Syria may turn into the theatre for reviving one of the most creative initiatives of the Iraq war—the “Sons of Iraq” or “Sahwa.” But the ironic side of the current attempts to create a Syrian Sahwa is that the original successful effort in Iraq almost died in its original birthplace.
According to MEB sources, a meeting was held in a regional capital between prominent Syrian tribal notables and many others to discuss the need for building a network of Sahwa in Al Reqa, Dair Al Zour, Hems if possible and a couple of other places in Syria.
The possibility of success of this initiative remains to be seen. However, one thing is certain; it will be a tough challenge. The context for the formation of the Iraqi Sahwa was totally different from today’s Syria, where there are no US troops and there’s a scarce supply of everything from money to intelligence. In addition, the radicals are defused under many banners and commanders.
In a recent article, General David Petraeus describes the timely spontaneous initiative of Al Anbar Sunni tribes as “very fortunate” for his “surge.” When Col. Sean MacFarland first proposed to encourage and support the Sons of Iraq, he was met with substantial resistance from those who thought it would be crazy to arm and assist people who were openly anti-American (some of them were even involved in killing American soldiers, Gen. Petraeus tells us). But backing from creative men got this idea to snowball. It did “work” after all.
But what is the definition of “work”. Al Qaeda is not only back in Al Anbar, it is also spreading from there into the north of Syria through its Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Thus, while the Iraq surge “worked,” its effects could persist only as long as the measures developed by the US officers on the ground to work with the Iraqi people continued. These measures combined incentivizing the people, promoting reconciliation, providing protection in case of enemy retaliation and many other steps.
This case of the “Sons of Iraq” could be further tapped for more significant lessons on how to fight Al Qaeda in both central Iraq and Syria. Simply put, another surge may be needed, minus the physical presence of American forces, and with the necessary adaptation to the alarming rise of Al Qaeda in the Levant.
Al Qaeda will never be defeated without involving the indigenous population in fighting its presence. Neither can it be defeated without creative ideas such as those applied in Iraq. The situation now requires considering the center of Iraq and the north of Syria as one single stretched battlefield. The creation of a Syrian Sahwa should be treated as an extension of Baghdad’s current effort to revive Al Anbar Sahwas.
Admittedly, the formation of a Syrian Sahwa could have a negative effect on the unity of the post war Syria. We see a Druze militia being formed in the South of Syria, Kurdish in the north (with high concentration of PKK fighters) and over 600 Sunni groups. And the Syrian “national” army is turning into a de-facto militia. It is necessary to keep an eye on “the day after” the war, and saying “as long as we don’t see Al Qaeda….” will not suffice. This was said in Iraq in 2010, but the Iraqi Sahwa was defeated by time and by Nouri Al Maliki.
It may be time to work with Syrian communities and their leaders on a plan similar to that of Lebanon. It is better to do it now or the fate of Syria’s Sahwa will be similar to that of Iraq’s.