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In Defence of Sunnistan: Part 3

This third blog on the situation in the Middle East discusses the proposition to create a Sunni state in parts of Syria and Iraq.

On 25 November 2015, John Bolton, US representative to the UN from 2005–2006, neo-con par excellence, published a piece in the New York Times that advocated the creation of a Sunni state in those areas presently occupied by the Islamic State.

There is very little that Mr. Bolton and I share politically but on the issue of the future of this region, we have some common ground. I share his concern that Iraq and Syria are Humpty-Dumpty states that may not be possible to put back together again. The former ambassador argues for the creation of a Sunnistan once IS has been defeated. My approach would be to consider its creation as part of the process of defeating IS.

I am generally not in favour of separating communities and splitting states. The world now counts over 200 statal actors, roughly six times more than at the beginning of World War I. This has allowed many communities, previously cosseted in structures that they had not become part of by choice, to establish their own jurisdictions – and bravo for that that. But we may be close to a point where the benefits to be gained by creating new states designed to resolve identity conflicts are becoming counterproductive. Working with 200– odd states in the international community is difficult enough. Pretty well all of them have significant minorities in their midst. It probably makes more sense to think more creatively about how to deal more effectively with the relationships among states rather than creating new ones.

That said, there come times when it becomes necessary to accept that a state has outlived its usefulness and needs to make way for a new statal structure. For example, while the disappearance of Yugoslavia was a tragic event in a great many respects, there was an objective need, for example, to end Serbia’s control over Kosovo. The Belgrade of the erstwhile Serbian leader Milosevic wanted to maintain its domination over the territory of Kosovo, lands that had been in Serb hands for centuries, but it did not want to accept the Albanian population residing there as people deserving equal treatment with their Serb co-citizens.

The situation in Iraq and Syria is not dissimilar. Syria’s President Assad has relinquished any right to continue to preside over his country. He has lost the allegiance of most of its many ethnic and religious entities. He has made it crystal clear through four years of civil war and over a quarter of a million deaths that his prime objective is to maintain the grip of the Alawite community on the Syrian system of governance. This is what unleashed the peaceful protests in the first place, to which he responded with unbridled force. So, he expects that a minority of some 15 percent of the population can continue to prevail over the vast majority of the rest? There are, of course, minority national and religious communities in Syria that have traditionally enjoyed the protection of the Alawi-dominated government but the overall arithmetic behind the Assad approach is obscene.

The situation in Iraq needs nuance. After decades of dominance of the Sunni minority over the country’s Kurds and Shiites, the former enjoy a more or less functioning administration of their own while the latter preside over the central government of Iraq. Shiite-dominated Bagdad is politically schizophrenic, on the one hand sucking up to Tehran, using the Shiite militias it sponsors to bolster its dominance, on the other, recently bending to US pressure to accept policies that have the potential of giving Sunnis a renewed stake in the country.

The situation in the currently-embattled Ramadi is instructive. This is the main city of Iraq’s Anbar province. Fewer than a hundred kilometres from Baghdad, Ramadi is 90 percent Sunni, the historical heartland of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and hence that part of Iraq most viscerally opposed to the American intervention. The Iraqi army, in a joint effort with local Sunni tribesmen and US aerial firepower, seems now to have succeeded in dislodging IS from the city. But note that in this battle Baghdad agreed not to employ Shiite militias supported by Iran in the campaign, in response to Washington’s concern that their presence would scuttlebutt the effort to roll back the IS.

Assuming that the battle for Ramadi has been won, the decisive question now is whether Baghdad will allow the local Sunni actors that have opposed IS to assume responsibility for the city’s administration. Whether it does or not will send signals across that large part of Sunni Iraq presently under IS occupation.

The bottom line is that Iraq, if it is to survive, needs to move towards a federalist arrangement among its Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. I fear, however, that the victory in Ramadi is too little, too late. For Iraq, the train may have already left the station.

So, my take is that in certain respects John Bolton is spot on. Syria and Iraq may very well be done states. Have a look at the current situation in Afghanistan and see how the Taliban has made major inroads as the NATO coalition reduced its responsibilities and cut back on its fighting forces. After almost fifteen years of engagement in this beleaguered country, the Western project has been declared bankrupt by events on the ground. The budget for this has been over seven hundred billion USD for the United States alone. To expect one can do better with many fewer resources in Syria and Iraq does not convince.

The West has to do a serious rethink of its role in Syria and Iraq. One needs to find convincing arguments for keeping intact structures whose borders were drawn about a hundred years ago on the back of an envelope by the British and French diplomats, Sykes and Picot. This did not necessarily condemn these states from the outset but their failure to develop adequate power-sharing arrangements for their constituent parts in the interim and the colossal violence this has now engendered may well spell their downfall.

A further consideration is that if the West were to come out in favour of the creation of a Sunnistan, it might just put a fox among the pigeons. The fox would be the idea of an alternative to the IS-championed notion of an international caliphate that would solidify Sunni supremacy not only over other Muslims but over also those of other faiths. The pigeons would be the different groupings that populate the areas currently under IS control. These are essentially three: former Baathists, Sunni tribal groups and the tens of thousands of diaspora jihadists that have joined the ranks of the would-be world caliphate. While some of the Baathists and tribalists may have now accepted the IS discourse, I expect that a broad majority of them just want to step out from under the Alawite domination perpetuated by Damascus or the Shiite one championed by Iraq. They do not need an international caliphate to do so.

Assuming this analysis is correct, where do we go from here? If Damascus and Bagdad fail to adopt formulae giving their main minority communities an effective share of power, the West should profess support for a reordering of statal realities in the region. It should commit itself to helping the new states that would likely emerge – Sunnistan, one or more Kurdish states, an Alawi-dominated entity on the future former Syrian soil – to assume their sovereignty with as much grace and justice as can be assumed under the conditions prevailing in this part of the world, supporting consensual formation of borders, protection for minorities, universal suffrage, and all those other good things that the West has been historically identified with. This would not be a simple or short or easy struggle. But it could be the least painful one.

David Law, a former Head of the NATO Policy Planning Unit, is currently a Senior Associate with the Kitchener-based Security Governance Group, and a Senior Fellow with its sister organization, the Centre for Security Governance. (Image courtesy of Daily Mail.)

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