The year 2003 radically changed the geopolitical situation not only in Iraq, but in the Middle East in general. To counter the Bush administration’s vision of a democratic Iraq, the Iranian and Syrian regimes responded by encouraging radical Islamic movements to thwart what they saw as an existential threat. Any democracy in Iraq threatened to destabilize the autocratic regimes in Tehran and Damascus, which also saw American military support of democratic reform as an immediate danger to their survival.
Alas, the Americans in Iraq made mistakes, which played into Iranian and Syrian hands. By disbanding the Iraqi army, the only truly national institution, Washington opened Iraq’s borders to Iranian and Syrian infiltration and subversion. By eliminating the Baath Party, with no effort to differentiate between capable public servants and thoroughly discredited ideologues, the Americans destroyed key Iraqi institutions, many which were essential to good governance.
Finally, the United States relied too heavily on existing Shia parties, which had been created in Iran and were dedicated to the elimination of Sunni influence in government and security affairs. In 2011, when Washington finally pulled out of Iraq, the resulting power vacuum presented Iran with an opportunity to create a Persian mini-empire extending through Iraq to Lebanon.
The Iraqi Sunnis were seen by Iran as the primary obstacle to its ambitious geopolitical scheme. Thus began the systematic program of repression of the Sunni population. Hundreds of thousands of Sunnis in jail (most without trial). Others were systematically removed from positions of influence. Iranian-inspired ethnic cleansing of Sunnis became the bloody norm. This situation created a power vacuum among demoralized Sunnis and gave the Islamic State, also called ISIS, the opportunity to spread its malign influence in Iraq and Syria.
Today, there is much criticism of the Obama administration’s Iraq policy since the fall of Ramadi to ISIS last month. While valid, these commentaries fail to grasp the long-term dynamics in Iraq. Complaints about the failure of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to provide promised arms to Sunni tribal forces, because Mr. Abadi’s Iranian masters refuse to arm Iraqi Sunnis, are not today’s news. Some may say Mr. Abadi is a friend of Washington, an independent actor. Nonsense. He is simply former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with a warmer personality. Iran still calls the shots.
What can be done? The Iraqi Sunnis can never be reconciled with a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad as long as the Iranians rule the roost. How long can Washington justify the savage treatment of the Iraqi Sunni population by Shia militias as “payback” for the ruthlessness of Saddam Hussein? Do two wrongs make a right?
What, then, will keep the Sunnis within a unified Iraq? Increasingly, the Iraqi Sunnis are demanding their rights. They want a Sunni Regional Government, similar to the Kurdish Regional Government, with a Sunni militia, like the Peshmerga, to protect the population. Why should Washington support such a solution? Because Washington created the problem in the first place, by dissolving the Iraqi military as well as allowing indiscriminate de-Baathification. Even so, there are many Sunni former military officers, with impressive skills, who want to lead a Sunni assault on ISIS. They are far better qualified than the disorganized, ill-trained, self-serving tribal militias.
Iraqi Sunnis strongly believe that ISIS is a Sunni problem that must be solved by Sunnis, not pro-Iranian Shia militias. Much of the ISIS military prowess is due not to the jihadi zealots, but to a few former Iraqi Sunni military officers alienated by misguided American actions and unrelenting hostility from Iranian-controlled factions in Baghdad. If they understand that a counter-offensive is led by former Sunni colleagues, they will defect and ISIS will be finished in Iraq. This will have serious repercussions in Syria.
The Iranians and their Iraqi allies will certainly howl if Sunni former Iraqi military personnel are allowed to expel ISIS from Mosul, but the alternatives would be far worse. The Kurds, already fighting ISIS around Kirkuk, have no desire to fight Sunnis door-to-door in Mosul. If Shia militias become involved in Mosul, there will be hundreds of thousands of refugees into the Kurdish Regional Government-controlled areas. If the Shia militias enter Mosul, it will be the best recruiting tool possible for ISIS. They can claim to be the only defenders of Sunnis in Iraq.
To many, this scenario will seem radical. It is not. If President Obama wants to preserve the unity of Iraq, to avoid renewed confessional conflict, and to create a military force capable of defeating ISIS, it is the only sensible solution. Sunni former military personnel would not enter the Iraqi military. They would form the core of the Sunni militia and would provide internal security in the Sunni region. Iran does not have to fear a renewed military threat from Iraq. It is not in the cards. But can Iran accept anything less than total control in Iraq? That is the issue that should be debated in Washington.
Mudhar Shawkat, a former member of the Iraqi Parliament, established in 2014 the National Salvation Front, a Sunni political party dedicated to the defeat of ISIS.