Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s new adventure in Anbar province will redefine the dynamics of the Sunni-Shiite conflict in the Middle East. As Maliki fights the Sunnis in Iraq, next door President Bashar al-Assad’s flailing regime is doing the same in Syria.
Both Maliki and Assad are targeting the Sunnis as a people and hitting Sunni organizations, whether or not they are involved in terrorist activities. Both use the same rhetoric, and both have managed to push the Sunnis under the control of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which now sees the two wars as a single conflict.
What Maliki and Assad have accomplished is to unite Sunni insurgents on both sides of the border into a single force against both regimes.
Although this calculated adventure by Maliki is mostly to gain a stronger standing in the upcoming election and to be seen as the protector of the Shiites, he will face a much bigger internal Shiite problem afterwards. His behavior will convince the Sunnis of Iraq that he — or Shiite rule in general – is by no means a partnership. This will lower the chances of a common political or security ground between the Shiite and Sunni communities in Iraq, as well as in Syria.
The most likely scenario for the Sunnis in both countries is to gradually evolve into one entity, of an Islamic character, at war with the Shiites and ruled be extremists for some time to come.
This seems to be a natural tendency of countries that experienced the Arab Spring. Many countries in the Middle East still seem in need of shaping their new realities and identities, and hence alliances. Clearly, fighting is one way of doing so in these areas.
Very few are looking at differences and solutions with the eyes of a statesman. The issue of the Sunni Arabs in Iraq is clearly political and needs a true leader that can chart the way ahead for all sides. But Maliki seems adamant on settling the issue by force. Similarly, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which has become the representative of the Sunnis thanks to Maliki, is equally adamant on exerting control over the Sunni populations and areas.
Looking a bit to the north of the Sunni-Shiite conflict, a new entity is also emerging, a Kurdish entity that spans Iraq and Syria. It seems only a matter of time for the Kurdish issues of Turkey and Iran to be added to the mix.
In short, the Kurdistan, Sunnistan and the Shiastan that were discussed as a possibility in Iraq are now spilling beyond Iraq’s borders. But the next phase is the internal dynamics of who will lead these new “stans”.
In Shiastan, Iran has the upper hand and it will call the shots. But it is still to be seen who will prevail amongst the smaller players, like Maliki and his election competitors.
In Sunnistan, ISIS will have many local competitors, and we will have to see who prevails at the end.
In Kurdistan, it is only a matter of time before Abdullah Ocalan is released from prison in Turkey. That will strengthen the political mix of these areas, intensifying the competition for leadership with the current de facto leader of Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani.