Iraq’s sectarian divide has emerged as a defining feature of identity politics and international relations between the Gulf States following the US invasion in 2003. The toppling of Saddam and the introduction of democracy all but ensures Shia control of the central government moving forward, and lends itself to Iranian influence as the Shia regional power. But this new political reality is one that that many Iraqi Sunnis are unwilling to accept.
After the US invasion, the Anbar Province gave birth to a fierce insurgency. Initiated by Sunni former Baathists, the resistance would evolve to include foreign Sunni fighters with the shared agenda of resisting US involvement, and the perceived Shia takeover of the government, albeit by Democratic means. This first insurgency, which I’ll refer to as Part I, set the stage for the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS), which could be referred to as Part II.
The emergence of ISIS, which journalist Terrance McCoy describes in his 2014 article as the culmination of the organizational skills of the ex-Baathist, and the sense of purpose of the jihadist, coalesced into an existential threat to the fledgling Iraqi state.
Part II became what many feared Part I would be, an entity with both the intent and capability of carrying out well-coordinated terrorist attacks on foreign soil. What’s more, the propaganda machine of ISIS was formidable — drawing in thousands of disaffected Muslims from different parts of the world.
Directionally, this evolution suggests a progression for the worse. Which brings us to the central concern. What will Part III entail? Decimated by years of war and an exodus of refugees, how can the Anbar province rebound and achieve both political and economic stability?
Although largely dismissed as impractical at the time, the ideas articulated by Joe Biden and Leslie Gelb in their 2006 New York Times op-ed entitled “Unity Through Autonomy in Iraq,” should be revisited. Prophetic in many ways, Biden and Gelb predicted the inability of the central government to suppress a Sunni insurgency. They were right, as evidenced by the rapid collapse of the Iraq Army after years of training at the hands of the US military. In the end, achieving final victory over ISIS required the mass mobilization of militia groups and the concerted use of air power from both the US and Russia. The government in Baghdad must rethink its approach.
The idea of partition, which was largely dismissed as a non-starter at the time, should also be revisited. To achieve lasting stability, the Sunni Tribes of Anbar will require real political power and greater independence from Baghdad. More indigenous than foreign, it’s no surprise the senior leadership of ISIS was mostly Iraqis, led by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
The new normal in Part III must have greater appeal than a repackaged form of extremism. In this effort, we must also recognize that devastation alone will not deter the next insurrection—as we saw in the birth of ISIS immediately following the Iraq War. The establishment of semi-autonomous and autonomous regions within Iraq is not a new concept — as evidenced by the Kurds’ relative independence in the north under US-led no-fly zones following the Gulf War.
While North Korea and Iran loom large for US policymakers, more attention must be paid to the fate of Anbar. With awareness and regional cooperation, what comes next will be critical for regional stability.
Brandon Woods is a former US Army intelligence officer who served in Iraq in 2006 with the 4th Infantry Division. A former Presidential Management Fellow, he has a Master’s in International Affairs from Columbia University and studied the Middle East while attending the University of Virginia.