Between Baghdad and Damascus, what's the future for Sunnis?

Between Baghdad and Damascus, what's the future for Sunnis?
6 min read
11 May, 2017
Comment: Military victory over the Islamic State group must be accompanied by a political solution that serves the needs of both Sunni and Shia communities, writes Paul Iddon.
Iraq's Counter Terrorism Service attempt to retake a region west of Mosul from IS [Getty]
​With the Islamic State group besieged in its key urban centres - Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria - the dreaded caliphate's destruction is clearly on the horizon.

In Syria, following the regime's brutal defeat of the opposition in Aleppo in December, Assad's forces are advancing with Iranian militia and Russian air support across the central region. One of their likely aims is to link up with the eastern city of Deir az-Zour, the only other major Syrian city in which IS retains a large presence, aside from Raqqa - and where an isolated garrison of Syrian soldiers have fought off an IS siege.

Baghdad has been coordinating more closely with Damascus in recent months. And even after Raqqa falls, Baghdad will still have security concerns, so long as IS retains a sizeable foothold in the Deir az-Zour province, which shares a lengthy and porous frontier with Iraq's Sunni-majority Anbar province.

Iraq already launched its first cross-border airstrikes into Deir az-Zour province late in February, in coordination with Damascus. Baghdad will likely support a Damascus regime offensive into Deir az-Zour, perhaps even militarily. 

Syria is a majority Sunni Arab country ruled over by a Baathist regime run by an Alawite clique, bolstered by Iran's Shia theocracy and the Shia Hizballah militia, along with other smaller Shia militias supplementing the Syrian Army, whose sapped manpower is a mere shadow of its once pre-war 300,000-strong self.

Syria is a majority Sunni Arab country ruled over by a Baathist regime run by an Alawite clique

Iraq, a Shia Arab-majority country, has a largely Shia government. Its army consists primarily of Shia soldiers, as it always has, and the Iraqi state has received similar support from tens of thousands of primarily Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces paramilitaries in the fight against IS.

Some of these fighters will want to take the fight against IS across the border into Syria after the group is forced entirely from Iraq.

Since 2015, Iraq has been part of a coalition made up of the Syrian regime, Russia, Iran and Hizballah, also known as the 4+1 - the "plus one" being Hizballah. The group has headquarters in Baghdad and Damascus. While Iraq also relies heavily on American support, the US has tried to avoid becoming the airforce of Iranian-backed militias, although it is open to the idea of supporting the Popular Mobilisation Forces against IS if they are formally partnered with the Iraqi military and under Baghdad's command and control.

Read more: The Iraq Report: Looking to a post-IS future

The one-third of Iraqi regions of which IS took control at the height of its power are predominantly Sunni Arab-populated regions. The US-supported Iraqi offensives to rout the militants have left serious damage to the major Sunni cities of Anbar, Ramadi and Fallujah, and have also done significant damage to Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.

Video: Iraqi Christians return home

Iraqi Sunnis opposed the government of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was much more sectarian than his more moderate, although less powerful, successor, Haider al-Abadi.

Any greater cooperation between Baghdad and Damascus in finishing off IS will see predominantly Shia centres of power governing over a large population of disenfranchised, displaced and now destitute Sunnis. And in Damascus' case this means a client regime which relies on the patronage of the region's main Shia power, and its militia proxies.

Iraqi Shia have sheltered displaced Sunni civilians, and ordinary Sunnis certainly do not identify with IS

This isn't to say the conflicts in either country are fuelled by sectarian tensions.

Iraqi Shia have sheltered displaced Sunni civilians, and ordinary Sunnis certainly do not identify with IS - and leading Iraqi Shia clerics from Muqtada al-Sadr to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani support neither Assad nor Iran's sponsoring of Shia militias. However, the sectarian component of the current Middle East crisis remains a major factor which needs to be evaluated and understood.

The Sunnis have always opposed sectarian Shia forces entering their territories. The former governor of Nineveh, Atheel Nujaifi, who heads the Sunni Nineveh Guard militia trained by Turkey, even went so far as saying that "all Sunnis will join ISIS" if the Popular Mobilsation Forces played a leading role in routing IS from Nineveh.

Instead the Shia militia have played a supporting, although not insignificant, supporting role in the Mosul operation. In post-IS Nineveh, the Sunnis may eventually seek greater autonomy and self-governance from Baghdad, perhaps by adapting a similar model to the neighbouring Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Professor Joshua Landis, a Syria expert from the University of Oklahoma, has argued in recent years that IS has created a state with a relatively homogenous sectarian make-up. This, he argues, makes sense if the region's population considers their denominational backgrounds as their real national identity in a region where national identity has become much less relevant. 

  Read more: The moderation of Muqtada al-Sadr

"You've got a Sunni state, reaching from Baghdad to Aleppo," Landis said of the self-styled Islamic State back in October 2014, suggesting this should be recognised as destroying it "in the name of upholding borders that no longer fulfill the interests of the people" would serve little purpose.

Landis believes one - albeit politically unfeasible - solution, would lie in recognising some kind of Sunni entity in the Sunni-majority regions conquered by IS. "Promise the Sunnis something, independence, and then get a Sahwa to join you against the radicals," he suggested.

Echoes of the imperialist policy during the days of the British Raj are clear.

'The only way you can de-radicalise Sunnis who are caught in this vice grip is to give them something, self-determination, justice, a state' - Joshua Landis

This was, of course, also US policy during the 2003 Iraq War - recruiting Sunni tribesmen in Anbar against IS' predecessor, al-Qaeda. These tribesmen initially acquiesced to the group as counterweight to the US occupation, the Baghdad government and Shia militias.

They later changed course after Al-Qaeda terrorised their communities and the US agreed to recognise their genuine political and security concerns. As a result they succeeded in routing the militants. The Maliki government would later dismantle the Sahwa, which consisted of 100,000 fighters at its peak strength, over fears it could challenge Baghdad.

By the time IS conquered Anbar and Nineveh, the Sahwa was no more.

"The only way you can de-radicalize Sunnis who are caught in this vice grip is to give them something, self-determination, justice, a state," Landis added. "That's what they want, that's what Baghdadi has promised them under these antiquated notions of a caliphate."

While Landis stressed the purely hypothetical grounds of his suggestion, he nevertheless addressed the salient fact that securing some kind of tenable future for the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria after the dismantlement of the caliphate is essential to cementing IS' defeat.

Officials in the region have warned from the get-go that without a political solution to the IS threat, carried out hand in hand with the essential military solution, we will see the emergence of a new, perhaps even worse, group from the ashes of this tyrannical caliphate which could terrorise the region yet again.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.