It is as fascinating as it is depressing to observe from ‘Old Europe’ how America is falling into the very traps that plagued the British and French colonial experiences in the region. Paris and London for decades played a sectarian deadly game of divide and rule, pitting ethnic and religious groups against each other in order to ensure their imperial domination. Today, and no matter how much Barack Obama wants to distance himself from his predecessor in his Middle East policy, he has endorsed the same sectarian logic as George W. Bush when the latter in 2003 launched an expedition into Iraq that could only be described as colonial.
This is indeed a major paradox, since Washington has always boasted of its anti-colonialist credentials in the Middle East. In 1918 Woodrow Wilson defended the right of self-determination for the people of the region while Paris and London had secretly carved it up through the infamous Sykes-Picot secret deal. This deal was never fully enforced, but it has become the symbol of colonial betrayal in the imposition of the League of Nations ‘mandates’: France was to oversee Syria and Lebanon, while the UK was granted the same kind of ‘mandate’ over Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq.
The United Kingdom restructured the post-Ottoman state in Iraq with an enforced Sunni Arab preeminence that put Shia Arabs (even more so than the Kurdish minority) in a vulnerable and precarious position. The numerous other groups, including Assyrians, Jews and Turkmens, were however the main losers from this tripartite deal. Meanwhile the French divided and ruled Lebanon through a sectarian distribution of political and military power. In both instances, colonial powers insisted on the protection of ‘minorities’ in order to deny the Iraqi and Lebanese peoples’ right to self-determination.
The US-sponsored Constitution of post-Saddam Iraq incorporated the worst of those two colonial precedents. The tripartization of Iraq was made even more rigid, with catastrophic outcomes for Christians and Yezidis, excluded from the deals struck between Sunnis, Shia and Kurds (the fact that Sunnis and Shia are Arabs and that Kurds might be either Sunni or Shia is not even mentioned anymore). But while the British rulers had promoted Sunnis as the main partner, the modern US proconsuls heavily played the Shia card and privileged returnees from exile over domestic grassroots leaders.
This could still have been manageable if America had not imposed upon Iraq a Lebanon-style system of sectarian repartition of politico-military power. The multi-faceted violence of the US occupation accelerated the marginalization of the Sunni community and the militarization of the various parties. While it took two generations for the French legacy of sectarian polarization to precipitate a fully-fledged civil war in Lebanon, three years of US rule were enough to generate a Sunni-Shia all-out conflict that caused major population transfers.
US general David Petraeus tried to revert the tide of ethnic cleansing and Sunni exclusion through his 2007 ‘surge’. He enrolled Sunni fighters on a massive scale into the so-called Sahwa (Awakening) militias and then succeeded in dissociating the population of Anbar province from the jihadi forces (the Iraqi branch of Al-Qaida had already rebranded itself as an ‘Islamic State’). But Petraeus was not able to deploy Sahwa groups in Mosul, because the Kurdish leadership was intent on the eventual conquest of Iraq’s second city and did not want a Sunni challenger in its midst.
So the post-colonial ‘surge’ in Iraq was incomplete and left a power vacuum in Mosul that jihadi activists eventually filled up, posing as militants of a popular Sufi brotherhood, the Naqshabandiyya. What Petraeus had achieved in Anbar province was systematically dismantled under the government of Nouri Maliki, between 2008 and 2014. The Sahwa militias were not only disbanded, but were hunted down by a sectarian Shia-first administration, lavishly supporting its own paramilitary organizations.
The Obama Doctrine
Obama sincerely wanted to erase his predecessor’s disastrous legacy in Iraq, but his inability to curb Maliki’s sectarian policy only made the new US president a reluctant, but diligent, follower of George W. Bush’s fateful course. The Iraqi ‘national army’ Washington was supporting unconditionally was as Shia-supremacist as the ‘national army’ established by the British rulers was Sunni-driven in colonial times. This army, plagued by sectarian bias, proved unable to resist the jihadi assault on Fallujah, in Anbar province, in January 2014, and in Mosul, five months later.
The new Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) emerged triumphant with substantial territorial gains. ISIS also benefitted from US abstention in Syria, especially after the Assad regime had successfully defied, with the August 2013 chemical attack in Damascus, the ‘red lines’ the Obama administration had so vainly proclaimed. On both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border, jihadi propaganda could portray ISIS as the main defender of the Sunni cause, while the US were accused of supporting the ‘oppressors’ in the form of Maliki and Assad.
Instead of revamping a policy that had so dramatically played into the hands of ISIS, the US president conceptualized an ‘Obama doctrine’ that boiled down to a pattern that was, actively or passively, anti-Sunni. The White House disregarded the fact that ‘appeasing’ Iran through the nuclear deal had proved to be a fatal illusion, with Revolutionary Guards and their affiliated militias escalating their involvement in both Iraq and Syria. And, to make matters even worse, the US military decided to throw their lot in Syria not with the predominantly Sunni revolutionary forces, but with the Kurdish militias.
The French colonial power had already played Kurdish irredentism in Syria against the Arab nationalists in the twenties and thirties. And the Assad regime had, from the very beginning of the popular uprising in the spring of 2011, manipulated the PYD, the local affiliate of the pan-Kurdish PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), against the revolutionary coalition. Hundreds of American special forces are now fighting alongside the PKK/PYD in the unlikely hope of conquering Raqqa, ISIS’s main stronghold in Syria.
I have repeatedly stated that only Sunni Arab forces can liberate Raqqa and, what is more, control it after the ouster of jihadis from the city. The same is true with the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which predominantly Shia forces claimed to have recently ‘liberated’. Such ‘victories’ could prove self-defeating if the local Sunni population is abandoned to an ‘alien’ occupation: Kurdish in Raqqa, Shia in Fallujah. The jihadi blowback would then be inevitable and devastating, as the 3 July mass killings in Baghdad have already proved.
To avoid piling war upon war, America has to correct the colonial bias of its sectarian policies in the region. It could learn a lot from the failure of France, during its mandate over Syria from 1920 to 1943, to divide the country into various minority-based micro-‘states’. But it would be a disastrous course to try and redesign the prevailing State borders along ethnic or religious affiliations. The alienation of Sunni Arabs is to be addressed in the existing frameworks of both Syria and Iraq.
ISIS would be the sole winner of the disintegration of the region into a Sunnistan, a Shiastan, a Kurdistan or an Alawistan. Carving up new fiefdoms for sectarian militias can only lead to more violence and terror, and not just in the Middle East.
Jean-Pierre Filiu is Professor of Middle East Studies at Sciences Po in Paris, and has held visiting professorships at both Columbia University and Georgetown University. His book The Apocalypse in Islam was awarded the main prize by the French History Association. His books and articles on the Arab world have been published in a dozen languages. He is the author of From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihadi Legacy, and Gaza: A History.