Sunnistan Rising?

On the ground in the Middle East, the clear goal of the new Trump administration will be the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But what comes after? That’s the key question that nearly all of the Israeli defense establishment has been asking. So what is Washington’s post-ISIS policy toward Syria and Iraq?

Clearly, the notion that either the Assad regime or Shiite-based militias will replace ISIS is a non-starter for Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf states. The last thing Israel wants is a permanent land-bridge between Iran and Lebanon. Currently nothing can stop the movement of men and materiel through the air, but a land-bridge is a whole different animal.

Assad’s forces are already depleted and demoralized. On the other hand, Hezbollah would be quite far afield operating as a permanent occupying force in eastern Syria. Losses from guerilla tactics could easily spawn general discontent and/or war crime responses. Assad and Hezbollah simply cannot handle the job. The reality that eastern Syria could be occupied by Shiite forces would require a huge commitment of men and resources by both Baghdad and Tehran. For without a dominant Shiite army in western Iraq, eastern Syria cannot be reasonably secured. But standing in the way of this potential Shiite land-bridge are Turkey and the prospect of a no-fly-zone over western Iraq.

Turkey faces an existential threat from both Iran and the Kurdish PKK. The idea that these two forces would work together to secure both western Iraq and eastern Syria is a certain casus belli for Ankara. But isn’t a similar situation true for Israel — as it applies to an Iranian land-bridge into Hezbollah-dominated southern Lebanon and the Syrian Golan Heights? If regional Iranian and Shiite forces are willing to expend the blood and treasure necessary in order to pacify such a large area and population to create such a land-bridge, it is a certainty that both Israel and region’s Sunni states must fight in order to stop such a reality.

In such a scenario, US policy becomes crucial. Defeating ISIS is one thing, but a proper response by the US forces in Iraq (and a proper response by the Iraqi government itself) is essential. The new Trump administration must never succumb to geopolitical designs orchestrated from Tehran. The Sunni region of Iraq must be given full autonomy, like its counterparts in the Kurdish and Shiite regions. President Trump must not make the same mistakes as the Obama administration. Once ISIS is defeated, someone and something will fill the vacuum. Unlike Obama, Trump must make the future of the Sunni regions of Iraq and Syria an essential priority.

Already the media is filled with articles addressing Iraqi Shiite militias and their designs on Tal Afar in far-western Iraq. And already Turkey has vowed to defend the Sunni population of the same city. If there is no control over the Iraqi Shiite militias, then Iraq has become nothing more than a vassal state of Iran. The US has simply no business working with a vassal state of Iran.

Turkey is a member of NATO, and its incursion into Iraq and Syria must be viewed by its allies as defensive in nature. The PKK and its affiliated groups are currently linked with Iran and the Iraqi Shiite militias. In Syria, Hezbollah and Assad have not spent any energy in the battle against ISIS. Instead, the Obama administration has used PKK-affiliated troops to push toward ISIS bases in eastern Syria. Now, however, Iraqi Shiite militias have vowed to expand their reach toward those same ISIS strongholds in Syria. That is, once ISIS is defeated these Iraqi Shiite militias will certainly be willing to fill the vacuum created as the PKK-affiliated troops in Syria retreat back to their border areas with Turkey.

Like so many other of his loosely conceived Middle East projects, Obama’s anti-ISIS policy plays directly to the benefit of Iran. Obama’s ally against ISIS, the PKK-affiliated militias, have no desire to stay in eastern Syria. These militias’ main goal is to assure that they can be resupplied once ISIS is defeated and they return en masse to the Turkish border.

The expansion of the Shiite Iraqi militias into Syria, in coordination with the PKK, would have a dire effect on both the future of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the southern border of Turkey itself. The KRG is an important part of any independent Iraqi government but it is also an important buffer for Turkey. A contiguous PKK presence on Turkey’s southern and southeastern border would be intolerable for Ankara. Also the KRG is an important ally of the anti-Iran moderate forces within the Middle East. This includes Israel.

A Trump policy in the war against ISIS must take into account the future of eastern Syria and western Iraq. To simply evacuate the area after victory is an impossibility. Either Iran, Turkey or a truly independent and functioning Iraq will take over. Such an Iraqi state does not exist at the moment. Unless Baghdad can rein in its pro-Iranian militias, Iraq can never become an independent state. Without an independent Iraqi state, Sunnistan will rise in its place supported by Turkey and other regional allies.

In Assad’s Syria, Russia has sided with Iran. But in ISIS-held territory, the future is unclear. Israel can no longer afford to sit on the fence. In the face of a Trump withdrawal — similar to Bill Clinton’s policy in Afghanistan in the 1990s or Barack Obama’s in Iraq in 2011 — a vacuum would be created causing Turkey and Iran to face off in direct opposition. Such a scenario will mean Sunnistan vs. the Iranian land-bridge. With the continued absence of leadership from Washington, Turkey will become the bulwark against Iranian aggression.

Since the Arab Sunni world can no longer rely on Egypt for added support, it will be up to Saudi Arabia and Jordan to fill the Arab void. With the prospect of Jordan facing an Iranian backlash, Israel would be unwise not to aid in a military balance against Iran in order to create a more stable Middle East.

As far as Moscow is concerned, it is time to cash in on its Syrian policy before events begin to spiral out of control. Already Europe is moving politically toward Russia. The time for a “grand bargain” with the new Trump administration — with France and even potentially with Mrs. Merkel in Germany — is ripening. But events in the Middle East could change the atmosphere in Europe and the US quickly. This is especially true if America’s Middle East allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel are involved in a direct confrontation with Iran.

President Trump would only complicate matters by abrogating the Iran nuclear deal. Instead, he should view the deal as a flawed interim agreement in search of a far better future alternative. He would be wise to monitor the deal strictly, but keep it in place until such time as Israel (the region’s only nuclear power) authors a permanent alternative. However, President Trump and the Republican Congress must make it clear to Iran that they will not be held hostage by the current deal. Iranian behavior within the region must be judged separately and policy applied as necessary. The time to link Iranian regional policy with its nuclear program ended once the deal was finalized in 2015.

In the lead-up to the Iran nuclear deal, President Obama relinquished US regional leadership in order that Tehran would not leave the negotiations. Redlines were disregarded in Syria and Russia was allowed to fill the void. This policy has been a complete failure from an Israeli, Turkish and Sunni Arab point of view. If nothing is done by Washington to stop Iranian hegemony in the aftermath of the defeat of ISIS, an expanded regional war (perhaps involving Russian troops) will become the certain outcome. In such a scenario, the border between Iraq and Syria will cease to exist, Sunnistan will begin to rise, and the KRG will become an independent state. Therefore it is high time for the Shiite Arabs of Iraq to decide whether they are to continue to be subjects of Iranian hegemonic designs, or independent actors in a free Iraq.

President Trump must define his post-ISIS policy in clear and precise terms. This policy (or lack thereof) will have severe implications for the region and the entire world. When Israeli defense analysts view the Middle East, the first question they ask is about the future of Syria. But an Iran-controlled Syria means the permanent domination of Iraq as well.

If Syria is to remain a unified state, Assad and Russia do not have the power to make it so. Only a dominant Iran or a Syrian political settlement without Assad (but with a protected Alawi community) can keep the country together. Iraq faces a similar problem. Any attempt by Tehran and Baghdad to create a dominant regional Iran will mean escalation into total regional war and the risk of a Turkish, Saudi, Jordanian or Israeli confrontation with Russia and/or Iran over the skies of Sunnistan. Once this happens, an Israeli-Hezbollah war becomes inevitable. Obviously, a “grand bargain” involving superpower cooperation and a Syrian political settlement would be a far better choice for presidents Putin and Trump.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).
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