16.6.2014 – A Washington policy analyst asked me what chances I gave to the possibility that Prime Minister Maliki will try to divide Sunnis and isolate ISIS by teaming up with moderate Sunnis. He raised the possibility of Maliki creating a government of national unity with greater power sharing. My answer:
1. I doubt ISIS will get a foothold in Baghdad. Already, Shiite mobilization in the face of the ISIS advances are fierce and panicky. I think Shiite religious mobilization now taking place in Iraq will mean very bad things for Sunnis in general. ISIS has picked a fight it can’t win and unleashed the inner Shi’a in their adversary. And it’s not as though Maliki, like Assad, lacks powerful friends with a serious stake in the outcome of the battle.
Rather than Maliki teaming up with “moderate” Sunnis, such as the US did in arming the tribes and cultivating the Sahwa, Iraq’s Prime Minister is likely to respond by using religion as his prime mobilizer. Of course, he will not abandon “Iraq” or nationalism, just as Assad has not. But just as Sistani has used the sanctity of Shiite shrines as his primary “national” motivator, Maliki is likely to follow suit. He will largely define the nation in sectarian terms. That is what ISIS has done, as well. Sunnis have scared the pants off of Shiites. The photos of mass shootings of Shiite young men dooms a non-sectarian response, I would imagine. What is more, the gathering storm of sectarian mobilization has already reached furious levels in the entire region. The demonization of Shiites as “rejectors” and “Majous” or pagans who are considered both non-Muslim and non-Arab, has spread to such an extent that it has taken on a life of its own. The counter demonization of Sunnis, within the Shiite world, as terrorists, takfiris, and Wahhabi inspired agents is well entrenched.
2. I would not be shocked to see significant ethnic cleansing of Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad should ISIS attack and give the Iraqi Army a run for its money. After all, the Iraqi army is large, has helicopters, sophisticated intelligence capabilities, tanks, artillery and all the rest. They were caught napping and without esprit de corps, much as the Syrian army was. But capable officers will emerge who will strip down the “power-sharing” fat that the US built and rebuild it based on loyalty to Maliki and Shiism, if most of that has not been done already. This is what happened in Syria, when we saw the Syrian Army unravel at the base during the first year of the Sunni uprising. The Syrian military was quickly rebuilt along sectarian and regional lines to make it much stronger and more loyal, with locally recruited Iranian style National Defense Forces modeled on the Islamic Guard. If Sunnis choose to form such local militias and ally with the Shiite regime, so much the better. If they do not and choose to lay low until they figure out whether ISIS can win in their regions, the Shiites will go it alone and assume all Sunnis are a fifth column. That is how the Turks dealt with the Christians during WWI and the war with the Greeks. The 20% Christians in Anatolia of 1914 were cleansed. Jews in Palestine dealt with Muslims in a manner not altogether dissimilar. It didn’t turn out well for Christians in Anatolia or Muslims in Palestine.
3. We are not witnessing power-sharing or the emergence of nationalism in the region. We are witnessing the breakdown of nationalist ideology along religious lines in Syria, Lebanon, and now – I would argue – Iraq. Palestine is a bit of an exception with the new coalition government, but not much of one.
My advice to Obama would be to lay low. This sectarian process has been boiling up for a more than a century. It should be seen as part of the breakdown of the Ottoman order and emergence of nationalism. I compare what is going on in the Levant today to Central Europe during WWII. In Central Europe, the great powers drew national borders after WWI, carving up the lands of the defeated empires without rearranging the peoples to fit them. Thus Poland was on 64% Polish before WWII and Czechoslovakia was 23% minorities. WWII was the “great sorting out.” (Read: http://qifanabki.com/2013/12/18/landis-ethnicity/
) Over the war years, the peoples of central Europe were rearranged according to the WWI borders. By the end of WWII, Poland and Czechoslovakia had been reduced to their core Polish and Czechoslovak peoples. They got rid of their unwanted (Jews) or guilty (think the 12 million Germans of central Europe) minorities, along with many others. It was a nasty and brutal nation-building process.
Of course, in the Middle East, the emergence of national identities is bedeviled by competing religious identities, which seem to be stronger than both “Arabism” or “Iraqism.”
I doubt we will see high degrees of Shiite-Sunni cooperation in the coming months. If we stick our long oar into this mess, we will end up with a broken oar. It seems possible that within the next two years, ISIS will largely be destroyed by the concerted action of both Iraqi and Syrian forces with help from Iran and possibly the U.S. Sunnis will not be pacified so long as they receive scant justice and no political role, but ISIS cannot represent their needs in the long run.