Sunni Militias in Syria

French professor Fabrice Balanche has laid out the contradiction-laden military situation in Syria as a result of the Syrian Kurds’ daring crossing of Erdogan’s hostile Euphrates red line and asked the important question about who would gain. So difficult is this question to answer that even the major protagonists don’t seem to have a very clear idea.

One of the complexities of the Syrian conflict is distinguishing among the Sunni militias. Going from Islamic State to an unstable collection of groups that, on any given day, may cooperate with IS tactically while disagreeing ideologically or fight against IS while espousing essentially the same goals, perhaps it is no wonder that no one appears able to distinguish one from the other. World leaders essentially claim that there are “good Sunni terrorists” (mine) and “bad Sunni terrorists” (yours), al Qua’ida Salafi jihadists we can work with, al Qua’ida Salafi jihadists we cannot work with, and IS Salifi terrorists–whom we certainly cannot work with but with whom we trade, who are allowed to replenish their ranks via our territory, whom we bomb…but not so hard as to harm them.

But it is impossible to define rational tactics or meaningful strategy without figuring out who your enemy is. The history of the war in Iraq after the U.S. invasion makes clear that distinctions among Sunni militias matter: Sunni tribal militias defending their traditional lands effectively resisted the jihadis, who had a fundamentally different ideology. When traditional sectarian communities are given genuine opportunities to defend themselves, they frequently are content to do so, without exhibiting any desire to pillage or redesign the world.

If Syrian Sunni communities were afforded the chance for self-preservation without subjugation, many would probably consider it a privilege. Similarly, if the Turkmen were offered such an opportunity rather than being used by Turkey as agents of influence, they might well be content to have their homeland and stay there. Similarly again, if the Kurds were offered Rojava in return for being good neighbors to locals not Kurdish and to neighboring states like Turkey, they would have a huge incentive to stay home and out of trouble. Erdogan apparently cannot conceive of such a thing, and a lot of U.S. officials also have trouble with this simple and proven approach to peacemaking (despite the temporary success of the Iraqi “Sunni Awakening,” which should probably have been labeled the “American Awakening”).

Politicians have surprising difficulty dealing with positive-sum solutions. The result is that an endless array of tiny sectarian communities, out of insecurity, are driven into a cycle of violence. Each little drop of gasoline on the flames, albeit having the ability to raise the temperature, is helpless to lower it, thus becoming consumed. The only winners are those big and reckless enough to ride the flames.


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