U.S. Options in Anbar as Sunnis Continue Pattern of Shifting Alliances
John A. McCary
As sectarian tensions boiled over in the past week in Iraq's restive western province of Anbar, news reporting has failed to capture historical perspective on shifting alliances in the predominantly Sunni region from as little as five years ago. After returning from a year long tour on the front lines in Anbar in 2004, I spent the next five years studying and analyzing developments in the region, maintaining some personal contacts and interviewing recently returned front line military personnel. I published my analysis in January 2009, detailing how U.S. forces bucked Washington policy and mounted a years long campaign to convince Sunni tribal leadership to ally with the U.S. in the short term in order to rid themselves of an infectious al Qaeda presence, as well as help counterbalance the predominantly Shiite central government. This resulted in an immediate, massive reduction in violence, the ejection of al Qaeda and the participation of Sunnis in central government on an unprecedented scale. My analysis can be found here: http://csis.org/publication/twq-anbar-awakening-alliance-incentives-winter-2009.
Absent an effective U.S. counterbalance, Sunnis in Anbar have returned to old alliances with al Qaeda and other sympathetic resistance forces in order to push back against the predominantly Shiite central government. A year long protest camp in the hotbed city of Fallujah exploded into violence this week after a popular Sunni member of Parliament from Anbar was arrested in a violent confrontation that killed his brother.
Based on my experience in Anbar, my knowledge of the Sunni calculus in shifting external and internal alliances in order maintain their position in Iraq, and my recent experience as a diplomat in the State Department Foreign Service, the U.S. has the following options:
1. Arm the Shiites. This option ranks highest only because it is our current approach. In the wake of this week's violence, the U.S. has rushed to provide Baghdad with military weaponry, including drones and hellfire missiles. From a moral, egalitarian, historical, and personal perspective, this is a horrible idea. We have worked for decades now to convince Sunnis in Anbar and the northern Kurdish regions that we do not support sectarian government. This move will no doubt be perceived as another betrayal. However, from a purely balance of power, national sovereignty and especially an internal stability perspective, this is not pretty, nor "good," but possibly effective.
We upended Iraq and from a practical perspective, rebalanced representative government according to the populace. Shiites are dominant. Sunnis are a minority. That there will be violent uprisings against this "new order" should be expected. The Confederates did not lie down for a good many years following Appomattox.
From a purely external point of view, stabilizing the central government's authority is THE way to go. It encourages stability in the region, ensures the borders with contentious neighbors like Syria remain largely intact, and reinforces the international norm of state sovereignty.
2. Intervene diplomatically. The Marines and the Army still have deep ties to the Sons of Anbar, the Awakening, the Abu-Reesha's, and Anbar. Our envoys could certainly broker talks, and could conceivably convince the Sunnis that al Qaeda is not and will never be a bulldog on a leash that they can use effectively and cast off when needed. Allying with al Qaeda is like loosing a vial of flesh eating bacteria. The winds change ten minutes from now and it eats your face. There is also some work to be done communicating to Shiite Baghdad that carpet bombing a city is not the most effective form of conflict resolution, nor is arresting an influential leader, killing his other brother and throwing him in prison.
That being said, any intervention on our part undermines our public policy (see #1). This is a problem for us diplomatically worldwide. We constantly say as diplomats, "You are sovereign, democratic and we support your independence. Also, we don't like what you're doing and want you to stop." The most convincing arguments that allow us to embrace this kind of "contradiction" are ones related to our own past and/or arguments on efficacy. "Yes, you can carpet bomb Fallujah. If you want to, it's your right, your choice. Our experience as a super power suggests this may be equivalent to shooting yourself in the foot. Here's why..."
3. Work the perimeter. Our real concern is not necessarily sectarian in-fighting, but its potential second- and third-order effects. If minimizing al Qaeda is our primary objective, then we encourage/pressure nations surrounding Anbar - Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Kuwait and Saudi, for starters, with secondary appeals to Lebanon (remember when we helped you kick out the Syrians?) and Israel (no jet bombers, please).
4. Do nothing. I only list this as #4 because #5 is so horrible. In reality, this is our safest, easiest course of action. Diplomatically, we can couch this as internal growing pains, support the central government politically but not tactically (no extra tanks, drones, bombs), and see how it plays out. I can almost guarantee this is what Embassy Baghdad is suggesting. It maintains our relationship with Shiite-Baghdad, and allows us to claim we support sovereignty while also keeping Sunnis in Anbar and Kuwait and Saudi on our side, as we can honestly say, "We agree it's horrible. We are pleading with Shiite-Baghdad not to do this. We are working for a peaceful resolution."
5. Invade. This is more like Option #99, but it is still on the radar, and our forces in Kuwait are likely on high alert at this very moment.
To be sure, if the Sunnis in Anbar allow al Qaeda to carve out a safe haven in the Iraq-Syria badlands, a la the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, then all bets are off. Whether Baghad levels the province, we loose the Israelis with carte-blanche permission to fire at will, or the U.S. recommits a specific lethal presence in the area, allying with al Qaeda is a line in the sand that cannot be tolerated.
Groups will play to their interests as needed, but to ally with a globally-focused al Qaeda unit intent on blowing up NYC, DC, Paris or London is unforgivable. Our experience suggests, however, that most of al Qaeda is local-conflict focused, so we can probably hold off the B-52s for a bit.
As we continue to follow events in Iraq, we should not forget the hard-won lessons from the last decade, especially the years spent fighting for peace in Anbar, for which we paid with American lives. There will be future conflicts such as this one, as sectarian tensions ebb and flow during the country's political development. We should act with our eye on our own recent history, as well as keeping sight of a future stable, independent Iraq.