If and when a renewed Islamic State appears, the international community might do well to manage its emergence more carefully than for the first Islamic State. Every effort must be made to prevent any renewed Sunni political movement being captured by Islamic fundamentalism. But it is hard to see a strict return to the historical boundaries of Sykes-Picot, no matter how much Shia voices in Damascus and Baghdad might insist.
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By Matthew Parish
At the time of writing (mid-October 2017), the self-declared capital of the so-called Islamic State, Al-Raqqa in northern Syria, is finally succumbing to military action pursued by predominantly Kurdish forces under US direction. The Islamic State once occupied a third of the Syrian and Iraqi states, including Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul. Now it is relegated to a patch of territory around the Syrian city of Deir-ez-Zor. The Islamic State is surely finished, after a period of existence of barely three years since its inception as a transnational caliphate to its ultimate demise at the hands of a combination of Iranian, Kurdish, Russian, Syrian, Iraqi and western armed forces. With so many enemies, the Islamic State was doomed. No matter how large the funds Gulf Arabs and other Sunni nations might channeled towards the Islamic State in its early days, such a confluence of hostile military forces inevitably precipitated its end.
Yet the Islamic State was singular by the standards of recent historical events. Rarely since the end of the Second World War has an insurgent movement within a country been so successful – without the strong support of a regional or Great Power – that it has been able to declare itself as politically separate from the country of which it forms part. (One possible contrary example is also in Iraq – the Kurdistan Regional Government, founded in 1992. But the KRG was strongly supported by the US-led coalition in the First Gulf War to liberate Kuwait after its occupation by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.) Totally unheard of throughout the same period is a revanchist-style occupation of part of a neighbouring country by forces representing a common ethnic or religious group, with a view to carving a new political space out of the adjacent territories of two states. In this regard the Islamic State has been unique.
The Islamic State bore a similarity to many other political movements in Iraq and Syria. It was an attempt to redraw the political boundaries of the region so as to undermine the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 whereby the British and French governments agreed to divide the Levantine territories of the Ottoman Empire between them. The dividing lines so agreed created new multi-ethnic states of Syria and Iraq, each of which would have citizens that are Arab Sunni Muslims, Arab Shia Muslims and Kurds. Both these countries proved politically unstable by reason of their multi-ethnicity. Subsequent British and French policies, and other factors, resulted in the installation of minority governments.
From 1970 Syria was governed by an Alawite minority (a branch of Shia Islam) although the country was majority-Sunni. From 1979 Iraq was governed by Saddam Hussein, a Sunni leader in a majority-Shia country. Both Syrian and Iraqi regimes tried to stifle the fact of minority rule by asserting that they were wedded to Ba’athism, ostensibly a secular Arab nationalist ideology. But they were both repressive regimes, because a minority ethnic group in each case exercised totalitarian control over a disaffected majority population.
These minority-rule arrangements were upset at the beginning of the twentieth century. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 overthrew Sunni rule and replaced it with a facially democratic arrangement that led to Shia domination of the country’s central political institutions. The so-called Arab Spring movement precipitated a civil war in Syria starting in 2011, in which the Sunni majority sought to overthrow the Alawaite minority.
In both countries Sunni constituencies in the north decided that they want to separate from each nation’s central governments, both of which were by this time Shia (or Alawite)-dominated. These parallel motives were the genesis of the cross-border phenomenon of the Islamic State, the underlying philosophy of which was creation of an autonomous homeland for estranged Sunni Muslims in the Levant. Estranged Iraqi bureaucrats from the Saddam era, ejected from their professional posts upon American occupation of Iraq, drove the administration of the Islamic State. Perhaps the Islamic State’s biggest weakness was its adherence to hyper-conservative Sunni Islamic doctrine and overt attraction of the world’s fundamentalist Muslims. The political and social precepts of the Islamic State, including strict implementation of Sharia law, persecution of women and homosexuals, virulent imposition of conservative social rules, embrace of foreign terrorists and barbarism towards its population and outsiders alike, in time caused the entire international community to revolt against the project. Once this took place, military annihilation of the Islamic State was inevitable.
But consider the scenario in which the Islamic State had not embraced the most offensive aspects of conservative political Islam and had not become arguably the most oppressive and tyrannical government structure in the world. Instead imagine that the Islamic State had associated itself with a moderate Sunni Muslim political movement, with a justifiable claim to redraw arbitrary historical borders imposed by Anglo-French decree and correct historical injustices, perhaps naming itself the Republic of the Northern Levant and embracing contemporary democratic norms.
This is the model the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds have followed at various stages over the last twenty-five years. Their quests for statehood, or at least for political autonomy, have thereby proven a lot harder to resist. Neither contemporary Shia-dominated regime in Damascus or Baghdad has showered itself in glory as an epicentre of tolerant multi-ethnic government. Stripped of cruelty and barbarism, the political axiom underlying the Islamic State remains compelling.
There is no evidence that the politics of central government in either Syria or Iraq may be expected to be more accommodating to Sunni Muslims, as a majority (in Syria) or a minority (in Iraq) than they were in 2014 when the Islamic State was robustly established or in the prior years when the foundations for its existence were laid. There remain substantial disenfranchised Sunni communities in both countries that yearn for separation from Shia domination. Moreover they view Kurdish success in achieving substantial autonomy in both countries (indeed through contiguous territories that also bear limited features of cross-border sovereignty) with some envy.
Why can the Sunnis not succeed where the Kurds have? The geographical parameters of the Islamic State were more or less accurate in capturing Sunni-majority urban populations, outside Aleppo (Syria’s second city whose Sunni population was repressed by Damascus with Russian military assistance) and Baghdad (effectively now a partitioned city). The regional geopolitical imperatives for creation of the territory previously known as the Islamic State remain. One cannot help but contemplate the prospect of a new Sunni territory taking its place once the Great Powers lose focus. There is always Gulf Arab money sufficient to recreate such a project.
The only courses for political development of the Levant that might defuse this dynamic seem unlikely. One is permanent vigilance by the likes of Russia and the United States, to repress a Sunni separatist movement whenever the first chutes might arise. Indefinite Great Power attention to so unstable a region might be perceived a remote prospect. Another is fundamental political reform in both Damascus and Baghdad that undermines Sunni perceptions of threats from the Shia and assures Sunnis that they can live in multi-ethnic states where they will enjoy representation in central institutions and/or devolution of power to local institutions, and where they will be safe. Given the immature and violent politics of the region, this is hard to imagine upon any short-term scenario.
A third possibility is voluntary integration of Sunnis into Kurdish political institutions. (Kurds are also Sunni.) But the prevailing trend now seems to be for the Syrian and Iraqi states to seek to roll back Kurdish territorial domination of northern Syria and Iraq. The Shia regimes may become as antagonistic towards the Kurds as they are towards the Sunnis, in which case further expansion of Kurdish proto-states to absorb Sunni Arabs hardly seems likely to take place without violence and attempts at oppression by Damascus and Baghdad. In conclusion, all scenarios indicate that a Sunni autonomy movement may reappear sooner than we would care for.
If and when a renewed Islamic State appears, the international community might do well to manage its emergence more carefully than for the first Islamic State. Every effort must be made to prevent any renewed Sunni political movement being captured by Islamic fundamentalism. But it is hard to see a strict return to the historical boundaries of Sykes-Picot, no matter how much Shia voices in Damascus and Baghdad might insist. The dissolution of the Ba’athist nation states seen in the early twenty-first century may be impossible to reverse. One or two Sunni territories, at least enjoying some level of de facto federal autonomy within Syria and Iraq, may become as inevitable as their Kurdish equivalents. In the international community’s efforts to fashion a policy for the future of the Levant that seeks to achieve stability even once foreign attention towards the region has declined, the emergence of a Sunni homeland within the Levant may be something we are bound to accept for want of a better alternative.
Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva and formerly served as a UN peacekeeper in the Balkans. He is an honorary Professor at the University of Leicester. www.matthewparish.com.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.