Mohammed bin Salman, heir apparent and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, is in Washington this week. Discussions will bear on the geopolitics of the Middle East and the political economy of the United States. The prince brought his checkbook.
High on the agenda is dealing with Iran. Possibilities include supporting a new wave of assassinations and bombings inside the theocracy, and aid to Kurdish and Baloch insurgents in the northwest and southwest, respectively. The most portentous topic will be construction of a Sunni region in eastern Syria -- "Sunnistan".
Whether an open area run (if barely) by Kurdish and Arab militias, or an actual state recognized by some regional powers, Sunnistan will threaten or block the "Shia Corridor" connecting Tehran with Shia parts of Syria and Lebanon. Salman and Trump will try to redraw the boundaries established a century ago by Sykes and Picot and largely erased by ISIL in 2014.
Who wants a Sunnistan? What costs and benefits does it pose for the US?
The House of Saud sees Iranian-Shia power as a growing danger. The proposition is dubious but it isn't up for debate in Washington. Positions have formed and are now awaiting finance and implementation.
MBS cannot match Iran's military in size and experience. Nor does he want to test his army in battle, frail as it is from nepotism, laxity, and tribalism. He can, however, use his checkbook to convince the US that a Sunnistan will have benefits. The Kingdom purchases billion of dollars of American military hardware, as was made clear when the president visited Riyadh last year, and when the prince came to Washington this week.
Trump is being pressed for military support to Sunnistan, MBS for financial support to it -- and for continuing arms purchases from US contractors. No American president, regardless of political alignment, can ignore the benefits to the manufacturing sector and blue-collar employment. The Obama administration wrote the opening acts when it sent troops and arms into eastern Syria. The Trump administration is writing the denouement.
Israel too is concerned by rising Iranian-Shia power and wants a Sunnistan to block the Shia Corridor. Its influence in Washington is considerable and well known. Israeli and Saudi pressure, in concert, forms a strong and perhaps irresistible bloc.
We know what the US gets out of the deal, but what is it getting into?
Problems of a Sunnistan
Nothing comes easily in the Middle East and a Sunnistan may prove especially vexing. The military might upon which the Sunni state will rely is in place, more or less. The previous administration built up the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), presumably to fight ISIL, but the idea of a Sunnistan likely lurked in strategic assessments.
The SDF have demonstrated remarkable effectiveness in the ISIL war, driving the Islamist bands from their capital of Raqqa and much of eastern Syria. However, the SDF are a loose umbrella organization of over a dozen militias, both Kurdish and Arab, that have little in common besides opposition to ISIL. They are unlikely to continue as a unified force once ISIL is expelled. Indeed, Kurdish fighters are already peeling away to fight the Turks in the north.
Sunnistan will face protracted opposition and intermittent attacks from Syria and Iran. Many fighters will weary of it and head for homelands away from contested areas. Many Kurds, after all, have no grievance with Damascus and might well accept offers of autonomy.