that will lead ultimately to, at worst, a jihadist caliphate and, at best, a toxic and repressive state in the mold of Saudi Arabia. As I noted in my previous article, the Syrian government has unleashed desperate levels of brutality, using collective punishment, indiscriminate attacks on insurgent-held areas, and harsh siege tactics. Many thousands have died in the regime’s prisons, including the innocent. Likewise, the insurgency has slaughtered many thousands of innocents and participated in the destruction of Syria. This legacy of crimes committed by all will hopefully be dealt with, but all responsible parties should view ending this conflict as the first priority.
In Iraq, there exists a state that should be supported over the claims of Sunni rejectionists who still think they can reestablish Sunni dominance in Iraq. The West should have learned from Iraq, Libya, Egypt, and now Yemen how disastrous regime change is. Better instead to promote a gradual evolution into something better by abandoning the disastrous (and failed) regime change policy and supporting decentralization, as called for by Phil Gordon.
What Drives Disorder?
It is wrong to listen to those who say that insurgents will not stop fighting as long as Assad is in power. Many have stopped already, many cooperate tacitly or overtly, and there are many discussions about ceasefires taking place inside and outside Syria.
It is often claimed that Assad “is a greater magnet for global jihad than U.S. forces were in Iraq at the height of the insurgency.” Assad inherited the same enemy the United States faced in Iraq. The primary recruiter for extremists is the war, the power vacuum created by war, the chaos and despair resulting from it, and the opportunity jihadists see to kill Shias, Alawites, secular apostate Sunnis, Christians, and Western armies gathering for what they view as thefinal battle before judgment day. Assad is barely mentioned in ISIL propaganda. He is too small for them. They want something much larger, as do the other Salafi jihadi groups operating in the region. It is naive to think that if Assad is simply replaced with somebody else the West finds suitable that the jihadis will be satisfied. Moreover, Assad (just like Maliki) is not in Yemen, Libya, the Sinai, or Afghanistan, and, yet, the Islamic State is growing in all those places.
Many Sunni majority countries in the Middle East and elsewhere are also skeptical of regime change in Syria. Even Turkey, which has allowed jihadists to freely use its territory for much of the war, is slowly changing its policy on regime change in Syria. So those who worry about alienating the so-called Sunni world are really only talking about alienating the Saudis — they just won’t admit it. Saudi Arabia is a more mature version of ISIL, so why should they be placated to defeat anyone?
Regime change or further weakening the Syrian army creates more space for ISIL and similar groups. It grants a victory to the Sunni sectarian forces in the region and leads to state collapse in the remaining stable areas of Syria where most people live.
By pitting moderate Sunnis against extremist Sunnis, the United States merely encourages the sectarian approach. The answer to sectarianism is non-sectarianism, not better sectarianism. If you are looking for a Sunni narrative, you are always playing into the hands of the Sunni hardliners. This does not mean the answer is the Syrian regime in its past or current forms. Opposing sectarian movements does not necessarily mean supporting authoritarian secular states. But functioning states, even imperfect and repressive ones, are preferable to collapsed states or jihadist proto-states.
Westerners are outsiders to this civil war, even if they helped sustain it. For the West, this is not an existential threat, but it is for many of those who live in the Middle East. Those in the region who are threatened by ISIL feel as though beyond the walls of their safe havens there is a horde of zombies waiting to eat their women and children. They might feel that if there is not a cost, in a social sense, paid by those communities who embraced ISIL, then those communities will not have been defeated or learned their lesson. Then, they worry another generation of Sunni extremists will just wait for another chance to take the knives out again. There is an anthropological logic to violence. This is a civil war, inherently between and within communities. It is not merely two armies confronting each other on a battlefield and adhering to the Laws of War. In the eyes of the Syrian and Iraqi states, it is a war on those who welcomed al-Qaeda and then ISIL into their midst.
There is no mechanical link between showing benevolence to formerly pro-ISIL communities and to their not radicalizing in the future. Islamic culture today is globalized, courtesy Saudi funding and modern communications. Many Iraqi Sunnis previously embraced al-Qaeda, only to then embrace the even more virulent ISIL. Future generations should remember that this choice garnered consequences for atrocities, such as the Bunafer tribesmen engaging in the Speicher massacre of Shia soldiers in Iraq. There is a symbolism in a Shia PMF fighter marching into Tikrit, making it clear to Sunni chauvinists that they cannot be the masters over Shia serfs. Yet too severe a punishment, or an unjust one, can indeed leave people with nothing to resort to but violence.
There is little good Washington can do, but it can still inflict a great deal of harm, even if it is motivated by the best of intentions. In The Great Partition, the British historian Yasmin Khan asserted that the partition of India and Pakistan, which killed over one million and displaced many millions, “stands testament to the follies of empire, which ruptures community evolution, distorts historical trajectories and forces violent state formation from societies that would otherwise have taken different—and unknowable—paths.” The same lessons can be learned in Iraq, Libya, and the clumsy international intervention in Syria. It is time that the West started to mind its own business rather than address the failure of the last intervention with the same tools that caused the disaster in the first place. At most, the West can try to help manage or channel the evolution of the region or contain some of its worst side effects.
The order in modern Europe is a result of bloody processes that saw winners and losers emerging and the losers accepting the new order. ISIL’s arrival has expedited this historic process in the Middle East. It has helped organize and mobilize Iraq Shias and connect them to the rest of the world, while the disastrous decision of many Sunnis to embrace movements such as ISIL has caused many of their communities to suffer irreparable damage and dislocation.
Perhaps the Middle East is going through a similar process that will lead to a new more stable order after these terrible wars are over. This period of great flux offers creative opportunities. While some analysts have called for breaking up Syria and Iraq into smaller ethnic and sectarian entities, this would lead to more displacement and fighting, as it did in the Balkans over the course of over a century. Instead of promoting the worst fissiparous tendencies in the region, the solution might be creating greater unity
The American asteroid that hit the Middle East in 2003 shattered the old order. Those tectonic plates are still shifting. The result will not be an end to the old borders, as many have predicted or even suggested as policy. It will also not be the total collapse of states. The evolving new order will retain the formal borders, but central states will not have full control or sovereignty over all their territory. They will rely on loose and shifting alliances with local power brokers, and they will govern in a less centralized way. Accepting this and supporting looser federal arrangements may be the best path forward to reduce fears, heal wounds, and bring about stability.
Cyrus Mahboubian is a pen name for a security consultant to the humanitarian community in the Levant and Iraq.