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An Iraqi Sunni state is a prerequisite to defeating ISIS

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Tuesday, 23 February 2016


One of the main prerequisites to defeating ISIS in Iraq and stabilizing the country is the establishment of an independent Sunni Iraqi state alongside the current Shiite government and the autonomous Kurdish entity. As long as the Sunni Iraqis do not know what the future has in store for them, they will be unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices to battle ISIS only to benefit the Shiite government in Baghdad, which they despise even more than ISIS. Concurrently with the fight against ISIS, the Obama administration must begin to negotiate with the Shiite government in Baghdad over the future status of the Sunnis in Iraq.

For the White House to still believe that Iraq somehow can be stitched together following the defeat of ISIS is a gross illusion. Iraq's partition into three entities became de facto immediately following the Iraq war in 2003.

Having lost their dominance of Iraq to the Shiites in 2003 after 81 years of continuous rule, the Sunnis still refuse to accept what they consider to be a historic travesty. This was further aggravated by eight years of the Shiite government led by Nouri al-Maliki, who abused his power and marginalized, mistreated, and victimized the Sunni community.

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The fact is the coalition of more than a dozen countries, led by the US, to battle ISIS from the air and ground has thus far failed due to 1) a lack of a comprehensive strategy that will include, in addition to the Iraqis, a significant number of ground troops assembled from some EU but mostly from Arab states and led by the US, and 2) the absence of a strategy about the future of the Iraqi Sunnis before they can be fully enlisted to fight against ISIS, which occupies much of their three provinces.

The Sunnis find themselves inadvertently and often voluntarily supporting ISIS as they are more religiously aligned with ISIS than with the Shiite majority, who appear to be determined to control the levers of power in all walks of life and continue to subjugate the Sunni community.

The presumed unity government in Iraq that the US sought is a farce. There is no unity; Prime Minister Abadi is weak and has done little to pacify the Sunnis in his country. Iran exerts significant political influence in Baghdad and is actively engaged in the fight against ISIS, to which the US has quietly acquiesced, especially following the Iran deal.

The Sunni Iraqis do not view Iran's involvement as transient, and learning from their past experience, they will under no circumstances surrender their future to the whims of Tehran, which they consider to be a staunch enemy.

A top Iraqi official recently told me he didn't see how Iraq can be restored to the pre-2003 status. It is painful, but we must now accept the new reality and act soon, and perhaps restore some civility and work together with the Kurds and the Sunnis, albeit under separate political rule.

The Saudis, who are alarmed by Iran's regional ambitions and its systematic violent meddling in the Arab states' domestic affairs-in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and many other countries-strongly feel that only by allowing the Sunni Iraqis to establish their own autonomy can they prevent Iran from completely controlling Iraq.

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Moreover, given the fact (which the US recognizes) that the Iraqi Kurds are on their way to complete independence, it will be impossible to keep the Sunnis at bay. In a May 2015 meeting in DC, President Masoud Barzani of Iraqi Kurdistan publicly declared his intention to move toward independence, which was later confirmed by a top US official as being inevitable.

Although the Kurds suffered greatly under Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime, they now see eye-to-eye with the Sunnis as both consider the Shiite government to be hostile and reject the idea of federalism, regardless of how loosely connected they will be to the central government in Baghdad.

The US must now begin a dialogue with the Iraqi government and the Sunni leadership to establish a framework for Iraqi Sunni political autonomy along the Iraqi Kurdish model, which will eventually lead to complete independence.

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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