Washington’s Sunni Myth and the Civil Wars in Syria and Iraq

August 16, 2016

In the first of two articles, a Westerner with extensive on-the-ground experience in Syria and Iraq explains how the West’s understanding of sectarian identity in the Middle East is fatally flawed. He reveals new information on these civil wars and their participants.

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

Editor’s Note: This author is writing under a pen name. I know the author’s identity and while his arguments are surely controversial, I am confident in his sourcing and subject matter expertise. I have decided to allow him to write under a pen name because he can reasonably fear for his safety and professional employment. -RE (Update 8/17 – We have made an important factual correction explained at the bottom of the article. Update 8/26: The author’s pen name has been changed to protect someone with the same name who has nothing to do with the article or the author. 

 

In Iraq, the senior Shia leaders of the Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.) recently gathered for a meeting. Among them was a leading Sunni P.M.F. commander, who later recounted this story to me. When the men broke for prayer, a Shia leader noticed they were not being joined by their Sunni comrade, who remained seated. The Shia leader asked, “Why don’t you join us?”

He responded, “I don’t pray.”

“What do you mean, you don’t pray?” asked his Shia counterpart.

“If I prayed,” answered the Sunni leader, “I would be with the Islamic State fighting you.”

If you read Western media outlets, including War on the Rocks, you might think that most of the problems in the Middle East can be traced to Sunni disenfranchisement, especially in Syria and Iraq. The broader Western debate about the ongoing civil wars in the Middle East is plagued by a false understanding of sectarian identities. Washington elites imagine a broader Sunni sense of identity that does not exist outside the confines of Saudi Arabia and territories held by jihadist groups. This has the malign effect of encouraging polices that add fuel to the fires consuming Syria and parts of Iraq. Alongside this narrative exists another that portrays Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces as bloodthirsty sectarian militias engaged in constant abuses against Iraq’s Sunni Arabs — but this is simply not the case.

Similarly, these same voices describe the Syrian government as an “Alawite regime” that rules and oppresses Sunnis. However, Sunnis are heavily represented at all levels of leadership in Assad’s government. The territory it controls at this point in the war and at all points past is majority Sunni. And the Syrian armed forces are still majority Sunni. Alawites may be overrepresented in the security forces, but all that means is that they get to die more than others. It if it is an “Alawite regime,” isn’t it odd that includes and benefits so many non-Alawites?

Sunnis not only have political power in Syria, but they also have social power, more opportunities, and a greater range of choices in life compared to other states in the region ruled by Sunni heads of state. At the heart of this negligent misapprehension of what is actually happening in the Middle East is an acceptance and mainstreaming of notions of Sunni identity propagated by the most extreme voices in the Sunni world: Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Some American analysts have accepted the shrill claims of those who purport to represent the Sunni Arab world, such as Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir. They have accepted the sectarian victimization narrative as articulated by Syrian insurgents and their spokesmen — as if these voices represented the majority of Syrian people or even most Syrian Sunnis. They have accepted appeals for support from the angriest Iraqi Sunni rejectionists, as if giving in to their demands would push them to fight ISIL or move toward reconciliation to Iraq. By rejectionists, I mean those, whether Baathist or Islamist, who do not accept the new order and instead seek to overthrow it. Based on my years living and working in the Middle East, these voices do not represent those they claim to speak for. The Saudis’ only appeal to other Arabs is the money they have to offer. The Syrian rebel spokesmen represent only a fraction of Syrian Sunnis. The self-appointed Iraqi Sunni leaders control neither men nor territory. The United States is listening to the wrong Sunnis. When President Obama or Gen. David Petraeus or others repeat the myths of disenfranchisement these voices propagate, they reinforce and legitimize a dangerous sectarian narrative that should instead be countered.

The alternative ideology to the self-proclaimed Islamic State, whether in the Middle East, in Europe’s slums, or the former Soviet Union, is not to promote a Sunni identity — what the Bush administration pursued with its mantra of “moderate Sunni allies.” Instead, a counter-ideology should promote citizenship and secular states. This is the model that the West helped destroy in Egypt after Gamal Abdel Nasser died and the model it is currently destroying in Syria. In two articles, I will describe why the West’s view of sectarianism gets the region terribly wrong, resulting in policies that perpetuate rather than resolve the interconnected civil wars that plague the Middle East. In this first part, I use facts on the ground gathered in my years of working in the region to explain how Washington’s view of Syria and Iraq do not comport with what is actually happening there. In the second part, I will offer a counter to the Western narrative of sectarianism in the region and propose a dramatic re-think of how the West and the United States in particular should approach the Middle East. What I have to say will surely strike you as controversial. Some of you will dismiss me out of hand, especially because I am writing under a pseudonym. I only ask that you approach the facts and analysis below with an open mind and critically assess whether the dominant Western policy approach to the Middle East truly serves American interests. I, for one, do not think it does. And it has led to the region’s descent into hell.

Misreading Sectarianism in Syria

There is a cacophony of voices constantly complaining that the U.S. government does not sufficiently support the Sunni sectarian insurgents it backs in Syria. At this point in the conflict, these voices are open about the fact that these Sunni Arab “moderates” cooperate with al Qaeda, but go on to say they still deserve Washington’s support. Sometimes, it seems they argue that we help al Qaeda win in Syria so that its men don’t flee further west to us. At War on the Rocks, Faysal Itani bemoans the idea that Russia and the United States might cooperate to degrade Jabhat al Nusra, an avowed Salafi jihadist group that until very recently operated as an al Qaeda affiliate.

These advocates too often ignore that the Sunni insurgents have been receiving ample assistance and that Syria’s political and military elite is majority Sunni. Yes, I am talking about the Assad regime. Those who lament the meager assistance provided by the United States to Syrian insurgents overlook the fact that this is one of the best-supported insurgencies in history. Moreover, they discount how successful Syria’s insurgents have been at driving Assad’s forces out of most of the country. Most of the country has fallen into chaos or into the hands of the jihadists who cooperated with U.S.-backed groups. In fact, external aid to Syria’s insurgents was so successful that it forced the Russian military to directly intervene to prevent the total collapse of Syria. Earlier this month Salafi-jihadists led by a Saudi cleric used suicide attackers and foreign fighters to nearly storm into the government-held half of Aleppo. And yet they were lauded as heroic rebels by Western media and applauded by the official Western-backed Syrian opposition leadership. If they succeed, over one and a half million residents of the government-held area of Aleppo will be at great risk.

These same Western voices who criticize the White House for not supporting Syria’s rebels more robustly are also often quick to argue that more support to “moderate” insurgents earlier on would have prevented the rise of the jihadists and brought down the Syrian government.

These voices were and remain wrong because they underestimate the extent to which sectarianism and Salafism were already important trends among Syria’s Sunni rural class and its urban poor. These segments of society have always formed the core of the insurgency. Their movement was dominated by Sunni sectarian Islamists who could finally express themselves freely after they expelled the state from their areas. The logical outcome of this movement is extremism. You cannot blame all or even most of this on the Syrian regime’s harsh methods. Advocates of more support to so-called moderates early on forget what happens when states collapse and militias emerge. People embrace more primordial identities and extremist militias dominate.

Moreover, Western critics of Washington’s less than full-throated support for the armed Syrian opposition have always underestimated the commitment of Syria’s allies. And they forget that Syria was taking place in a regional context where sectarian scores had to be settled. The Saudis and Qataris hoped to overthrow the Syrian government and turn it into a “Sunni” regime, and they saw Syrians as tools to achieve those goals. Iran was and remains committed to stop this from happening. These Gulf states were crucial in fostering the insurgency, but this left the rebellion reliant on external actors.

All this external support the Syrian insurgents received made these groups less closely involved with their own society. Effective insurgents are organically connected with their communities and place great emphasis on their well-being. This is often because they need communities to provide resources, shelter, and other forms of support. If a group is financed from outside the country, it can operate independent of these concerns and impose a reign of terror on a community or ignore the fact that its actions lead to the community’s destruction.

From my perspective as someone living and working in the region, American analysts seem even more sectarian than most people in the Middle East in promoting and legitimizing the Sunni-Shia divide. Sectarian-based movements and this American pro-Sunni sectarianism are seen by modernist and progressive Arabs in both the Sunni and Shia camps as abhorrent and dangerous. For those who want a Sunni force, they have ISIL, the Sunni militia par excellence. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been fellow Sunnis.

It is commonly argued that only a Sunni Arab force can defeat the Islamic State. It is likewise argued that ISIL cannot be defeated as long as Assad is president because he is a magnet for jihadists, because the United States needs Sunni allies, and because Sunnis feel like they lost everything since 2003 and remain oppressed. These are flawed notions that rely on false assumptions about identity in the region, and they pose a grave danger for Syria, Iraq, and the Middle East as a whole.

This faulty American thinking on sectarianism in the Middle East was recently typified by former ambassador Robert Ford in The New Yorker. Referring to the so-called “dissent cable” written by hawkish State Department officials, Ford said:

The dissent message makes clear that the focus on the Islamic State will not win the hearts and minds of enough Syrian Sunni Arabs to provide a long-term, sustainable solution to the Islamic State challenge in Syria. The Syrian Sunni Arab community views the Assad government as a greater problem than the Islamic State.

In Syria, a majority-Sunni military force exists. It represents the only national institution remaining in a state that does not make nearly as many sectarian distinctions as its opponents seem to think. Yes, I am talking about the Syrian armed forces. The majority of Syria’s state employees, government officials, and soldiers are Sunni, even today. The majority of the still-powerful urban capitalist class is Sunni. As someone who has been been interacting with people on every side of the civil war for its entire duration, I have learned that even some of Assad’s top security chiefs are Sunni, such as Ali Mamluk, the head of national security who supervises the other security agencies. Colonel Khaled Muhamad, a Sunni from Daraa, is in charge of securing Damascus for the feared Department 40 of the Internal Security. Deeb Zeitun, the head of state security, and Muhamad Rahmun, the head of political security, are both Sunni, as are the head of foreign intelligence, the minister of defense, senior officers in air force intelligence, the minister of interior, the head of the ruling Baath party, the majority of Baath party leaders, and the president of the parliament. The commander of the National Defense Forces (N.D.F.) in Daraa is a Sunni man of Palestinian origin. The commanders of the N.D.F. in Quneitra, Raqqa, and Aleppo are likewise Sunnis. One of the regime’s leading anti-ISIL fighters who receives support from all regime security branches is Muhana al Fayad. He leads the large Busaraya tribe between the Derezzor and Hassake areas and is also a member of parliament. Even some pilots dropping barrel bombs on insurgent-held communities are Sunni. Many heads of military intelligence branches are also Sunni.

Sunnis in the Syrian government include many hailing from ISIL-held areas, such as Derezzor and Raqqa, or insurgent-held areas, such as eastern Hama, Daraa, and the Aleppo countryside. This is key to understanding the regime’s survival. The head of security in the northeastern Hassake province which borders ISIL-held areas is himself a Sunni from the town of Muhassan in Derezzor. His town is held by ISIL, and he has relatives who defected from the Syrian security forces to join various insurgent groups. Muhamad Rahmun, the aforementioned head of political security, is from Khan Sheikhun in Idlib, and he has relatives in groups such as Jabhat al Nusra. As a result, the regime never cut off links to areas held by insurgents and ISIL and still pays civil servants in some of these places. This leaves a door open for people to return to the state. The regime continues to fight tooth and nail to maintain control over Aleppo and Derezzor, two Sunni-majority cities, and it struggles to provide state services to these communities. Finally, the leaders of the delegations representing the Syrian government that have gone to Geneva to negotiate the political process have all been Sunni, as have nearly all of their staffers.

When Robert Ford claims as that Sunni Arabs in Syria are more worried about Assad than the Islamic State, he is dangerously mistaken. Most of Ford’s “Syrian Sunni Arab community” remains in government-held areas and did not rise up. Damascus is an overwhelmingly majority-Sunni Arab city. If they viewed the Assad government as a greater problem than the Islamic State, then Damascus would have fallen to insurgents or at least would have endured the same constant car bombings that Baghdad has. Baghdad has proportionally far fewer Sunnis than Damascus, but jihadists are still able to find safe havens there and launch more attacks than Syrian insurgents in Damascus. But Damascus, of course, has not been immune to these attacks. The two Syrian cities most hit by insurgent rockets and mortars are Damascus and Aleppo, both overwhelmingly Sunni cities. Most of the many hundreds of dead civilians from indiscriminate insurgent attacks on government-held areas have been Sunnis, which is why the Sunnis of government-held west Aleppo cheered when government forces recently made gains against insurgent-held east Aleppo. Even the pro-regime militias in Aleppo are Sunni, such as Liwa Quds and the clan-based militias that have remained loyal to the state. Of course the vast majority of the government’s victims have also been Sunni, and this has driven some to extremism. This war, however, is very much Sunni vs. Sunni in many places.

Not all Sunnis in Damascus love Assad, of course, (although more do than you would expect), but when I speak with them, it is clear they oppose the opposition and prioritize stability. The alternative vision equates Sunni Arabs with radicals and proposes that the United States radicalize its policy enough to win them over.

This obsession with supporting “Sunni Arabs” has led the United States to support unruly and corrupt militias who happen to be Sunni and Arab, but aren’t al-Nusra, al Qaeda, or ISIL. The mainstream Syrian insurgents (the Free Syrian Army, or FSA) are not located in the right areas to launch assaults on ISIL and do not possess the right incentives to do so. Over the last few years, FSA groups have become increasingly parochial. They fight for local issues, defend their villages and neighborhoods, reach accommodations with whomever they can, and lack motivation to go further. The many agreements the regime has reached with insurgent-held towns around Damascus, in southern Syria, and elsewhere evidences the exhaustion of these groups and their desire to find a settlement at the local level. The FSA lacks the mobility required to engage in the remote battles that the war on ISIL requires. When the so-called moderate opposition fights the jihadists, it gets beaten or melts away.

There are also Islamist insurgents such as Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham, or Nuredin al-Zenki (now famous for its latest beheading video). They fight ISIL only when it attacks them, and even then, many of their men are reluctant to fight against fellow Sunni Muslims. It is ironic that the P.M.F., which contain many thousands of Sunnis and are part of the Iraqi state, are called Shia militias while the Syrian insurgents who are entirely Sunni and explicitly fight for Sunnis are described as rebels. Islamist insurgents possess ideological and political aims inconsistent with U.S. interests (or with those of most Syrians, for that matter) and actually bear no small resemblance to those of ISIL. Ahrar al Sham is incapable of fighting without Jabhat al-Nusra alongside it or without getting approval from Jabhat al Nusra. And while Jabhat al-Nusra recently dissociated itself from al-Qaeda, this move was blessed by al Qaeda — not exactly a good recommendation. Al-Qaeda understood that an independent al-Nusra, or one that at least seems independent, is better for its jihad and would allow its assault on Aleppo to be described by western journalists as being carried out by “rebels.” Of the thousands of insurgent groups running rampant in Syria, some lack an ideology and are accidental guerillas — but this dominant Salafi jihadi ideology was imported from abroad. It rejects freedom, progress, and modernity. The language of these groups when talking to the West is seductive — or at least the language of their “activist” apologists — but their discourse in Arabic is indistinguishable from al Qaeda or ISIL. They differ only over who should have power and whether it is legitimate to establish a caliphate today. Anybody with basic Arabic can hear their voices calling in unison for the extermination of rival sects as the main objective of their war. They are not fighting for democracy, freedom, or human rights.

In Syria, moderate Sunnis are fighting al Qaeda and ISIL. One of these is Khaled Abaza, a Sunni commander of a paramilitary unit in the south who has been fighting against Jabhat al Nusra and other extremist groups for several years. I have personally observed former insurgents who now fight ruthlessly alongside government forces and against both Jabhat al Nusra and ISIL, such as fighters from Aqnaf beit al Maqdis (a group that was based in the Yarmuk camp).

Iraq and the Myth of the Bloodthirsty Shia Militias

The Western narrative of the nature of the ongoing conflict in Iraq similarly matches up only poorly with facts on the ground, especially as it concerns the role of sectarian identity and persecutions on every side. This is evident nowhere more than the Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.), an umbrella group of institutionalized militias mobilized to fight against ISIL. During the now concluded battle for Falluja, a new genre of articles emerged warning hysterically about the role of the P.M.F. in Iraq. These articles incorrectly described the P.M.F. as sectarian or Shia militias devoted to persecuting Sunnis. In fact, these units are part of the Iraqi state, coordinate with the Iraqi Security Forces, and answer to the Iraqi prime minister. Because they were largely established in response to a sudden and immediate threat, their organization has been a gradual process, culminating in the 2016 decision to transition away from factions and into a formal military structure. With a few exceptions, P.M.F. units have not engaged in widespread abuse of Sunni populations during this war against ISIL. While most P.M.F. units are Shia, interlocutors in my meetings with Iraqi P.M.F. officials and members of the Iraqi government have told me that there are 30,000 Sunnis receiving P.M.F. salaries. These include leaders such as Yazan al Jiburi, who liberated Tikrit in cooperation with Iranian-backed units, and Wanas Hussein, whose tribe bravely resisted ISIL and whose sister Omaya Jabara was the first woman to die fighting ISIL. Some of these Sunni units are tribal holding forces, while at least 7,000 proper fighters fall under the P.M.F. chain of command. There are also hundreds of Sunnis in majority-Shia units and a few thousand Sunnis who fight alongside these units but are not yet officially registered and do not receive salaries. Further, these units do not engage in any more violations than the forces the American-led coalition supports. Some, such as Saraya Salam (formerly known as the Mahdi Army), are in fact the least sectarian and most disciplined of the various military and paramilitary units fighting in Iraq today.

Many Western analysts seem to think that just because a security force is majority-Shia that it will somehow be unable to resist killing and persecuting Sunnis. Some in the West even questioned whether the government of Iraq should have liberated Falluja, a city less than an hour away from Baghdad, from ISIL (just as they doubt whether the Syrian government should retake the half of Aleppo occupied by jihadists). These voices seem more worried about the Iraqi government treatment of Falluja than about ISIL, as if this jihadist group treats its residents well on account of a shared Sunni identity. One merely needed to look at Samara or Tikrit, cities already liberated from ISIL, to see that Sunnis are not being abused after their liberation from ISIL.

Baghdad stands as another example — a Shia-majority city with dense Sunni enclaves, such as Aadhamiya, Amriya, and many others. Its Sunni neighborhoods used to be insurgent strongholds. Now, Shia-majority security forces secure these neighborhoods, which are also full of displaced Sunnis from Anbar province. They are safe and unharmed. Cafes, restaurants, tea houses, and shops are busy day and night. The biggest danger in Baghdad is ISIL. If Shia vigilantes in the security forces wanted to target all these unarmed and vulnerable Sunnis, they could — but they do not. The Anbar provincial council is based in Baghdad’s Mansur district and protected by Shia-majority security forces.

The P.M.F. are a majority-Shia force fighting to liberate majority-Sunni areas from ISIL on behalf of Sunnis. Surely, abuses have taken place. Houses and mosques have been destroyed and there have been extrajudicial killings. But these violations pale by comparison to events of the Iraqi civil war during the American occupation. Iraq may have actually transcended the Sunni-Shia paradigm in a way that will seem counterintuitive to Washington-based analysts. Today, the threat is inter-Sunni violence, inter-Shia violence, inter-Kurdish violence, and Arab-Kurdish violence.

The Sadrists, one of the Shia political factions in Iraq, know that their competition in Iraqi politics does not come from Sunnis but from their Shia rivals in Dawa, Badr, and the Supreme Council. The Sadrists admit that Iraq cannot be ruled without its Sunnis. This is why Sadr has opened up to the Saudis. If Iran’s regional rivals were smart, they would not try to counterbalance Iran in Iraq using a handful of Sunni rejectionists too few in number to pose a threat. Instead, they would support the large Shia bloc that opposes excessive Iranian influence in Iraq. When Sadrist supporters stormed the Green Zone and Iraqi Parliament in April of this year, they stole from Sunni hardliners what they had dreamed of for over a decade: marching into the Green Zone to ransack the Shia government. Iraq can no longer be simplistically divided into a Shia government and Sunni opposition. Instead, there are Shias and Sunnis in the government, as well as in the opposition. Sadrist supporters chanted nationalist slogans,  including calls for Iran to get out and rejecting Qassem Suleimani. The Sadrists proved that Iraqi Shia can be patriotic Iraqis rather than tools of Iran. And in Iraq today, the politician most popular among Sunnis is Ayad Alawi, who is Shia!

The battle to retake Falluja ended in a victory. The key element was the participation of thousands of P.M.F. fighters, as I observed and as my research with commanders on the ground confirms. Initially, the P.M.F. was assigned to retake the countryside around Falluja while the army and police assaulted the city. After these forces failed, the P.M.F. contingent entered the city and liberated it. These men, almost all Shia from the Badr forces, were at first dressed in police uniforms. But by the time they defeated the enemy, they were open about their role as P.M.F. members.

Yet it is undeniable that abuses typical of counterinsurgency campaigns took place in Falluja: Western human rights researchers who conducted field work in Anbar confirmed to me that there are between 600 to 900 men missing after the various Anbar operations and that about 600 men who fled the Falluja area were beaten or tortured. The P.M.F. needs a penal code, and it must publicly punish wrongdoers and conduct transparent investigations to demonstrate accountability. If the P.M.F. wants to become a permanent Iraqi institution, as seems likely, this could be supported by the United States and other members of the anti-ISIL coalition in a way that increases accountability for the force and helps ensure that human rights abuses are dealt with. The United States and its European allies can place conditions on support the Iraqi government receives to force better behavior among militias.

Much of the destruction in Iraq results not from battle but instead from revenge by both the P.M.F. and by tribes, including Sunni tribes. Deliberately destroying homes to punish a community is a war crime, and the international community is offering stabilization and reconstruction money to Iraq. Donors could impose conditionality on funding, refusing to pay to fix the damage resulting from war crimes committed by the P.M.F. or Iraqi security forces. The United States and the international community should engage with the P.M.F. to encourage better discipline, just as it does with partner military forces around the world. Some Iraqis might be skeptical about American admonitions, however. Iraqi security forces emerged during the American occupation of Iraq, when innocent prisoners were abused, brutal solutions were sought, and men were rounded up en masse. It was in this period that the Sunni victimization narrative arose.

So while abuses surely have occurred, claims that Sunnis are being persecuted wholesale in Iraq overlook a far more nuanced reality. Some Sunnis are indeed persecuted, including men from certain places under a policy of guilt by association (something the Syrian government engages in as well). So a man from Falluja, Jurf Assakhr, or other towns perceived to have a history of harboring al Qaeda and the Islamic State may be persecuted — but not all Sunnis. The Sunnis of Baghdad are not being targeted, for example. It is not 2006, when Sunni bodies were found in dumpsters every day. Even after mass-casualty attacks targeting Shia civilians such as the July 3 attack that killed about 200 or another attack this past May, there were not retaliatory attacks against Sunnis.

Moreover, the persecution of Sunnis in Iraq that exists, while inexcusable, is not indiscriminate. Based on my interviews and research, men who fled from ISIL-held areas early on and sought shelter in government areas, including in majority-Shia areas, are not suspected of ties to the jihadist group and are left to live their lives. However, those who remained behind or fled more recently are sometimes persecuted under the often unfair assumption that they sympathized with terrorists. From the point of view of security services, these are men who have chosen to stay in Falluja for the last two years, unlike the many Fallujans who fled ISIL early on and sought safety in Baghdad. Security services have a right to worry that some ISIL fighters had infiltrated the ranks of the fleeing civilians. In a significant improvement over what Iraqis call the period of “sectarianism” that ended in 2008, the violations today involve far less killing but instead the destruction of homes and villages in revenge for a perception that residents supported ISIL. The P.M.F. are imperfect, as is every security force in the Middle East. Given the role of Falluja as a safe haven for those beheading Shia and supporting insurgents, it is surprising how restrained the P.M.F. have been. Outside observers can debate about whether the Iraqi government should have prioritized the liberation of Falluja, but Baghdad does not have that luxury. Falluja is 50 kilometers away from the capital and not far from the key shrine city of Karbala. It also straddles the highway to Amman that is a key trade route.

While the P.M.F. benefit from Iranian advisors and assistance, these units are commanded by Iraqis and remain under the authority of Iraq’s prime minister. At first the P.M.F. allowed the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service (CTS), police, and army to attempt and fail to take the city. Meanwhile, the P.M.F. respect the orders of the Iraqi prime minister, contradicting those who claim the units simply represent an extralegal force controlled by Iran. Western media (and some Arab satellite channels) have stoked Sunni fears and turned Falluja into a rallying cry, but it is not the P.M.F. themselves that are the cause of the rallying cry.

Finally, the P.M.F. is a clearing and supporting force rather than a holding force. It liberates territory from ISIL or supports the Iraqi Security Forces (itself majority-Shia) when they do so. Then the P.M.F. move on, leaving local (Sunni) forces to hold and the government to (hopefully) build.

The Iraqi army and security forces are also majority Shia, just like the P.M.F. . There is no alternative to the P.M.F. in Iraq, as their recent key role in liberating Falluja proved. Since the P.M.F. took Tikrit, most of its residents have returned and life has returned to normal. Because the P.M.F. were not allowed to participate in the liberation of Ramadi, the city had to be destroyed for lack of a willing ground force to take it. None of this is to say that the P.M.F. are the ideal force. It is an emergency solution in response to an existential threat, and it has saved Iraq from total collapse. Instead of eschewing the P.M.F. , the United States should engage with it. Instead of preventing the P.M.F. from participating in operations to liberate towns, the United States should be incorporating it into its planning alongside the conventional Iraqi security forces. This will help integrate the P.M.F. further into the Iraqi state.

Whither the Western Sectarian Narrative?

As I have explained, the Western narrative of these conflicts and the role of sectarian identity in particular simply does not match up with facts on the ground. This has led to poor policy choices at every turn.

None of this is to excuse the abuses of the Syrian state and the Iraqi state. In Syria in particular, the government has unleashed desperate levels of brutality, using collective punishment, indiscriminate attacks on insurgent held areas, and harsh siege tactics to prevent insurgents from penetrating state-held areas and to force them to accept ceasefires. This has certainly led to radicalization as violence always does. This legacy of war crimes committed by all will hopefully be dealt with, but the first priority must be ending the wars. But there are broader issues that Washington must confront.

In my next article on this topic, I will discuss how we got here, the crisis of Sunni identity that sits at the heart of these conflicts, and how Western and, in particular, American policy should change to accommodate the realities of the Middle East and to focus on building and reinforcing non-sectarian national institutions and national forces.

 

Cyrus Malik is a pen name for a security consultant to the humanitarian community in the Levant and Iraq.

 

Correction: This article originally inaccurately portrayed a proposal by Gen. David Petraeus as a plan to arm al-Qaeda against ISIL. In reality, Gen. Petraeus proposed trying to split less ideologically dedicated members of Jabhat al-Nusra (until recently, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate) away from jihadist groups, much like the U.S. military was able to do in the fight against jihadists in Iraq.

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34 thoughts on “Washington’s Sunni Myth and the Civil Wars in Syria and Iraq

  1. My comments/analysis.

    1. The little anecdote about the ‘Sunni’ PMU leader not praying and if he did he would be with IS is a nice one.
    2.The next paragraph claims “a broader Sunni sense of identity that does not exist outside the confines of Saudi Arabia and territories held by jihadist groups”. This is clearly false, if there was no Sunni identity there would never be any territories held by jihadi groups. The Sunni identity had to exist in Iraq for IS to exist in the first place. The paragraph goes on to claim the Shia PMU are not sectarian and don’t co mitt abuses which the article itself clearly shows is wrong.

    3. The fact that Sunnis are majority in Assad’s government, upper clsses and Assad controlled areas is merely a function of Sunnis being the majority in Syria.

    4. The next paragraph is essentially boilerplate around the idea that Sunni disenfranchisement is a ‘myth’, which it self-evidently is not.

    5. The next paragraph states:

    “The alternative ideology to the self-proclaimed Islamic State, whether in the Middle East, in Europe’s slums, or the former Soviet Union, is not to promote a Sunni identity — what the Bush administration pursued with its mantra of “moderate Sunni allies.” Instead, a counter-ideology should promote citizenship and secular states. ”

    This is true and important. But the governments (of Iran, Iraq and Syria) that the author would have us believe are the solution are not interested in ‘citizenship or secular states’. Rather they are using their own Shia sectarianism as their motivator.

    6. The next paragraph argues quite effectively against the argument that the West and the Gulf have given little assistance by illustrating the scope of it and the success that assistance has resulted in. But it fails to defeat the ‘TOO little’ bit, because it is evidently too little since it has failed to topple Assad.

    7. This is probably the most insightful and important bit of the piece, in which the author successfully demonstrates the propensity and attraction to Salafism that already existed in the Syrian Sunni society.

    8. The author rightly points out that the West underestimated Iran and Russia’s commitment and the extent to which the rebellion was fostered by external Gulf states.

    9. The rest of the paragraphs making up this Syria section are a long attempt to try and portray the Assad regime as representing Sunnis and smear the opposition as jihadi criminals. All this is old hat and not particularly effective.

    10. The entirety of the Iraq section is crappy apologia for the PMU’s, which despite the authors attempts to exonerate them, are really nothing more than sectarian death squads in hoc to Iran. None of the authors editorializing can obscure the actual facts he does, to his credit, give concerning the reality of the Shia PMU crimes against Sunnis.

    11. The author finishes with, ” None of this is to excuse the abuses of the Syrian state and the Iraqi state.”

    Unfortunately, this is what the majority of the piece was about and the entirety of its main thrust.

    The author goes on to describe the reality of the governments and militias he defends.

    In Syria in particular, the government has unleashed desperate levels of brutality, using collective punishment, indiscriminate attacks on insurgent held areas, and harsh siege tactics to prevent insurgents from penetrating state-held areas and to force them to accept ceasefires. This has certainly led to radicalization as violence always does.

    1. Most of your points bolster the validity of the author’s arguments. Which confirms to me that the author is pointing out the “myth” portrayed by Washington and parroted by the MSM, is indeed a “myth”.

    2. Syria and USA are not comparable on many counts. But they can be compared on majority-minority spectrum. Despite Obama’s sect (whatever it is), the US military and government have a majority of the US majority, just like Syria. Contrary to what some may try to propagate, the US majority is not at receiving end of any minority group. But those views do have currency among a section of the people. Compared to all other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), only Syria and Israel have a reasonable level of tolerance and opportunity for different ethnic communities. It is not there in Saudi, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan or Lebanon. Turkey is a disappointment as it veers into the wrong side, away from secularism. Assad, as Saddam, is a despot but he is the best chance for peace in Syria closest to western secular values. We already lost Turkey and Tunisia and shouldn’t lose Syria to total extremism. As happened in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, post-war Syria will be a factory of global extremists. We cannot let that happen.

  2. First, The author of this article seems to have forgotten that the SAA is a conscript army and will be majority Sunni by virtue of the country being majority Sunni.

    Second, the author seems to have no clue who is actually doing the fighting on the regime’s side in Syria. Throughout the entire article where Syria is discussed, there is not one mention of Hezbollah or the various Shiite militias from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and elsewhere. Did the author just forget to mention them or has he conveniently left them out? The Shiite militias and the minority heavy units such as Tiger Forces and Desert Hawks (which are majority Alawite) are the ones spearheading offensives and NOT the majority Sunni conscript army. It is also well known that the majority of pilots that are indiscriminately bombing civilians come primarily from Tartous and Latakia.

    Third, so what if there are Sunni war criminals in the regime’s ranks? You can always find people who are willing to betray there own sect/ethnicity/etc for money and power. Sunnis are not different in this regard.

    Fourth there are places that have been historically very anti-regime and did not necessarily take up arms like Hama city for example. Is it because they love Bashar like the author suggests? Or maybe it’s more likely because of the security lockdown and the desire to avoid being massacred and have their homes turned into rubble..?

    And lastly I will just point to the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis in Homs and the various sectarian massacres such as in Baniyas and Houla which the author seems to have a particularly short memory/cognitive dissonance for.

  3. I know this is a controversial article that will surely arouse passions, but our normal rules for the comments section still apply. When commenting on this article, please remember to stay polite and civil. All attacks should be directed at the arguments. Personal attacks will not be tolerated.

    1. Throughout history, many strategic failures have been the result of fundamentally misreading the situation on the ground – think Vietnam for example, where US policy was based on the assumption that the whole reason for the war was communist expansion.
      This article is laudable for presenting a different point of view and a more subtle analysis of the reality that the bad guys-good guys dichotomy that is so prevalent in Washington these days.
      That dichotomy may help sell newspapers, but it is hardly conducive to good policy-making.

    2. One of the better features of WOTR is to publish articles that may be controversial that challenge the current mainstream narrative. It forces substantive discussions that can provoke deeper analysis outside the boring box. I look forward to reading a response to the authors two-part series.

  4. [Personal attacks against the author were edited out of this comment by the moderator. Final warning. No personal attacks!]
    He mentions that that most of the SAA is Sunni but sneakily fails to mentions why. The SAA is a conscript army and they literally forces Sunnis (who make up a huge majority of the population) to fight in Assad’s army often to this day by detaining them at ad hoc checkpoints throughout Baathist controlled areas monitored by Alawites in the Shabiha/NDF and foreign sectarian Shias. He also importantly fails to mention most of the military officers are Alawites and that all four Mukhabarat intelligence agencies are completely dominated by the Alawi or that . So yes indeed the Assadist regime is indeed an Alawite regime that holds any Sunnis that don’t accept second class citizenship or a quietest meek religious position as their chief enemy that needs to be brutalized into submission perpetually. He then goes on to downplay the well documented severe abuse and terror that the Shiite militias in Iraq have inflicted with total impunity on Sunnis for years that doesn’t even deserve a response. Rumors and allegations of the state department, Pentagon, DIA, FBI and now countless intelligence analysts are most supportive and essentially now outright cheerleaders of Russia and the abominable resistance axis (Iran/Assad regime/Hezbollah) are proving without a doubt to be very true.

    1. *He also importantly fails to mention most of the military officers are Alawites and that all four morbid Mukhabarat intelligence agencies are completely dominated by the Alawi minority or that all of the “elite” well funded units connected to the SAA such as the Republican Gaurds, Fourth Division, Tiger/Cheetah/Panther Forces and the Desert Falcons are made up almost entirely up of Alawites. To somehow believe that doesn’t make the Assad regime sectarian to the core is [I used an insult here so now I am suspended from the comments section].

  5. The author is right to challenge the sectarian lens through which Washington policy makers tend to view the situation in Syria but is wrong on most other matters Syrian.
    While he rightly rejects simplistic notions of the Assad regime as purely “Alawite” he simply inverts this characterisation to create the equally simplistic (and even less valid) image of the Syrian regime as inclusive: “Sunnis are heavily represented at all levels of leadership in Assad’s government”. However he is contradicted in claims of inclusivity by his own sources: his first, Zambelis, argues for a more complex model of the regime’s power structure, but acknowledges that “The prominence of Alawites in Syrian politics and society is not in question. The elevation of Alawites and their eventual assimilation into the corridors of power and over representation in ranking positions in the Ba’athist bureaucracy and security apparatus is well documented.”
    Curiously, he supports his assertion that “Sunnis not only have political power in Syria, but they also have social power…” by linking to a second source that inter alia argues that the Assad regime “… has been unable to implement a new national formula which could bring society together. The urban “masses” and rural inhabitants, the Baath party’s traditional clients, did not benefit from economic liberalization and, abandoned, watched the regime promote new economic elites.” This article offers a far more subtle picture of the Syrian regime than either the “Alawite” model or Mahboubian’s inversion of it, concluding that: “The fact that it [ the regime] has resorted to high levels of violence to survive opposition … and that it mobilizes communitarian narratives and tactics might suggest that the authoritarian formula, based on a Sunni-Alawite alliance, is now engaged in a struggle for its own survival.”
    A couple of secondary points:
    Mahboubian asserts that “In Syria, a majority-Sunni military force exists”. Bu tthe SAA has been an ineffective force for years, in large part because of the tension between its Sunni conscripts) and its predominantly Alawite officer corps; thus only its elite units are deployable in direct combat – notably the 4th Division and Republican Guard – largely Alawite in composition and commanded by members of Assad’s family. The regime’s military position depends overwhelmingly on foreign support and heavily on foreign fighters.
    In his eagerness to list “Sunni” allies of the regime, he includes Aknaf beit al-Makdis, from the Yarmouk camp – but Aknaf is allied with the Syrian opposition.
    Finally, conspicuous in its absence is any tally of the destructive effects of the military operations of the regime and its allies: at least 120, 000 civilians killed at their hands (95%+ of total civilian deaths) and physical destruction dislocating half of the country’s population. Hardly a suitable ally for anyone concerned with democracy and humanitatian values.

  6. The article is interesting in that there clearly are other points of view,

    The idea that most Sunni can have will have a very religious identity but at the same time collaberate/ co-operate in a multi-ethnic. multi-faith way to bring about a democratic Syria or Iraq and be activly opposed to other Sunni who are very religious and so want a pure Sunni state has never made sense.

    A group of Sunni who are actually relatively secular could well work in a democratic Syria or Iraq but how big the relative populations of the more secular v the more religious populations are I haven’t a clue. However what is clear is there was a period when development in the Arab world was going in a fairly pro-secular direction, but because it was seen as left-wing pro secular we saw it as a threat at the time of the cold war and supported the more religious persuasion and the Kings and Sheiks of the Gulf.

    From a purely US point of view what would be wrong with a secular Baathist regime in Syria. If all we want to do is end the war, we should not care who wins, if all we want to do is defeat ISIS AQ and associated jihadists, we should not care who beats them. Trying to create a situation whereby they are defeated by non-existent secular democratic Sunni rebels who install democracy and a multi-ethnic state is clearly nonsese.

    1. Your attempt to equate secularism with democracy is another western myth. There have been plenty of secular dictators in history – and in ethnically diverse states secularism can provide a useful framework for creating cross-communal coalitions for highly authoritarian regimes, as it does in Syria. You are quite right that from a US perspective there is no reason to object to such regimes (and the US has often based its policy on that premise.) But from the point of view of those who have to live under such regimes the matter can seem very different.

  7. This is an interesting post, but I think it could do with some editing and some organizing to make more clear what the author is trying to convey to his readers.

    All the various factions including security forces, tribes, sectarian groups, and political actors seem to add up to a non-sensical muddle to this admittedly ignorant reader … despite the fact that I am very open to the “we’ve been getting it all wrong in the Middle East” argument. Obviously the dumpster fire that is today’s Middle East, particularly the Levant and the extremely bloody Syrian civil war, along with the rise of ISIS or ISIL, and the involvement of outside players like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia, indicates clearly that much has gone very wrong.

    I’d like to suggest that the author, before moving on to his part 2 suggesting solutions to our problems, needs to do a little more dot-connecting than he has so far in part 1. Some of the commentors here do appear to know a lot more about matters and the players there than I do – which isn’t saying a lot! – but I expect I’m not the only reader who maybe needs a little more of a primer.

    Otherwise, I am forced to just sort of throw up my hands and say, “a pox on all their houses – let them keep killing each other for a few more years.” I really don’t want to do that but the sectarianism and tribalism and external players all seem to make no real sense other than this is all about revenge and blood-thirstiness amongst a morally defective and medieval group of ignoramuses. I think that is how it looks to most Americans today.

  8. One important aspect of the Sunni-Shia schism the author doesn’t touch upon is also a myth absorbed by the western world that Sunni-Shia is the overriding aspect of conflict in the Middle East. Far overshadowing that is the eminent hatred between the Arabs to the Persians. While the Persians are majority Shia, even the Iraqi Shia have no love for them (beyond, the ‘enemy of my enemy’ cooperation). I routinely experienced the incomprehension of Saudis, Kuwatis, Iraqis, and Jordanians that westerners failed to see this outright fact. As salt and pepper flavor our food; add Kurds and Turks to the mix.

  9. This article is one of the few very important and incredibly accurate reports on the region I have ever seen by a westerner.

    Being a Sunni myself I deeply detest the view of so many smug westerners. Almost all seem to think we are a monolithic block of people with a deep seated hatred for non-Sunnis and a desire to massacre them all if we don’t get our way.

    Sunnis are not being massacred nor have we faced the level of brutality enacted by jihadists or regimes like Saddam on non-Sunnis. You can clearly see it by how people move. The vast majority of displaced Syrians flee to government territory. The first place Iraqis run to is Baghdad and if they can’t get there then it’s KRG. There have been sectarianism in both countries and that can’t be denied. If you are an Alawite with family connection to the Assads you will have a nice life. If you aren’t then you are one of the most screwed over people in Syria by the government. The only thing Assad has done for the majority of Alawites is make sure that the state treats them equally and they no longer have to fear for their lives. That means an Alawite opponents is treated no different to Sunni opponents.

    The people we are supporting in Syria are by any definition terrorists who wish to commit genocide. The rebels had an advantage in the beginning of the crisis until the summer of 2012. In the beginning everyone knew that Syrian State TV lies so no one listened to their talk of terrorism. Soldiers were defecting rather then fight and most people were on the sidelines. When the rebels attacked Damascus and Aleppo that summer millions of Sunnis had a close hand view of what they were truly like. It didn’t take long for them to start executing innocent people or engage in lawless criminality. They were so bad that Christians and Sunnis in the NE picked the PKK over them.

    Just in case anyone is wonder – no the vast majority of Sunnis do not hate or wish to see massacres of their neighbours. There are relatively backward areas in Iraq and Syria such as Idlib or Fallujah where people have such views. The majority don’t. Even Hama the place that hates the government to it’s core and had the biggest protests has been very silent. None of those people want terrorists coming to their city.

    I have one issue with the author and that his his naive way of thinking that western politicians are misinformed. They’re not and they are doing this on purpose. It’s simple cold political reality. Iran is the biggest threat to western influence in the region and the biggest supporters are countries like Saudi Arabia. A country that has literally no respect from Muslims who don’t get paid by them. They know precisely what they are doing and they are doing it on purpose. Their plan is to basically either weaken or divide Syria so that it doesn’t get involved in regional affairs. It doesn’t matter who is doing it as long as the anti-western government is weakened. In Iraq Shias are the largest group and the ones least dependent on the US unlike Kurds and in the eyes of Obama the Sunnis. It was because of the Shia the US had to withdraw and they are pretty happy working with Iran. By constantly talking about Sunni oppression and Shia militias what our governments want to do is basically weaken the country and make sure they have skin in the game. Make it impossible for Iraq to be 100% pro-Iranian.

    Personally the past five years have disillusioned me to how “good” we are and I hope one day Obama, Clinton, Sarkozy, Cameron and Hollande face trial for their support of sectarian massacres. The rape of thousands of Yazidi girls and the genocide on them is primarily the fault of those who enabled ISIS which is them. I deeply hate them for making me consider the Russians to be the good guys. Only they are interested in working with normal Sunnis and eliminating harshly any extremists. They are cutting the cancer out while we support its growth.

  10. This is an excellent article. And I agree with the author, that the western approach to this conflict is to biased and limited. We need to expand our views and knowledge. Unfortunately, only a few people will heed his advice!!!

  11. This article is important, as it is not just making some general statements or opinion, but with facts which one can use to prove or dispute.

    The following are the facts from this article:

    1. There are many senior Sunnis at higher ranks of government and armed forces. They have been even named by the author.

    2. Most population lives with government controlled areas. This shows that they trust the government. Had there been issues with government, they could have migrated to other parts of Syria, as most part of Syria is not under the government now.

    3. The current government has colorful demographical representation, while the opposed factions are all Sunni, and that too, Salafi branch of Sunni. They frequently call for ethnic cleansing even by the means of genocide, evidenced by numerous recorded videos available. This is a sufficient cause to quell the rebellion.

    4. While Syria is plural in terms of faiths/religion/sects, the monolithic Salafi nature of “rebels” suggests that the driving force is foreign.

    5. The world does injustice by calling them “rebels” instead of phrases such as Sunni-militias, Salafi-militias, while the same world use description in a wrong way to malign the credibility of forces fighting against ISIS in Iraq where those forces are smeared as Shia militias despite it has many hundred thousands of Sunnis fighting with Shia fighters.

    1. But there is nothing new in any of this information: the question is how you evaluate it.
      “There are many senior Sunnis at higher ranks of government and armed forces”. Sure. But what influence do they have in the overall structure of power? One of the vice-presidents (previously *the* VP – and long standing right-hand man of both Assads) Farouk al-Sharaa comes from a Sunni family: but the moment he dissented from Assad’s policies he was sidelined. http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/profiles/2013/07/09/Farouk-al-Sharaa-Syrian-leader-who-wanted-compromise-.html
      It is true that the armed opposition is almost entirely from Sunni communities (although they are not uniformly salafist) but that is how the lines of conflict have been drawn (in large part at the initiative of the regime); but the civil opposition of the early years was more diverse, and many still involved in civil society opposition activitiesacross confessional lines.

  12. This article is a very welcome one.

    I would like to offer some comments:

    From my pov. the Assad government represents a coalition of non Kurdish minorities and moderate as well as mostly urban Sunnites. This coalition is actually pretty broad.
    The generalized selling points of this coalition is that the Alawites were doing a fairly decent job at running the country for the most part, and were also to weak to engage in real sectarian oppression (which was kind of the norm under previous governments by the Sunni majority).
    The Kurds were excluded because they could credibly challenge the Alawis for leadership of the majority + moderate Sunni coalition, and because some level of jackboot application towards Kurds was a condition for good relations with Turkey.

    There is a number of reasons as to why this coalition faced a massive challenge since 2012.
    First, a succession of severe droughts forced many pious rural Sunnis off the land and they became Urban poor in the cities. Since Syrias finances werent doing that well, social services for these new Urban poor were insufficient to generate loyalty. In addition, many of these new Urban poors were somewhat shocked at just how “non islamic” (in terms of dancing, music, alcohol and feminine dress codes) many of Syrias cities were.

    This placed these urban pious poor at the bottom end of an order they detested for religious reasons. In addition, various Saudi, Quatari etc. initiatives, as well as indigenous operations from the Syrian Muslim brotherhood, did provide some “safety net” for these Urban poor while also strengthening their islamist orientation.

    With the so called Arab spring (a complete misnomer. Tunisia is a completely different country from Lybia, let alone Syria. And yes, Arabs in different countries are quite distinct and different from each other) happened, some members of the “moderate Sunni” part of Assad coalition did think they could use the USA in order to rule the Assad coalition instead of the Assads. Needless to say, this didnt exactly work out (despite much ado being produced), and these former coalition members control territory in Turkish hotel lobbies, but not in Syria.

    Meanwhile, the Muslim brotherhood teamed up with Saudi Arabia, Quatar and Turkey to make its own move, slogans were not “freedom and democracy” but “Christians to Beirut, Alawis to the grave” or “Alawi males to the ditch, Alawi females to the whorehouses”. The people shouting these slogans were quite adept in shouting something else when speaking English, and they certainly made use of the “hotel based insurgents” to give themselves a “moderate makeover”, which was very easy because the US, in my view, really wanted to be fooled.

    Assad meanwhile responded. Faced with hostility from Turkey, he immidiatly engaged in a 180 degree change of his Kurdish policy and gave the Kurds de facto autonomy, while not doing a thing to impede the formation of a Kurdish army.
    This effectively got him a quite motivated anti Turkish buffer (with the exception of Latakiah).

    Assad also recognized that he is a pretty unitary actor fighting a large and diverse coalition. As such, it made sense for him to adopt a defensive posture and wait for good old Clausewitzian friction to do its job. Various events, such as US elections, the failed Saudi war on Yemen, Turkish instability etc. all are quite favorable for Mr. Assad.

    Despite loyalist setbacks in Aleppo, the long term trend for the loyalists looks pretty solid.
    The SDF, no friend but also no enemy of the loyalists, draws up an increasing share of western support, effectively neutralizing it as far as the loyalists are concerned. Turkey will see a considerable reduction in overall potency due to Erdogans purges, the Saudis currently have Houti rebels in reach of Najran, and even Wahabi fireeaters from Jeddah now have things closer to home to worry about.

    If the loyalists can dodge the bullet of a US intervention they should be on track to have at least a solid part of a future somewhat federated Syria.

    1. The media narrative surrounding the Arab Spring was as misleading as the buildup to the Iraq war. The idea that Arabs were rising up in order to bring democracy to their respective countries was designed to appeal to Americans.
      People whose are well fed and enjoying an improving standard of living don’t usually engage in a sectarian conflict. The war has more to do with drought and economic changes than religious ideologies.
      Isn’t it ironic that the civil war in Lebanon was only stopped by the intervention of Syria? Could another country step in to do the same for Syria?

      1. The generalized issue with interventions is the following one:

        Typically, some outside power intervenes, and bombs/fights/conquers their proxys into power. However, these proxys then often end up being to weak to maintain power, or end up caring too much about their patron, and not about their new territory and its inhabitants, to generate a sustainable government.

        The ability of a proxy to actually run a country is inversely correlated to the amount of intervention needed to get that proxy into power.

        The kind of “intervention” that could work is one that does not pick a winner (or rather a loser as the US insistance on “Assad must go” does), but one that sets down rules conclusive to an end of a conflict, and conclusive to hostilities with less collateral damage. These rules then have to be enforced against all actors.

        The issue why Western intervention often fails particularly hard is the following:
        To start an intervention, Western media has to engage in a massively overwrought demonisation campaign of the “bad guy” while also turning the “good guys” into “angels”. This means that the west will not police rule violations by its own proxies, as this would collapse the propaganda campaign.

        If you actually look at who breaks ceasefires, it is somewhat more common for various rebels (including SDF in Hasakeh) to do so then for the loyalist coalition. The reason is not because the Syrian government is a trust worthy actor (it is not), the reason for that is that the authority to break truces is pretty centralized in loyalist decision making (there are probably around 5-6 people in the loyalist coalition who can order the SAA to break a truce), while any individual rebel commander is completely capable, and often willing, to break a truce as soon as he sees a tactical advantadge to do so.
        Especially if he can rely on the fact that his backers will not care.

        Russia, the cold cynic Realpolitik power that she is (I would argue that cold realpolitik cynicism will kill, on average, less people that manichean crusades to rid the world of evil), is capable (within limits) and sometimes even willing to “police” Assad (particularly regarding the SAA SDF truce), but only if she sees some western policing of pro western actors first.
        This basically does not happen, because the west is not capable of actually understanding what its proxies actually are.

  13. Kudos to WOTR. This is what sets you apart from the mainstream monotonous defence news. We are stalled in Syria, Iraq and the Middle East because our strategy is flawed. It cannot go on like this as US interests in this vital part of the world are under threat and they spill over to Europe, etc.

    I agree with the writer. Inadvertently we have been led to participate in the sectarian quagmire. That goes against US and western values. Sectarianism cannot bring peace to this region. We must look beyond the sectarian narrative and engage with all groups that value harmony with each other. However, managing Saudi interests will be very difficult. In fact, I doubt USA can form its policy in the Middle East as Saudi dictates the US policy in its periphery. And that is what keeps this view of oppressed Sunnis going.

    What the writer says has even more importance given that Russians are creeping into Iran. Even a temporary Russian air force base in Iran is a bad omen for the region. USA must reach out to Shiites as well to balance its interests. We have to get over 1979.

    However, on the positive side, sectarian clashes in the Middle East have given business to weapons makers on both sides of the Atlantic. If war fires douse, it will cost the US and UK defence industry.

  14. I think it is a no-brainer that “secular” strongmen like Assad or Saddam Hussein are preferable to Islamists.

    Second, those who are fighting because they feel “disenfranchised” are often the very ones that won’t respect the franchise if they get anywhere near power. IMO, a lot of the fighting is more like between two gangs than between oppressors and people longing to breath free. The people longing to breath free are voting with their feet and fleeing the country.

    IMO, it is wrong for us to insist on an outcome before peace is possible (e.g., “Assad must go”) but not put our own necks on the line to ensure that outcome. If we aren’t willing to exercise our muscle, then we can’t have any preconditions for a ceasefire. We are stoking the fires of war with our aid and political posture, and then are outraged over the resulting carnage. Fight or agree to a ceasefire on whatever terms are available, don’t veto it.

  15. Concerning the insanity of “Assad must go”.

    Please consider the following individual facts:

    1: Assad, as an individual, is a lot more “civilized” in his behavior then quite a number of Syrias Mukhabarat heads. From what I get, many hardliners in the loyalist coalition considered him a weakling for not instantly crushing the uprising with overwhelming force, as well as for giving orders to not use deadly force while security forces were killed.

    2: By insisting that “Assad must go” the US basically declared that, in order to negotiate, the Loyalists would first have to unconditionally surrender, and not to the US but to those shouting “Alawites to the grave”. This is a total non starter and precluded any negotiated solution.

    3: The insistence on “Assad must go” alienate even those Russians who are actually interested in having less death around the world.
    Their reasoning is this:
    The Alawis are not conducting a genocidal policy (which would be suicidal for them in any account), their islamist opposition openly proclaims its intention to conduct genocide, and mass murders Alawis, Shia and Christians basically whenever they have to opportunity to do so. Assad kills people who he thinks are his enemies (and well, having a relative in Nusra is not sufficient to be seen as an enemy by Assad).
    The Islamists kill people who arent Islamists. Assad has, within Syria, much less enemies then there are non Islamists in Syria. Therefor, an Assad victory requires less mass murder and is thus preferable over a rebel victory.
    This makes Assad the lesser evil.

  16. Excellent article. I’m glad that someone, for once, is going beyond narratives and into the complexity of a situation. The US has tried to make the Middle East a black and white situation and it is anything but. It is just a shame that instead of having a real conversation about these realities they feed the emotional fodder of those refusing to think instead of be told.

  17. My views are those of an Englishman with no direct experience of Syria or its people but I have considered the matter carefully.

    My opinion is that we should stop supplying wages, MANPADs, ATGMs and night vision sniper rifles to non-state actors in Syria – directly or indirectly. And we should stop bombing people, too.

    We pretend the death and destruction is not our fault, but that only satisfies the wilfully self delusional.

  18. Whilst there are many comments made there is one fact here other than Iran, all of the Governments targeted have been Baathist in nature! With one very simple comment to make, The United States considers Baathist ideology to be at the very least to be Socialist, an over simplification but one that in all probability is the very simple answer of the problem!

  19. A very motivated citizen starts with a pen and legal pad, moves to the wall and post-it notes, and then tries colored yarn to reconcile the relationship map with other sources like the narrative from Washington and the Comments from the article itself. Now one has a wall covered with post-it notes and different colors of yarn symbolizing different power structure descriptions from different sources and haven’t really delved into secondary sources.

    But you have irritated your significant other. Wall still covered with post-its, chopped up yarn all over the floor; when they ask the telling question;
    “What are you going to do if you figure out what the professionals haven’t?”

    One starts with a desired outcome, but the moment a player intrudes they are now an actor and their presence on the stage warps the stage itself. The US has tremendous gravitational pull on any stage. That means every player on the stage has to manipulate our actions to survive.

    This is not an argument for inaction, but an understanding before taking action that there will be secondary and tertiary effects and that action OR INACTION will change the whole map.

    This argues for a profession that studies and contemplates the options, knows the players on the ground deeper than their stated self-descriptions, and advises leadership on courses and consequences.

    While I sympathize with any President’s feelings the State department might not reflect the President’s goals, diplomats are the proper people to do this study. It is their profession. And this President is not the first to throw the diplomat’s table over. But there should be a stable career in providing Presidents with clear, non-partisan analysis.

    Much like I can trust the GAO to do remarkably good impact analysis of trade deals in a non-partisan fashion, there should be (or is for all this citizen knows) a trusted, non-partisan side of State that doesn’t change with every change of administration and is relatively non-political.

    Then we can quit asking the military to be diplomats.

  20. Sunnis have political power in syria …. :/
    When I read this and fell off my chair laughing

    To whom are you selling this guys?
    This clear propaganda ….
    Any how ….. The sunni cities outside the countrol of assad and iraq’s secterian government have been mostly destroyed and the people have been driven out

    Yes many sunnis are with assad …. Sunnis are not united as group
    However …. Sunnis are the majority and they mostly have been excluded from political power, especially from the key army positions like artillery, air force, and intelligence.

    Syria is being run like any other arab farm, exactly like jordand and KSA

  21. There are some valid points, but I definitely have a problem with statements like this one:

    “None of this is to excuse the abuses of the Syrian state and the Iraqi state. In Syria in particular, the government has unleashed desperate levels of brutality, using collective punishment, indiscriminate attacks on insurgent held areas, and harsh siege tactics to prevent insurgents from penetrating state-held areas and to force them to accept ceasefires.”

    Where has the Syrian government unleashed “desperate levels of brutality, using collective punishment, indiscriminate attacks on insurgent held areas, and harsh siege tactics”? One of the main reasons Syrians are willing to fight bravely in their army is because their government has not used collective punishment on entire communities and because it has used siege tactics precisely in order to get the civilians to leave before attacking the enemy. In fact, some would argue that respect for civilian life in the enemy-held enclave of East Aleppo is exactly what allowed the enemy to open that enclave. They were trying to get the civilians out. Otherwise they could have bombed it out of existence. Let’s not forget that two combatants die for every civilian. If the Syrian army is so brutal, why is it not the opposite?

    The author says that he is a security consultant to the humanitarian community in the region. I wonder to what extent he believes the garbage reports put out by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other tools of western governments.

    1. I also have a problem with those allegations of “barrel bombs” and all the rest. But the main part of the article is a rare glimpse of truth on the real nature of the sectarian conflict in the region. It has been carried on Muslim websites such as New Age Islam. I happened to come across it at Mike Rivero’s website. I was so excited to see the piece that I bookmarked the WOTR link on my phone. But now, going through the other pieces here, I see that this is a forum for the beltway crowd. The “barrel bomb” stuff must have been the proper attire for admission. Still, it was good of the editor to allow this much candor. If some of these ideas manage to filter through to the careerists here, splendid. I would leave one parting thought: The Khomeini revolution does not think of itself as Shia. It is Muslim, and Khomeini emphatically said that no Shia should hesitate to pray behind a Sunni imam. Pretty extreme stuff.