Pacifying the northern Sunni tribes: Contrasting Russian and US approaches

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is engaged in a military-political fight against the Sunni tribes that live West of the Fertile Crescent in the Arabian Peninsula’s northern tip. This population is fighting Russia (as it fought America) only incidentally as part of a larger war it is waging against its neighbors who belong to other Islamic sects. Putin, for his part, is also fighting Sunnis only incidentally in the context of Russia’s larger objectives. Putin’s objective regarding the Sunni, is to pacify them. That was also the Bush and Obama administrations’ objective. But Putin’s Russia is approaching it with methods poles apart from those of the US government.

The contrasts between America’s and Russia’s approaches are enlightening.

Putin and Obama at G-8 meeting

Putin and Obama at G-8 meeting

First: While the US government quickly confused America’s interests with those of the Sunni, Putin remains focused on Russia’s. Saddam Hussein’s regime had been a thorn in America’s side. By May 2003, the straightforward military campaign that overthrew him had taken care of America’s business in Iraq. By occupying the country as part of a “nation build” scheme, however, the US made the conflicts between Iraq’s different peoples its own. The Shia majority was grateful, (at first). The largest of the minorities, the Kurds, focused on building Kurdistan. But the Sunni, judging that the Americans had wrecked their way of life, made war on the Americans as well as on the Shia. The US, after fighting mostly against them for more than three years, tried to convince the Sunni to “buy into” the American order. The US did this by reconciling itself to the effective sovereignty of the Sunni in their regions; indeed by arming them, paying them and protecting them against the Shia. In short, by serving their interests.

To maintain and cushion Russia’s naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean shore, Vladimir Putin’s expeditionary force aims to establish a substantial enclave of Alawis (a subset of Shia) around it. The military mission is straightforward and seems destined to succeed. But that enclave can be secured for the long run only if these very same Sunni tribes, which are now at war with Russia’s Shia clients and hence with Russia, do not chew away at its edges in the future — tying up Putin and his clients’ forces. Russia’s intervention will not have succeeded until it reconciles them to the new order it’s creating. Russia’s strategy for the Sunni seems to involve the opposite of serving their interests. It aims instead to weaken them while brandishing Moscow’s capacity to enhance or to limit neighboring Shias’ capacity to hurt them.

Second: While the US government denied the sectarian nature of the perennial conflict between sects, and tried to damp it down by serving the purposes of all, Putin uses the locals’ sectarian strife for his own purposes.

The declared premise of the US occupation of Iraq was the issue of dealing with “moderates” and “extremists” in the context of American interests, rather than dealing with the issues raised by the Sunni and Shia fighting for their own causes. In fact nearly all American casualties between 2003 and 2007 occurred in the “Sunni triangle,” from Ramadi and Fallujah and parts of Baghdad, to Baquba and then to Tikrit and Baiji.

The only major exception was the “Triangle of Death,” between Baghdad and the Euphrates, inhabited by a million Sunnis. To explain why, in fact, it was fighting Sunnis, the US government imagined that “al-Qaeda” was polluting the moderate Sunni tribes with non-Sunni extremism. After the 2006 Sunni bombing of the Samarra Golden Mosque, the Shia majority set about murdering Sunnis en masse, and the Sunni begged protection from the only people who could give it — the Americans. In exchange, they promised to stop the war they had been waging on Americans and offered the heads of a few militants whom they had dubbed “al-Qaeda.” It pleased the Americans to imagine that the Sunni offering cooperation had somehow “awakened” to the evils of extremism and glories of moderation rather than out of fear of the Shia. Hence, the Americans not only had to protect the Sunni — thereby bringing on a new war with Shia militias — they also lavished weapons and money on the Sunni tribes. Later, the Americans would be surprised when these very tribes made common (Sunni) cause with Islamic State, with whom they shared their American-supplied weapons.

Russian jets fired 20 sorties and hit eight IS targets in Syria

Russian jets firing at IS targets in Syria

Crushing Islamic State because it is a menace to all is Putin’s official explanation for his expeditionary force. Later, rather than sooner, that force will come to grips with and likely destroy that menace.

Geography, ethnography, as well as Russia’s strategic sense explain the delayed nature of the clash as well as the necessity thereof. All the forces that press against the enclave that shields Russia’s naval base are Sunni and drawn largely from the local Sunni population.  The Islamic State is the largest of these. But since IS is farthest away, it poses the least immediate danger to the enclave. By the time its turn comes, its Sunni constituency will know what Russia has in store for its enemies. Unlike the US, Russia practices old-school conventional war, with a third-world final chapter. Just as Putin has no doubt that the Sunni stand in the way of his plans, he has no doubt about who is eager to kill them en masse and indiscriminately: The Shia militias.

Hence, Putin’s expeditionary force consists of all the modern tanks, planes, artillery, etc. to flatten resistance. It is also bolstered by Shia infantry imported from Iraq and Iran to finish the job with slaughter. Long before these forces reach the outskirts of Raqqa, the IS capital, the local Sunni will have to ask the Russians for the kind of protection that Iraq’s Sunnis formerly had to request from the US — only more. The Islamic State’s people are likely to be abandoned, if not betrayed. But while Putin may spare the Islamic State’s hosts the horrors of  being ravaged, he will surely demand a lot more than a few sacrificial heads. He will leave these Sunni patrons weaker than he found them. Above all, the Damocles’ sword of potential Shia ravages will stay over their heads.

Third: While the US government sought to minimize the importance of the support that the Sunni sect was receiving from the Sunni Arab world because it did not want to trouble its relationships with that world, Putin has already taken steps to involve Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states in restraining the northern Sunni tribes for the long run.

Although suicide bombers and money from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf contributed heavily to the casualties that Iraqi Sunnis inflicted on Americans and Shia during the Occupation, the US government never forced them to halt such activities by using the many levers it could exercise on the Saudi regime. This included the relatively small step of restricting Saudi visa to the US. Nor did the Saudis ever stop such activities. Instead, the US government viewed Saudi help in killing and wounding Americans in Iraq as even more reason to make concessions to Iraqi Sunnis. Nor did the Saudis stop supporting these tribes when they look to hosting the Islamic State. They offered them US weapons in addition to food, lodging, and amenities. In short, so long as these tribes receive Saudi backing for championing common Sunni causes, they will tend to do so.

By contrast, when Putin met with Saudi and Gulf leaders — the Sunni world’s powers — he did so as the embodiment of the power behind their chief sectarian and geopolitical enemy — Iran. He did not have to spell out to them, any more than to the Islamic State’s Sunni hosts in former Syria and Iraq, that he has the power to increase or to decrease the amount of deadly pressure that  Iran can bring against them. In exchange for their good behavior on a matter so peripheral to them as the northern Sunni tribes’ behavior regarding the Russian/Shia enclave, Putin can forbear harming their central interests. This is an offer that they can’t afford to refuse.

In sum, the contrasts between America’s and Putin’s approach to pacifying the Northern Sunni tribes illustrates the contrasts between our foreign policy establishment consisting of Liberal Internationalists, Neoconservatives and Realists and, on the other hand, a statesman who follows the normal rules of human behavior.

Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University, and a member of the Hoover Institution’s working group on military history. He is the author of fourteen books, including  Informing Statecraft, War, ends And Means, The Character of Nations, Advice to War Presidents, and To Make and Keep Peace.  He served on President Ronald Reagan’s transition teams for the Department of State and the Intelligence agencies. He was a US naval officer and a US foreign service officer. As a staff member of the US Senate Intelligence committee, he supervised the intelligence agencies’ budgets with emphasis on collection systems and counterintelligence. He was instrumental in developing technologies for modern anti-missile defense. Codevilla has taught ancient and modern political thought and international affairs at major universities.

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