There is a way to defeat Islamic State in Iraq. It’s to grant the country’s Sunni population its own separate state, free of control from Baghdad. The idea of a “Sunnistan” isn’t new, but as American advisers and their Iraqi allies prepare for the crucial battle of Mosul, now is the time to revisit it.
Losing the country’s second-largest city would represent a major blow to IS’ position in Iraq. But recent Iraqi history has taught us that without a proper strategy for the “day after” in Mosul, the group is likely to re-emerge in one form or another.
It’s not going to be easy. The Sunni experience in the post-Saddam Hussein era has been brutal and won’t quickly be forgotten.
After the 2003 American invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the country’s Sunnis – who represent 15 to 20 percent of the population – found themselves living under a Shi’ite-dominated government. The group included hundreds of thousands of Iraqi troops who had been loyal to Hussein, and were removed from the military. Al Qaeda capitalized on their anger and established al Qaeda in Iraq, a precursor to Islamic State, to fight U.S. troops there.
But as al Qaeda enforced an increasingly strict version of Islam in the areas it controlled, Sunni tribes turned against it. During the “Sunni Awakening” of 2006-2007, Washington capitalized on this increasing resentment toward al Qaeda. It supplied Sunni tribal leaders with weapons to fight al Qaeda, while Baghdad promised Sunnis political inclusion and positions in government security forces.
A sectarian Shi’ite government in Baghdad under Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did not honor its promises to Sunnis. It used a counterterrorism law to jail innocent Sunnis in security sweeps, excluded Sunnis from government jobs and harassed and arrested leading Sunni politicians.
In 2013, when Iraqi security forces cracked down on Sunni protests against al-Maliki’s sectarianism, events took a turn for the worse. Islamic State emerged to gain significant support in Iraq’s Sunni regions.
The Iraqi government’s campaign against Islamic State was both a military and political failure, and Shi’ite militias associated with al-Maliki’s government committed widespread abuses against Sunni civilians, leading many Sunnis to side with Islamic State as the group gained momentum.
Today, even as the Iraqi government has made progress against Islamic State, it remains reliant on Shi’ite militias who continue to abuse Sunni civilians, leading one American official to bemoan that “Sunnis see ISIS as their protection – their wall against Shia [Shi’ite] revenge.”
Given widespread Sunni distrust of Baghdad, it’s unlikely that Iraq’s Sunni population will ever develop a deep allegiance to a Shi’ite-dominated central government. For this reason, the United States should realize that a unified Iraq is no longer possible, and the only way to prevent Islamic State or any other extremist Sunni group from crippling Iraq is to offer Sunnis a state of their own.
Offering the Sunnis their own state could be the incentive Sunnis need to turn against Islamic State and, just as importantly, prevent any other jihadist group from emerging in the future.
At least initially, this entity could be similar to Iraqi Kurdistan, where Kurds have wide autonomy to run their own affairs. Iraq’s constitution already permits this level of self-government, so the Sunnis would not need to take any extrajudicial steps to achieve it.
Article 117 of the Iraqi constitution gives new federal regions substantial authority to run their own affairs. This includes the ability to draft their own constitution; amend any national legislation that conflicts with their own; and most importantly, to form their own police, security and military forces, thereby eliminating the need for Shi’ite militias or the Iraqi army to patrol majority Sunni areas. Article 117 also entitles a new federal region to “an equitable share of the national revenues.”
To be clear, in order to create a new Iraqi “Sunnistan,” its architects would need to confront a number of issues. One question sure to emerge is whether Sunnistan would ultimately remain part of a united – though decentralized – Iraq, or whether it would be a precursor to full independence. But given Iraq’s current instability and the need to first defeat Islamic State, this issue could be shelved until a later date.
Another likely challenge would involve getting buy-in from Baghdad. Given the key role of both Iraq’s army and Shi’ite militias in the ongoing battle against Islamic State, Baghdad may be none too happy to see Iraq’s newly liberated territories declare their desire to break away.
Moreover, the question of what constitutes an equitable share of Iraq’s oil revenue allocated to Sunnistan is sure to be contentious, particularly since the majority of Iraq’s oil lies in the Shi’ite-dominated south and the autonomous Kurdish region of the north, leaving Iraq’s Sunni areas resource-poor.
Another challenge is the question of what happens to non-Sunni minorities who suddenly find themselves living in Sunnistan. Solving this would likely require the United States to pressure Sunni political and tribal leaders to respect the rights of Sunnistan’s minorities. To succeed, Washington could make its political, financial and military support for Sunnistan conditional on its treatment of minorities. Given the United States’ successful cooperation with Sunni tribal leaders during the so-called Sunni Awakening, it’s certainly possible that American-Sunni cooperation could lead to a peaceful new Sunnistan.
A final question involves the relationship Iraq’s Sunnis would possess with their Syrian counterparts, and whether Iraqi Sunnistan could be duplicated in Syria. If and when Syria ends its civil war, its government could write a new constitution that offers its Sunnis a similar solution.
Given the involvement of the Russians, the breakdown in talks between the Washington and Moscow, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s determination to reconquer all of Syria, the opportunity is not immediately there. But longer-term, a successful and legally created “Iraqi Sunnistan” could serve as a model for Syria as well, perhaps even allowing the two nations’ Sunni regions to combine.
It’s unlikely that Sunnistan’s creation would automatically end all extremism in Iraq. But it does offer the best opportunity to defeat Islamic State, as well as to maintain peace afterwards.