Marc Lynch Re-evaluates the Meaning of the Sunni Awakenings

Marc Lynch, professor at the Elliott School at George Washington University, is an expert on Arab media, especially as it relates to America’s war on terror. He blogs at Abu Aardvark, and his site is worth reading if trends in Arab media, especially in Iraq, interests you.

He spoke at the Mortara Center in Washington, D.C., today about the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, in a talk entitled “Rethinking Iraq’s Awakening”.  Lynch does not dispute that the Awakening was a decisive point in the war, as Sunnis turned against Al Qaeda. However, argues Lynch, there is little concensus on what actually caused the Awakening.

Perhaps we should says ‘Awakenings’.  There was the Anbar Awakening in Sept. 2006, followed by the spread of the movement into the Baghdad area in spring 2007, as local cease-fires we hammered out between Sunni leaders and the U.S. military. Though the Awakenings are very good news for the short term, Lynch sees them as a potential problem for the future of Iraq, as they may intensify the fragmentation of Iraqi society into locally ruled polities.

Lynch argues that certain background factors must have changed that enabled the Awakenings to occur. There are many theories- material and military considerations, the oft-cited reason of Al-Qaeda overreach (especially cultural), recognition of America’s dominance in the balance of power equation, and economic considerations (the sheikhs were bought off).

Lynch identifies a primary factor- a change in Sunni attitudes. The other explanations may have relevance, but they are secondary. Lynch takes a constructivist approach, focusing on the change in Sunni ideas regarding their place  in Iraq.

There are three main factors that brought about this change in attitude.

1) There was a major change in the information/media environment, drastically affecting the messages the Sunni received.

2) There were new types of dialogue between insurgents and the U.S., with a proliferation of points of contact between the two.

3) There were major intra-Sunni political struggles, especially the break between nationalist factions and AQI.

These alone don’t explain the Awakenings, but they do explain how the conditions were created that allowed the Awakenings to occur.

Let’s explore the attitude change, and look at what changed, whose attitudes changed, and why this occurred.

There was undoubtedly a behavioural change among the Sunni. The question is- does this point to a preference for different outcomes, and or different actions. Real attitude change is preference for new outcomes, not merely new tactics. It is clear that the Sunnis have a preference for new tactics and actions, but it is less certain that they have a new overall strategy. Can we say for certain that if a few external factors change, they won’t fight again?

I apologize for bringing up theoretical explanations to help answer the question, but Lynch’s answer rests heavily on understanding three theories of attitude change.

1) New Information- The Sunnis received new information about America, the Iraqi government, or Al-Qaeda, and consequently changed their attitudes. This is a fluid change, and is not “sticky”. New information could supercede the favorable information that changed Sunni attitudes.

2) Complex Learning- There was a real fundamental change in the Sunni understanding of the nature of the Iraq problem, and their place in it. If this is  the reason for the attitude change, this is heartening, as complex learning theory explanations means that a sticky change has occurred.

3) Falsification- The publicly expressed attitudes that we hear from the Sunni reflect not a change in their own beliefs, but instead reflect a change in what the Sunni think Americans should hear. They want us to hear something different than what they wanted us to hear in the past. This type of change is generally sudden and dramatic, and is the manifestation of other processes that caused the change in expressions.

Falsification is the most likely explanation, in Lynch’s opinion, since the change in Sunni expression was indeed dramatic and sudden.

The polls suggest that there was no real change in Sunni attitudes. Several months before the Awakenings, 98% of Sunni opposed the American presence. In Sept. 2006, 95% disapproved.

In Augsut, 2007, 95% of Sunnis supported attacks on the U.S.

In March 2008, ‘only’ 62% support attacks. Very recent polls have only 3% of Sunni’s saying that the U.S. provides security in their neighborhoods. While their may be some incremental change here, Sunni public opinion is certainly not the dramatic leading factor we are looking for. It may indeed be a lagging factor, though. ( I do understand how problematic polling is, especially in the Arab world, but these at least indicate that a vast majority of Sunni at least think that it is politic to speak out against the U.S.)

It is at the leadership level where we see dramatic change. The question is, how does a change in at least the public expressions of the elite relate to changes in broad public opinion?

Most of the contacts with Iraqis were with the elite. Starting in early 2005, there was a proliferation of contacts with tribal leaders. In late 2004, talks had begun with insurgency figures- sometimes with leaders, sometimes with lower level operatives, and sometimes with unknowns whose position in the insurgency the U.S. wanted to understand. There was a strategic engagement unit created to find insurgents leader they could engage. In late 2005, Talabani publicly announced that he would speak to any Iraqi, even insurgents.

Keep in mind that these were not negotiations, but were instead sessions designed for the two sides to feel each other out and divine their positions

The contacts with regular Sunni came through discussions with detainees, who were released with the hope that they would bring the message to their organizations.

Lynch cautions that we cannot yet point to causal links between the contacts and the Awakenings, but these must have had some corollary impact.

If these contacts were mainly with elites, what affected mass Sunni attitudes? Here Lynch is in his element, as he points to changes in the media environment in Iraq. in 2003, Al-Jazeera held a monopoly on television news. By 2006, they are competing with new stations, which give a diversification of views.

Al Arabbiya is an agent network of the Saudis. In 2003, the Saudi had to deal with Al-Qaeda insurgents. The network has since turned on Al-Qaeda, giving a voice to Awakening leaders. There is a new show called “Deathmakers” launched to deligitimize AQI. The lovely hostess, Rema Salah, is the target of burning hatred on Al-Qaeda websites.

Al-Jazeera is still number one, but has changed its attitude toward the insurgency. Between AQI and the nationalists, Al-Jazeera chose the latter. It promotes the Sunni nationalist core in Baghdad to such an extent that some Al-Qaeda websites accuse Al-Jazeera as being part of the Zionist media conspiracy.

Al-Zawra is often viewed as an Al-Qaeda station, which is absolutely false. It is a nationalist insurgent network, and these factions dislike AQI.

Lynch has found that AQI views the information campaign being launched against it as one ifs great strategic threats.

What about those earlier explanations Lynch  mentioned? Why doesn’t he accept them as major causes of the Awakening?

AQI Overreach- This usually means cultural overreach. Lynch admits that is happened, but the important question is, how did most Iraqis find out that it happened? They were either told by their leaders who had spoken with the Americans, or the media was pushing the story. The fact that the leaders speak about it to their publics so often points to it being used by them as a justification, rather than a cause. They turned to America for other reasons, but are using the overreach explanation to sell it to the public. Don’t forget, these are not men who are easily offended by beheadings and violence in the name of Islam. That alone is unlikely to have pushed them.

Political Overreach- AQI announced the Islamic State of Iraq in Oct. 2006. The bigger nationalist groups had no intention of being led by AQI, and there was a flood of local leaders turning to the US. This suggests that the higher-ups directed the locals to do so in a coordinated fashion, likely because of the dialogues that had been occurring. The campaign against AQI political overreach, and their lack of true Iraqi-ness, actually took place after the Awakenings, suggesting that this too was a justification.

If one does not accept the balance of power argument, that the Sunnis turned to the U.S. once they understood we were serious about winning, the Surge still could have helped the dialogues. Since there were more Americans out amongst the Iraqis, it was easier to find someone to talk to about reaching an agreement. I still have not heard a good refutation of the balance of power argument. Some say that the U.S. is actually weaker vis-a-vis the insurgency than it was at the beginning, and that is why the U.S. was ready to talk. Lynch says that none of the leaders’ rhetoric suggests that they see America as more powerful, so it is unlikely to be a cause. This explanation does not sit well with me, because I would next expect leaders to justify realpolitik alliances on those terms. History has shown us that alliances based on power are justified to the public on terms of common values and goals.

It is important that we do not automatically assume that change in Sunni behaviour indicates a change in belief, and that we understand that the situation may collapse if the environment changes once again.

5 Responses to Marc Lynch Re-evaluates the Meaning of the Sunni Awakenings

  1. Lorenz Gude says:

    To paraphrase Dr. Johnson – the prospect of being executed by a death squad wonderfully concentrates the mind. After the captured memo to al Qaeda from Zarqui stated that his purpose was to derail democracy in Iraq by attacking the Shiites he proceeded to slaughter them until he succeeded in getting something of a civil war going with his attack on the Golden Mosque. The Shiites responded by killing Sunnis at a brisk rate, particularly in Baghdad, with the result that about half the Sunnis had to leave the country or seek refuge with their tribal relatives. While the Western MSM was loudly proclaiming civil war as an indicator of their preferred outcome – American and Bush failure – the Sunnis were busy saving themselves. So I think the killing of Sunnis by the Shiite militias is obviously cause of rapid attitude change. It is the simplest and most direct explanation. I think the second direct cause of the Awakening was al Qaeda’s mistreatment of the Sunnis – imposing strict sharia while prostituting their women and executing or maiming people for small infringements. In sum, claiming absolute moral authority while demonstrating that they were – as one Anbar tribesman put it – Godless thugs. So I strongly doubt that the three factors cited above are the primary causes of Sunni attitudinal change. I think it also worth pointing out that al Qaeda’s goals – setting up a Caliphate and challenging Western hegemony – differ sharply from the Iraqi Sunni goal which, after survival, is to regain as much of their lost dominance in Iraq as possible. That said I don’t disagree with Marc Lynch’s delving into the complexities of the media and political environment. His observations on the role of Arab media are important to me given my interest in the impact of media. I share Lazar’s doubts that the US military negotiated with the Sunnis out of weakness. I think it was pursuing a bottom up counter insurgency strategy to undermine the Shiite central government’s lack of action by taking on an alliance with the Sunnis. It was a matter of opportunity. That approach had the prospect of both expelling al Qaeda and pressuring the Iraqi government to begin functioning as a national government. In the longer term it may be possible that our long term allies the Kurds and Sunni Arabs will counter the Shiite majority with some kind of rapprochement that involves longer term alliance with the US. But more fundamentally I don’t see any reason for the Iraq’s Arab Sunnis to align themselves with the foreign power that ended their dominance of Iraq stretching back to Ottoman times. In any case I think the more immediate concern for the US is to not drive the Iraqi Shiites into an alliance with Iran.

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  3. abu yussif says:

    the question for me is, if the calm does not hold for much longer and starts to fracture, say, under an obama administration, will the blame fall on obama for losing a war that was all but won? we all know his primal urges to withdraw and should he do it under deteriorating circumstances, he will be seen as the president that lost the war.

    if this article has any merit, we all should fear an administration that is not 100% committed to seeing things through in iraq.

  4. Cynic says:

    .. he will be seen as the president that lost the war.
    Not if the media is involved.

  5. 11B40 says:


    Your and the good professor’s arguments and analyses don’t seem to address the underlying tribal nature of the Arab culture in Iraq. My current thinking is more in line with Philip Carl Salzman’s “Culture and Conflict in the Middle East”.

    His concept of “balanced opposition” in the Arab tribal culture would include a potential for conflict within the Iraqi Sunnis as well as between the tribes and Al Qaeda in Iraq. This is the old “I against my brother; I and my brother against our cousin; I, my brother and my cousin against the stranger” paradigm. Adding in some “follow the stronger horse” and “war is deceit” and we have that delicious Muslim stew that has helped them progress so well in the world.

    I don’t know that Westerners, especially Americans, will ever be much good at figuring out the machinations of Arabs due to the inherent paranoia of that culture being so far removed from our own. If I understand Dr. Salzman’s thesis correctly, the Arab culture is always and forever at both peace and war. Trying to trust these people is like trusting a dope fiend; it’s not will you be betrayed, but only when.

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