Iraqis who cast their votes in postponed local elections in Anbar and Nineveh on 20 June had a lot on their plates. Beyond issues relating to the provision of services locally, the last weeks before the elections saw massive protests against the central government in Baghdad. The many angry slogans on display included calls for greater autonomy for the Sunni-majority areas of Iraq as well as expressions of solidarity with the mainly Sunni Syrian opposition movement. Some commentators even suggested momentum was building toward an “unmaking of Sykes-Picot,” the World War One British-French agreement that significantly impacted the delineation of borders between the modern states of Iraq and Syria.[1]

The results of those elections in Anbar and Nineveh are now final, and they indicate that in the end, local concerns firmly trumped the more radical and regional agendas in the Iraqi northwest. Despite the widespread demonstrations, supporters of federal autonomy for the Sunni areas—including the Mutahhidun bloc headed by Iraqi parliament speaker Usama al-Nujayfi and his brother Atheel, the governor of Nineveh—received only modest results in terms of numbers of councilors. Indeed, in the key governorate of Nineveh, the Nujayfis lost some 300,000 votes compared with 2009. Conversely, despite all the radical rhetoric, candidates that advocated some sort of dialogue with the Shi`i Islamist coalition backing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki managed to eat into the Nujayfi electorate in Nineveh and obtained a healthy result in Anbar as well. Local government formation is not yet complete, but almost regardless of outcome it seems that the more radical agendas have suffered a setback. This result is all the more remarkable given the persistence of al-Qa`ida-related terrorism in the region involving foreign fighters that target anyone who participates in the Iraqi political system. Had al-Qa`ida had it their way, the local population in northwestern Iraq would be voting en masse for a single “Sunni Party,” shouting not only for federalism but for full political union with Sunnis in Syria.

Perhaps these remarkable results from Iraq can provide some impetus for rethinking Western analyses of Syria, too, where the theme of “Iraqi Sunni support for the Syrian opposition” has been a dominant element in narratives predicting the forthcoming fragmentation of the country along sectarian lines. What we have seen in Anbar and Nineveh is that Iraqi Sunnis are in fact not necessarily prone to follow those who scream loudest in the name of sectarianism. To many Sunni Iraqi voters, the Syrian issue may be secondary or even simply irrelevant; today even the most sectarian of the newly elected councilors in Anbar talk about the need to maintain “neutrality” toward Syria and to eliminate armed elements in Anbar itself.

In turn, once the analytical assumption of unlimited sectarian solidarity between Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis is dismantled, one can go on to question the narrative of the Syrian conflict itself as fundamentally sectarian in nature. Based on what we have learned from Anbar and Nineveh in Iraq recently, we can ask whether Syria is perhaps moving toward something other than the clear-cut sectarian fragmentation often mentioned by Western analysts.[2] Perhaps a more likely scenario is some kind of two-way, non-sectarian armistice arrangement or a de facto partition that would leave the Ba`thist regime in control of the Alawite coast plus Sunni-majority cities like Damascus and Homs, while the opposition would consolidate its position mainly in the northern cities of Aleppo and Raqqa. 

A wild card in any Syrian settlement would be the northeastern border areas toward Iraq. Kurdish militias have so far shown a tendency toward cooperation with Damascus, defying simplistic Western analysis focused on maps of contiguous Kurdish zones stretching from Syria to Iraq. A more realistic take would be to highlight the policy differences between Syrian Kurds and the dominant Iraqi Kurdish political party of Massoud Barzani (KDP), as well as the prospect of the more pro-Iranian Iraqi Kurdish PUK party influencing the balance of power among the Kurds. As for the Arab tribes of the northeast, the areas around Deir al-Zor in theory offer opportunities to the regime for tribal allies similar to those to which Iraq’s Maliki has established ties in Salahaddin, Anbar, and Nineveh. It is noteworthy, though, that the Syrian opposition is competing with Assad for influence there. They recently recruited a shaykh of the Shammar tribal confederation to act as their president. An Iraqi shaykh of the same tribe served as interim president of Iraq between 2004 and 2005.

At the same time, it should not be denied that sectarian sentiment in Iraq remains a considerable potential, and that under certain circumstances it could become more relevant in the Syrian conflict than it already is. Key decisions in this respect will relate to the next Iraqi parliamentary elections, scheduled for 2014. Already there are heated debates about reforms of the Iraqi election law, as well as term limits for the prime minister. In particular, proposals to revert to a single national electoral constituency—an arrangement traditionally championed by the Kurds since it would maximize their share of the vote across the country—could prove fateful. A single constituency was used in the January 2005 elections for an Iraqi constituent assembly, and was later deemed responsible for the sectarian climate in which those elections were held. Remove the cross-cutting effects of provincial entities, and northwestern Iraq might easily turn into fuel for disintegration not only in Iraq itself, but in neighboring Syria as well. Under that kind of scenario, a quest for a “unified Sunni ticket” might be the most comfortable way of securing votes for many politicians.

Even under immense sectarian pressures, Iraq continues to refuse a descent into the clear-cut ethno-religious mayhem many analysts have been predicting for years. The Sunni debate on federalism appears to be nothing more than just that—a debate, similar to the one that occurred in some Shi`i circles in 2005 before it was quickly shelved everywhere but in the minds of Beltway analysts and a handful of enterprising U.S. senators. Similarly the intra-Sunni struggle over Islamic radicalism is nothing new. Anbar shaykhs by and large concluded that debate from 2006 onward, when they expelled large numbers of foreign al-Qa`ida fighters from their soil. Absent any abrupt and haphazard changes to the electoral system, Iraq may well continue to serve as an inhibitor with regard to the Syrian crisis, rather than the dangerous catalyst predicted by so many.


[1] For the evolution of British policy, see E. Goldstein, “British Peace Aims and the Eastern Question: The Political Intelligence Department and the Eastern Committee, 1918,” Middle Eastern Studies 23, 4 (1987).

[2] See, for instance, Dilip Hiro, “Is Partition a Solution for Syria?” YaleGlobal Online, 31 July 2012, http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/partition-solution-syria.