DENVER – Anyone who doubts that the wars in Iraq and Syria are closely connected need look no further than the role of Al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, whose fighters have been pouring over the Syrian border into Iraq’s Anbar Province. If not handled carefully, developments in Iraq and Syria could transform the map of the Middle East and incite further conflict in the coming years.
What is happening in Anbar is nothing less than a fight for the existence of Iraq in its current borders. As much as Iraq’s Sunnis fear for their future, the Shia majority, now overseeing the untested proposition of a Shia-led Arab state, also have reasons to be fearful.
Even paranoids have enemies. While Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should devote more effort to negotiating and compromising with the Sunni community than he has to cracking down on its leaders and activists, he nonetheless has before him the daunting task of consolidating a Shia-led Iraqi state with no natural allies in the rest of the Arab world. And the Sunni community, now buffeted by Al Qaeda on one side and the Shia state on the other, has never had much interest in helping Maliki stabilize Iraq’s new political order.
Al Qaeda’s strategy in Iraq is to deal harshly with those they consider to be Sunni collaborators with the Shia-led central government in Baghdad, and then to deal with the government itself. It is a brutal strategy, but it seems to be effective.
Already, police and military checkpoints are beginning to look like border crossings, essentially cutting off Sunni-dominated Anbar from the rest of Iraq. And while those internal checkpoints are being reinforced, the actual border with Sunni-dominated parts of Syria is becoming more porous by the day.
Surely, Iraqi voters could find a better leader than Maliki to steer the country through these troubled times; with a general election set for April 30, maybe they will. But it is not at all clear that Iraq’s Sunnis are ready to accept any Shia leadership. They may detest Maliki, but their community has never signaled its willingness to support another Shia leader who credibly represents Shia political power.
To the uninitiated, the effort in 2010 to unite Sunnis behind the Iraq National Movement (Iraqiya) coalition, with a “secular Shia” as its leader, seemed like a promising step toward post-sectarian politics. But few Iraqis were fooled. Iraqiya’s Shia leader never once campaigned in southern Iraq, where most Shia live. Apart from a small number of highly educated, secular Shia from Baghdad, Iraqiya never attracted substantial Shia support.
On the contrary, many Shia perceived Iraqiya as a thinly disguised effort to roll back Shia gains and restore Sunni rule. The Sunnis, after all, are no more secular than the Shia; they simply have an interest in reducing the importance of a sectarian identity that dooms them to minority status.
Syria’s bloody conflict is often described as an Iranian war, an effort to keep Syria’s Sunni majority in check and build power and prestige throughout the Levant. Likewise, Iraq’s Sunnis lament Iranian influence over the Iraqi government, which is far greater than at any time in recent centuries.
But Iraq’s Shia are Iraqis and Arabs first, and Shia second. It is no surprise that they want a better relationship with Iran than Saddam Hussein had. In fact, it was entirely predictable. The United States and others may frown upon Iraq’s close ties with Iran, but the time to think about that was before the US-led invasion in 2003.
Given the strength and territorial concentration of Iraq’s Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish communities, any successful Iraqi government must find ways to rule the country through inter-communal consensus. That is Maliki’s task; it will be the task of the next prime minister, too. But, in the current climate, it is difficult to imagine that naming an additional Sunni minister would stop the wave of suicide bombers dispatched by Al Qaeda – a group not known to negotiate power-sharing deals.
Iraq and Syria are unlikely to solve their problems on their own. The departure of the US military from Iraq, particularly those forces that helped to pacify Anbar against heavy odds, is permanent. But the US needs to be heavily engaged politically in support of the central government, and confine its criticism of Maliki to private channels. It is a positive sign that Vice President Joe Biden continues to reach out to Maliki.
Nonetheless, Iraq and Syria need far more external help than they are receiving. Egyptian diplomats often played the most significant role in the region, but now Egypt is preoccupied with its domestic travails and will remain so for years to come. Turkey has tried to play an active role, but its efforts have not always been well received among Arabs. Meanwhile, the Saudis do not appear to want to mediate between Shia and Sunnis, or even between rival Sunnis.
The Geneva process on Syria is the right approach. The US, in particular, should bear in mind that success on some power-sharing arrangement in Syria may be the best way to create room for Iraq’s central government to make overdue gestures to the Sunnis. Progress toward a stable political order in either country is likely to lead to similar progress in the other.