John R. Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, writes today in the New York Times that as America debates how to respond to the Paris attacks, President Obama’s current policy and other recent proposals “lack a strategic vision for the Middle East one the Islamic State, or ISIS, is actually defeated.” Bolton adds, “There are no answers, or only outmoded ones, to the basic question: What comes after the Islamic State?”
Not only do I have an answer to Mr. Bolton’s question, but I have two of them!
Mr. Bolton’s own answer is to create a new state in the Middle East from the Sunni portions of both Syria and Iraq. I am sure that many will point out the problems with his formula. But he must be commended for at least trying to think through one.
Essentially, the problem of the Middle East, for the last two centuries, has hinged on how to manage diversity and identity politics. This problem invited Western interference back in 1839, and continues to do so with the threat posed by the Islamic State.
The problem is particularly acute in the post-Ottoman states of Iraq and Syria. However, let us not assume that the creation of these states was some sort of post-WWI bureaucratic fumble; the men (and woman) who sat down to draw these lines on the map were some of the most thoughtful and most knowledgeable characters in the annals of policy-making.
There are two ways to think of both Syria and Iraq: Is it a hardware problem, or a software problem?
Bolton thinks the fault lies in the hardware. I counsel that we should try one more software upgrade to fix the bugs. If that works, then maybe we can look towards extending the solution. If it doesn’t, then that would be the time to hear out proposals such as the one he laid out in the Times Op-Ed.
Short-term solution: the Federal Region of Salahuddin
The idea is to immediately turn Salahuddin Province into a stand-alone federal region, similar to the Kurdistan Regional Government. The provincial council of Salahuddin had asked for exactly that, in Nov. 2011, when it activated the clauses in the Iraqi constitution that allow for it. Maliki simply ignored the request. It was the most mature Sunni Arab vision for the future to emerge since 2003—an opportunity lost.
The ISF and the Shia PMUs fought hard to liberate much of Salahuddin. They denied the caliph his hometown. They took back Saddam’s too. A federal region would show Arab Sunnis what the future looks like after ISIS. It would look like this: a regional capital in Samara, Regional Guard to protect Salahuddin, and turning political gripe into a very local affair rather than extending it to Shia-dominated Baghdad. If the clansmen of the caliph and his former neighbors can grudgingly accept it as the future, and if Saddam’s folk can do the same, then Iraq can turn a corner in the politics of sectarianism, by inverting identity politics into the politics of ‘local-ism’, as the constitution allows.
But the Sunnis need to show maturation. They need to earn the trust of the Shia political center (Sistani, Hakim, Sadr—not all of Baghdad is beholden to Iran as Bolton seems to suggest), so that the political forces speaking for that center can sell it to the wider Shia public, despite the alarmist screams of Maliki and his ilk. And it is not enough for the leadership and elite of the Arab Sunnis to show maturation, they need to demonstrate that there is wide societal buy-in too. So what compromises do Sunnis have to make to earn the trust of the Shia? I maintain that it would be achieved by upholding a form of de-Ba’athification. Among the politicians of the federal region, de-Ba’athification then becomes a tool for local political maneuvering in tiny little Shirgat, rather than it being perceived as a sectarian barrier employed by Shias against Sunnis, denying them jobs in Baghdad. Otherwise, the Shia won’t bankroll a standing ‘Sunni army’ with ex-Ba’athist officers within an hour’s drive to Baghdad. They certainly won’t give up the holy shrine in Samarra that easily either. But what if the success of the de-Ba’athified ‘Sunni army’ is coupled with its ability to protect the shrine too? This same Arab Sunni force must also demonstrate that it can protect Arab Shia, Turkuman Shia, and Sunni Kurd minorities in the province.
In 2013 I thought Sunnis as a society were ripe for such a maturation after having been exhausted by the insurgency, and by Maliki’s brand of Shia chauvinism, and that this change would embolden their elite to strike the necessary compromise. Only in the last two months did I realize I was mistaken. However, we can’t wait around forever, and the process must be jump-started. Sunni leaders must emerge to lead their societies towards maturation, and with a moderately small ‘focus group’ such as that of Salahuddin’s (approximately 1 million people) it may work. It so happens that the man who is the father of ‘Salahuddin federalism’ (another Samarran, just like the caliph) may have what it takes to cajole his people towards a compromise. He had Ba’athist sympathies, but not enough of an affiliation to bar him from running in the last election. He won, but couldn’t take his seat in parliament because Maliki had an arrest warrant out for him.
The SFR (Salahuddin Federal Region) may be the beta-test of a solution that works for Arab Sunnis. We can try it now because much of the province has been taken back from the caliphate. We have a leadership that can potentially manage it. We have precedent (they asked for it in 2011). If America wants to help than it can cajole the government in Baghdad to ‘greenlight’ it. If the West really wants to help it can make the SFR economically viable by doing things like rebuilding the Beiji Refinery.
Long-term solution: the Confederation of the Fertile Crescent
In Eisenhower’s words, “Can’t solve a problem, enlarge it.” Maybe the solution lies in a confederation between Syria and Iraq.
It would make economic sense (transport, resources, water). It would ‘relax’ identity politics between Sunnis and Shiites by achieving numerical equivalence. The KRG would extend into Rojava and vice versa. There would be enough oil money to go around rebuilding both countries. It would consist of multiple federated units (probably 7 in Iraq—like that of Salahuddin—and another 8 in Syria). Minorities would band together across both countries to get concessions from the majorities, who would need them to tip the political scales.
It may sound like one of Antoine Saadeh’s earlier visions but it isn’t: this confederation does not need an overarching ideology of shared origins (Greater Syria, Natural Syria, or even the ‘enlightened’ Arab Nationalism that colonial powers tried to introduce post WWI). It is also unlikely to include Lebanon, Jordan and Israel/Palestine.
All this ‘new cosmopolitan state’ needs to do is convince its populace that its cohesion is the best outcome after all other outcomes have been exhausted. That is, for the Confederation of the Fertile Crescent, its hardware and software is one and the same thing: staying together is better than breaking apart. More money, more local control over one’s identity and destiny, and less war.
Societies exhausted by wars look for big answers. Let us try to give an answer that doesn’t drive them to further wars.