The war in Iraq began as a Sunni-dominated resistance movement to the American occupation. With the transfer of sovereignty to a democratically elected and therefore Shiite-dominated government in 2005, the conflict began mutating into a true civil war. Today the warring parties are more interested in fighting each other than expelling the United States, although most of them also retain that as an ultimate goal.
The latest development, much commented upon in recent weeks, is that Sunni insurgents are increasingly coming to the view that they cannot successfully resist both the United States and the Shiite-dominated government at the same time. Increasing numbers of Sunni fighters in Anbar Province are therefore preparing for a tactical accommodation with the less dangerous enemy, the United States.
The immediate objective of the Sunnis reaching out to America is to suppress their heretofore Al Qaeda allies. Their secondary objective, in all likelihood, is to strengthen their ability to resist the Shiitedominated government. This is a positive development, but one that presents the United States with a difficult choice.
Do U.S. forces now position themselves equidistant between their new Sunni and their original Shiite allies in an effort to achieve a balance that will eventually convince both sides to give up the fight and find some accommodation? Or does the United States continue to help the Shiite-dominated government achieve effective control over the Sunni regions of the country?
This is a classic dilemma. Faced with civil war, any external power has three theoretical choices — stand aside, suppress the conflict altogether, or back one protagonist against the other.
American interests in Iraq are probably too engaged to simply step aside. Peace enforcement, however, is a very manpower-intensive mission, requiring numbers large enough to defeat or deter all sides to a conflict simultaneously. The United States does not currently have enough troops in Iraq to perform this mission successfully on more than a very localized basis, and the level of American forces there is much more likely to go down than up over the next year.
This leaves the United States stuck with the third option of picking the least bad side and helping it prevail. In this case, the least bad side is the Shiite-led government that America has created, composed mostly of Shiite and Kurdish political leaders. This government was popularly elected and does represent the majority of the Iraqi people.
Unfortunately, this government is also incompetent and heavily dependent upon Iranian as well as American support. Still, the United States cannot realistically ally itself with the Sunni, who have no chance of prevailing, even with American assistance, against the much more numerous Shiites backed by Iran.
Unless the United States wants to break Iraq into three independent (and in all likelihood warring) nations, it will be stuck with supporting the Shiite-Kurdish alliance it has fostered, and trying to both encourage and coerce more Sunni's into joining it.
Clearly the United States will want to use the influence of its military presence and support to ameliorate the worst abuses of its allies and promote accommodation among the warring factions. This effort will be complicated by the deep divisions within each of the factions. But U.S. leaders will not want to go so far in promoting reconciliation as to switch sides or cut off support for the efforts of the central government to extend some degree of control over the entire country.
Assuming this logic prevails, such a policy will impose limits upon the ability of General David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, to capitalize upon the recent shift in Sunni allegiances in Anbar. Recognizing that the United States will not support them against the Baghdad government, it seems likely that Sunni leaders will eventually shift back from fighting Al Qaeda to resisting the incursion of Shiite authority. At that point, the Sunnis will again find themselves at odds with American forces as well.
Perhaps this renewed U.S.-Sunni confrontation can be postponed long enough to see some reconciliation at the national level between Shiite and Sunni leaders. Unfortunately, there has been precious little evidence of movement in that direction of late. In fact, the movement is going the other way.
Even as the Sunnis in Anbar enter an alliance of convenience with the United States, their representatives in Baghdad are distancing themselves further from the national government. The two developments are not necessarily connected, but to the extent they are, Sunni-American cooperation in Anbar may actually be working against Sunni-Shiite accommodation in Baghdad.
James Dobbins, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state, is director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on August 17, 2007.