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Hussain Abdul-Hussain

To defeat ISIS, restore the Sunni-Shiite balance in Iraq

The White House should listen to the Departments of State and Defense and concede that increasing Iranian hegemony will only drive more Sunnis into the arms of ISIS.

An Iraqi Sunni fighter battling ISIS alongside government forces on the outskirts of Iraq

The visits by two US officials to Russia suggest that some in Washington understand that President Bashar Assad's departure is a prerequisite to defeating radical groups in Syria.

 

Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi in an attempt to convince him that the sooner Assad quits power, the faster the world can beat terrorists. Daniel Rubenstein, the top US diplomat on Syria, made a follow up visit days later.

 

The State Department said in a statement that Assad's departure allows the formation of a national unity government that can make the regime and the opposition join forces to combat the Islamic State (ISIS) and Jabhat Al-Nusra. An end to Assad's brutality also restores a sense of justice among Syrians, thus stopping them from joining radical groups for retribution against the regime.

 

But at the US National Security Council, where foreign policy is decided in President Obama’s unprecedentedly centralized administration, defeating ISIS is perceived differently.

 

Presidential advisors like Valerie Jarret and Robert Malley seem to think that because of its ancient civilization, Iran should sweep the region and end Sunni power. They argue that because the metropolitan Persians are superior to the Bedouin Arabs, and because Iranian Shiite Islam is more moderate than the radical Sunni Islam of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf, America should make of Iran its Middle East partner and force Gulf Arabs to enter into security arrangements on Tehran’s terms.

 

Obama, for his part, seems to share this thinking. In various interviews, the president described Iran as a nation that responds to cost and benefit while arguing that Arab countries suffer from structural domestic problems. But Obama's perception is flawed.

 

The Iranian regime was founded on settling scores. Tehran's ayatollahs want to avenge not only the killing of the third Shiite Imam Hussain in 680 CE but also the fact that the minority imam was not allowed to rule over the majority Sunnis. In Islam, God has one ruling representative on earth. Iran thinks its supreme leader is this representative.

 

In this zero-sum Iranian game, Tehran’s boss has no tolerance even for Shiite dissent. Since 1979, Iran has spent billions to undermine rivals, primarily the traditional Shiite leadership in southern Iraq. If the supreme leader cannot share with fellow Shiites, he is certainly not open to sharing with Sunnis in Iraq or elsewhere across the region.

 

Iran believes the Shiites of Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan are the subjects of the supreme leader. Hence, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias pledge allegiance to the leader. In return for their loyalty, Tehran helps the Shiites rule their countries, even in places where the Shiites are a demographic minority and have to suppress Sunni majority brutalities.

 

With their backs to the wall, Sunnis are fighting back. The Bush administration realized that even with 150,000 troops and military superiority, it could not finish off Iraq’s Sunnis. Washington thus courted them, peeled their majority away from the radical few, and leaned on Shiite Baghdad to concede on issues of federalism, local governance and sharing of oil revenue.

 

Bush therefore restored Iraq’s delicate Sunni-Shiite balance that was shattered in 2003. By 2009, violence in Iraq and the region had receded and Obama thought the war on terrorism was over.

 

Obama, who as a senator voted against the plan that ended the Iraqi quagmire, committed more mistakes as a president. He inexplicably let the Iraqi balance tilt back in Shiite favor by letting go of America’s precious links with the Sunnis and handing them over to their Shiite enemies, who cut their salaries and armament and hunted down their leaders. The radicals’ comeback became inevitable. ISIS was born.

 

After ISIS took Mosul in June, Washington's top military brass understood that restoring the Sunni-Shiite balance was fundamental in defeating ISIS. They promised to create a Sunni ‘national guard force independent of Baghdad’s Shiite government. But because Iran objected, Obama walked back that plan and restricted the war on ISIS to air strikes.

 

After the fall of Ramadi last week, the White House remained at odds with the Departments of State and Defense over the need to restore Sunni-Shiite balance. Instead, Obama doubled down on Iran by dropping his opposition to the participation of pro-Iran Shiite militias in the fight against ISIS.

 

By allowing Shiite militias to conquer Sunni land, Obama will tip the balance further in Shiite favor, thus aggravating more Sunnis and pushing them to join ISIS.

 

Redressing the Sunni feeling of injustice by stopping Iran’s expansion gives the Sunnis an alternative to ISIS and empowers the moderates to defeat the radicals. The State and Defense Departments understand this. The White House should listen.

 

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai. He tweets @hahussain

An Iraqi Sunni fighter battling ISIS alongside government forces on the outskirts of Iraq's Baiji oil refinery, about 200 kilometers north of Baghdad, on 25 May 25 2015. (AFP Photo/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

Presidential advisors like Valerie Jarret and Robert Malley argue that because the metropolitan Persians are superior to the Bedouin Arabs, and because Iranian Shiite Islam is more moderate than the radical Sunni Islam of Saudi Arabia, America should make Iran its Middle East partner and force Gulf Arabs to enter into security arrangements on Tehran’s terms."