SYRIA, IRAQ AND THE SHIITES
AYMENN JAWAD AL-TAMIMI
13 October 2011
(This article was first published at Kurdish Globe)
Unrest in Syria is unlikely to cause sectarian problems in Iraq.
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Although the Iraqi government recently reversed its stance of solidarity with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad amid the ongoing unrest in Syria and is now calling on Assad to step down from power, it is still true that many Iraqi Shiites deeply fear the possible consequences of an overthrow of the Alawite-dominated Baathist regime.
Specifically, their concern is that hardline Sunnis could come to power in Damascus and embolden fellow Sunnis in Iraq, potentially reigniting sectarian violence and civil war. As one anonymous, senior Iraqi Shiite politician put it to Reuters, ?Change in Syria will cause major problems for Iraq. They [Sunnis] will incite the western [Sunni] part of Iraq.?
Are these anxieties justified? In a word: No. To understand why, it is necessary to examine the question of what was primarily responsible for the dramatic drop in violence in Iraq from 2007 onward. The prevailing orthodoxy affirms that the increase in the number of U.S. troops and use of counter-insurgency strategy as part of the surge were the key factor behind the weakening of Al Qaeda and Sunni turn against the militant group.
However, such reasoning imputes far too much game-changing power to the American military and belittles the importance of local Iraqi actors. In fact, Sunni insurgents began to turn against hardline militants fighting coalition troops and the central government in Baghdad largely because by the end of 2006 they increasingly realized they were losing the sectarian civil war focused in and around the capital against the Shiite militias, which were at the time being actively protected by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Indeed, it is a truism that a key cause behind the swelling of the ranks of the Sunni insurgency after 2003 was the de facto transformation of the de-Baathification process into ?de-Sunnification,? most notably in the disbanding of the old, Sunni-dominated Iraqi army by decree of Paul Bremer, former U.S. administrator to Iraq, in the Coalition Provisional Authority. Of course, one can easily point the finger in hindsight solely at Bremer for this grave mistake, but, as author Patrick Cockburn has noted, the fact is that Bremer was backed and encouraged in his decision by the Shiite and Kurdish politicians who were eager to fill the ranks of the new Iraqi security forces with their own forces.
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In the case of the Kurds, such a desire was more understandable as the Peshmarga forces had played an active role in assisting the coalition forces during the invasion that deposed Saddam Hussein?s regime, and accordingly wanted proper representation in the new Iraqi security forces. Even today, the proportion of Kurds in the army is less than the percentage of Kurds in the Iraqi population as a whole.
Nevertheless, de-Sunnification alone cannot account for the manner in which the Sunni insurgency gained recruits and strength. In any war, no side commences hostilities if it does not feel there is a good chance of defeating the enemy. In this case, a key premise behind the Sunni insurgency was that the Sunnis were actually in the majority and could either subdue or wipe out the Shiites in a sectarian civil war.
The ?Sunni-majority? delusion was well illustrated before the invasion when Sunni Arabs frequently accused outside demographers of under-representing their numbers. Those accusations were not mere rhetoric. The propagation of this false meme among Sunnis was partly the result of propaganda put out by Saddamn?s regime, and partly the consequence of a sense of disconnect from the majority Shiite population, created by 70 years of Sunni minority rule.
Having launched repeated mass casualty attacks on the Shiites, the Sunni insurgency was able to provoke the Shiite militias into retaliation, giving rise to the full-blown sectarian civil war in 2006 centered on Baghdad. The main aim of both sides was to seize control of the mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad and cleanse them of the rival sect.
Owing to numerical advantage and backing from the central government, the Shiite militias largely succeeded in cleansing the mixed neighborhoods of Sunnis, forcing the Sunni insurgents to retreat into the few remaining Sunni-majority strongholds of the city, like Yarmuk, or flee the country to Jordan and Syria. In the latter two countries, investigative journalist and reporter Nir Rosen interviewed numerous Sunni insurgent leaders who admitted that they had lost the battle against the Shiite militias in Baghdad.
So, the sectarian civil war subsided throughout 2007 and 2008 for the same reason wars generally end: One side had mostly lost its will to fight. Fearing further losses at the hands of the Shiite militias and central government, large numbers of Sunnis realized around the time the surge began that the only feasible option was to cooperate with coalition troops and Iraqi security forces against the likes of Al Qaeda, hence the rapid strengthening of the Anbar Awakening and birth of the Sons of Iraq movement.
Maliki would go on to reel in the Shiite militias such as Muqtada al-Sadr?s Mahdi Army, realizing that the remaining Sunni insurgency posed no existential threat to his government and that he could consolidate his power base by cracking down on the Shiite militants based in the south and around Baghdad.
In short, the point is that the risk of another sectarian civil war in Iraq on account of turmoil in Syria is very low indeed, as the Sunni Arabs in Iraq today generally appreciate that they are not in the majority and that they cannot afford to take on the Shiites in another conflict, having witnessed the disastrous outcome for the Sunnis of the sectarian civil war in 2006. For most of Iraq?s Sunnis, the concern is not to reclaim the old status quo of minority rule, but to survive and adapt to the fact that the political process in Iraq today inevitably entails a Shiite majority.
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