Iraq-Syria conflict: An enigma, or the dawn of a Jaziran state?

As on Syria, Congress should continue with its prudent policy of not rushing into intervention nor force the hands of the president to do just that. The debate in Washington about U.S. policy on Iraq and Syria and the possibility of the emergence of an al-Qaeda run state in the area should be informed instead by lessons learned from our past interaction with the complex cultures of the two countries and their myriad ethnicities, priorities and collective memories. 

Since its creation by the British mandate authority in 1921, Iraqi military and ultimately the Iraqi state were run by the Sunni Arab minority. As such, the unelected minority governed through coercion and violence. This norm was broken only after the invasion of the country in 2003 and removal from Baghdad the last Sunni Arab dictator, Saddam Hussein.

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Confusing or choosing to misinterpret democracy with a ‘dictatorship of the majority,’ the liberated Shia majority went ahead to dominate the state and government to the exclusion of the Sunni Arabs. In the meantime, the Kurds, proportionally larger than the Sunni Arabs, had been running a semi independent state in their mountainous homeland that had been gassed by Saddam Hussein in 1988, and wished not to jump into the fray in the lowlands where the Shia and Sunni Arabs were having it out.

In the event, the Sunnis invited into Iraq the international terrorist organizations to help turn back the clock and restore Sunni domination by raining murder and mayhem on the novice Shia government in Baghdad.

An attack on the Shia shrine of Samarra in February of 2006, one of the holiest in the entire Shia world, instantly translated into an all out civil war. The result was a runaway bloodbath carried out by vengeful Shia militias to drive out, if not exterminate, all the Sunni Arabs from Iraq.

Being about one-third as many as the Shias, the Iraqi Sunni Arabs had by September 2007 awakened to the fact that their days in Iraq were numbered unless they accepted the American offer of a mediated peace and power sharing. This awakening -- Sahwa in Arabic -- resulted in a speedy expulsion of the terrorists from Sunni northwestern Iraq (known to history as Jazira) and an American sponsored dialog between the Sunni and Shia with the Kurds playing the role of disinterested observers.

Since then, however, the Shias have governed alone, excluding the Sunnis from any real power. The Kurds in northern mountains were left to form a fully separate state apparatus from Baghdad. To their chagrin, even this the Sunni Arabs could not do. Kurds already have a well-developed economy, rich with oil resources and complete with pipelines connecting them to the Turkish ports on the Mediterranean Sea. The remaining oil and gas deposits and export facilities are inside Shia south and central Iraq. Sunnis have none. An independent Sunni Arab northwest Iraq -- the Jazira -- would be an arid, landlocked, resource poor region at the mercy of the Kurds and the Shia.

But what if the Iraqi Sunni Arabs could absorb the Syrian Sunni Arab areas of western Jazira? It would double the population and bestow on it all the oil and gas resources of Syria in the Khabur basin. And if it were to punch a short salient from Idlib through the Alawite country to the coastal Syria, it would also gain an outlet to the Mediterranean.

To achieve this end, the help of the terrorists like the al Qaeda and its affiliates (ISIS, etc.) have been once again secured -- and with the same bloody outcome as in 2004-2007 in Iraq. However, seemingly the Sunni Arabs on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian borders are convinced they can control the terrorists by first taking advantage of their reckless suicidal prowess to bring down the local authorities, only to eliminate them once they have achieved their own goal of an independent unified Jazira.

From the point of view of the Iraqi Shia or the Syrian Alawite, this eventuality might not be bad at all. Iraqi Shias have little to gain by sacrificing their blood in order to force control over the combative Sunni desert homelands of northwest Iraq. All Iraqi oil and gas deposits outside Kurdistan are in the Shia dominated south and center, as well Iraq’s only outlet to the sea.  Shias have already let go of the Kurds in all but name. Why fight to keep the disgruntled Sunni? That simple fact is behind the almost instant occupation of all Sunni lands in northwest Iraq by the Sunnis under the guise of ISIS and without any concerted reaction from Baghdad. The Shia have easily defended what is theirs, including the holy city of Samarra which juts north deep into Sunni territories. But no farther.

What should be the American reaction? If the process can be finalized at a negotiating table between all parties, it might not be an outlandish idea. What was done for Sudan and the split of its southern regions to form the Republic of South Sudan in 2011, can be done peacefully for Iraq-Syria and the formation of a secular, Sunni Arab Jazira to also take in the Christian communities in the area if the latter so chose. The terrorists -- al-Qaeda and ISIS -- will not dominate that state. They are tools in the hands of the local Sunni Arabs to help them rise to power.

Izady is a professor of Middle Eastern and Western history at Pace University in New York. He helps train and brief Special Forces troops and others in the U.S. military here and overseas on ethnic and social issues.