Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Thu, Nov 26th, 2015

American Interests, Sunni-side Up

“Putting back together Syria and Iraq does not serve American interests.” So writes John Bolton, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations when the ill-fated American interest in invading, occupying and polarizing Iraq helped create the present scourge of ISIS. According to Bolton, Iraq and Syria “as we knew them are gone.” Gone for whom?

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.

The present government of Iraq, which according to the United Nations is still a sovereign nation, may have reason to object to this new twist in American interests. And despite the overwhelming number of calls for the removal of Syria’s beleaguered Assad, he remains the official government head. Bolton is no doubt unaware of the irony in using the phrase “putting back together” since it was the U.S. invasion that dashed Iraq into pieces. Pottery Barn rule or not, breaking Iraq does not give the U.S. liberty to serve its alleged national interests by replacing it.

Bolton’s approach is sunni-side up and damn the shi’a. Since he defines American interests as accepting neither Assad in any kind of role nor any kind of political influence from Iran, he proposes a “Sunni-stan,” assuming that once ISIS is defeated the territory it now controls can simply be partitioned off into a new American client state, along with a de facto independent Kurdistan. As Bolton admits, this new government “is unlikely to be a Jeffersonian democracy for many years,” nor a Switzerland. But it seems that “security and stability” are sufficient reasons for this new state, even if they were not for either Saddam or Assad. The real battle for Bolton is reinventing the “cold power politics” of the cold war, especially since Russia’s recent intensification of military activity in Syria.


The absurdity of Bolton’s harebrained scheme is a foray in political surrealism. The first blatant problem is the silly idea that the U.S. can create new sovereign nations at will, as though officially recognized borders can be redrawn even without Mr. Churchill’s napkin. The second and most dangerous idea is that the current polarization of Sunni and Shi’a should be amplified even further.  To assert that the “Arab monarchies like Saudi Arabia must ensure the new state’s stability and resistance to radical forces” is precious; Saudi Arabia has been supporting, directly and indirectly, many of the radical Sunni groups operating in Syria. The Saudis are only interested in promoting Wahhabi/Salafi satellites. So is Bolton really in favor of a Greater Saudi Arabia, letting them take over Yemen to the south and then hedge hopping over Jordan to a new Sunni state to the north? And since when did Saudi Arabia speak for Sunni Islam, except in their own royal eyes. And if this new state becomes Sunni, does that mean Shi’a are unwelcome? Will this new Sunni-stan round up its Shi’a or simply treat them as a minority?

The logic of Bolton’s plan boggles the mind. The idea that pushing a new “Anbar Awakening” and American-inspired “surge” would liberate the areas controlled by ISIS suffers from the fact that nothing in the Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria has stopped ISIS yet. Shall we give more arms which have the likelihood of falling into, yet again, the wrong hands? Why would anyone living in Syria or Iraq want to form a new land-locked state with what will be rather antagonistic neighbors on all sides. To assume that Turkey will welcome a new neighbor simply because it is a member of NATO is, to be kind, naïve.

ISIS is a problem not simply because of the territory it claims for a doomed caliphate. The recruits from Europe and elsewhere have flocked there, mostly via Turkey, largely because of the deplorable conditions and discrimination they face in the West. The root cause is sociological, not theological. The anger at the West, no matter how quaintly defined as the Crusaders, is the motivating factor, not a viable interpretation of the future of the Ummah. Even if every last ISIS fighter was killed, the social problem remains. Indeed, destruction of ISIS may spur even more terrorism in Europe’s borders. Nor do we need more boots on the ground and body bags for American soldiers. A fantasy Sunni-stan is not in anyone’s interest.

About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Senior Fellow at the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg of Bonn University, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.

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