COHEN: How to beat Islamic State in Iraq

Fighters from predominantly Sunni Arab forces take part in a training session before the upcoming battle to recapture Mosul in Bashiqa

There is a way to defeat Islamic State in Iraq. It’s to grant the country’s Sunni population its own separate state, free of control from Baghdad. The idea of a “Sunnistan” isn’t new, but as American advisers and their Iraqi allies prepare for the crucial battle of Mosul, now is the time to revisit it.Losing the country’s second-largest city would represent a major blow to IS’ position in Iraq. But recent Iraqi history has taught us that without a proper strategy for the “day after” in Mosul, the group is likely to re-emerge in one form or another.It’s not going to be easy. The Sunni experience in the post-Saddam Hussein era has been brutal and won’t quickly be forgotten.After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the country’s Sunnis — who represent 15 to 20 percent of the population — found themselves living under a Shi’ite-dominated government. The group included hundreds of thousands of Iraqi troops who had been loyal to Hussein, and were removed from the military. Al Qaeda capitalized on their anger and established al Qaeda in Iraq, a precursor to Islamic State.But as al Qaeda enforced an increasingly strict version of Islam, Sunni tribes turned against it. During the “Sunni Awakening” of 2006-2007, Washington capitalized on this increasing resentment toward al Qaeda. It supplied Sunni tribal leaders with weapons to fight al Qaeda, while Baghdad promised Sunnis political inclusion and positions in government security forces.But a sectarian Shi’ite government in Baghdad under Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki used a counterterrorism law to jail innocent Sunnis in security sweeps, excluded Sunnis from government jobs and harassed and arrested leading Sunni politicians. In 2013, when Iraqi security forces cracked down on Sunni protests against al-Maliki’s sectarianism, Islamic State emerged to gain significant support in Sunni regions.Today, the Iraqi government remains reliant on Shi’ite militias, who continue to abuse Sunni civilians. Given widespread Sunni distrust of Baghdad, it’s unlikely that Iraq’s Sunni population will ever develop a deep allegiance to a Shi’ite-dominated central government. Offering the Sunnis their own state could be the incentive Sunnis need to turn against Islamic State and, just as importantly, prevent any other jihadist group from emerging in the future.This entity could be similar to Iraqi Kurdistan, where Kurds have wide autonomy to run their own affairs. Iraq’s constitution already permits this level of self-government, so the Sunnis would not need to take any extrajudicial steps to achieve it.To be clear, in order to create a new Iraqi “Sunnistan,” its architects would need to confront a number of issues. One question sure to emerge is whether Sunnistan would ultimately remain part of a united — though decentralized — Iraq, or whether it would be a precursor to full independence. Another likely challenge is buy-in from Baghdad. The government may be none too happy to see Iraq’s newly liberated territories declare their desire to break away.Moreover, the question of what constitutes an equitable share of Iraq’s oil revenue allocated to Sunnistan is sure to be contentious, particularly since the majority of Iraq’s oil lies outside of Sunni areas. And what happens to non-Sunni minorities who find themselves in Sunnistan? To succeed, Washington could make its political, financial and military support for Sunnistan conditional on its treatment of minorities. Given the United States’ successful cooperation with Sunni tribal leaders, it’s certainly possible that American-Sunni cooperation could lead to a peaceful new Sunnistan.A final question involves the relationship Iraq’s Sunnis would possess with their Syrian counterparts, and whether Iraqi Sunnistan could be duplicated in Syria. If and when Syria ends its civil war, its government could write a new constitution that offers its Sunnis a similar solution. Long-term, a successful and legally created “Iraqi Sunnistan” could serve as a model for Syria as well.It’s unlikely that Sunnistan’s creation would automatically end all extremism in Iraq. But it does offer the best opportunity to defeat Islamic State, as well as to maintain peace afterwards. Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union.