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Islam

The Other Battle in Iraq: to Win Sunni Consent

Why the tribes that defeated al-Qaeda in 2007 are now struggling to oppose Isis

Iraqi forces have recaptured Ramadi from the Islamic State; in Syria the "caliphate" lost the initiative, hit by international air raids. These successes, however, are likely not to be transformed into a definitive strategic victory: the "caliphate" is, in fact, a mutant, opportunistic and resilient monster. Today jihadists have a "State", but even if they loose all the territories they control, they would return to being a dangerous and destabilising terrorist movement, to exploiting and fueling the nefarious sectarian conflict that inflames the Middle East. Its goal would be to survive in Sunni societies like a latent virus, waiting for new opportunities to take advantage of. If the sometimes osmotic sometimes parasitic relationship between the jihadist movement and Sunni communities is not broken, the "caliphate" can not really be beaten.

 

 

The "Awakening" of 2007

 

 

Something similar has already happened in the recent past: between 2006 and 2008, the U.S. promoted the creation of the Sahwa - awakening in Arabic - Sunni militias recruited from tribes that ensured local security, protecting the population from the violence of al-Qaida and providing support to the U.S. Army on the ground. It was the heart of the counterinsurgency strategy by the general in command of the American troops, David Petraeus: more soldiers on the ground and closer to the population, to gain its support and collaboration. In parallel, the United States imposed a Sunni political presence in Baghdad, establishing a sort of sectarian balance. Thus, the critical mass of the Sunni communities moved in the opposition to the jihadists, who found themselves without a support network, out in the open. Terrorism was thus reduced to a minimum.

 

 

With the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, however, phenomena occurred that triggered a genetic mutation in the jihadist movements. The Iraqi government disregarded every promise and dismantled the militias for Sunni self-defence; former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki implemented measures involving political exclusion and economic discrimination against the Sunnis, who were expecting an important political gain in terms of inclusion within the government after having helped stem the threat of al-Qaida. At the same time, just when the two souls of the Iraqi insurgency, namely that of al-Qaeda and the jihadists and that of the Baathists and nationalists, seemed to have been defeated, their ties were strengthened once again. On the one hand, the jihadists needed the military and logistical expertise that the Baathists gained during the regime - when a Sunni minority ruled a Shiite majority under Saddam Hussein - while on the other hand, the latter hoped to find a mass movement to reverse the situation. After all, they had the same enemy: the Shiite government in Baghdad. And so, the jihadist embers began to burn, fueled by Baathist air. And the flame that was born is the Islamic State. The sudden flaring up of the jihadist fire in the summer of 2014 can only be explained by focusing on the role and political and social frustration of the Sunni population in Iraq.

 

 

The intimidation campaign

 

 

As far back as 2012, in the wake of what was happening in the Middle East, citizens in many cities in Iraq, especially Sunnis, took to the streets calling for reforms and fighting against corruption. At the end of 2013, the situation plummeted: Prime Minister Maliki claimed that the sit-in by protesters in Ramadi, the capital of the Sunni region of Anbar, was "a command issued al-Qaeda". He ordered the protest sites to be evacuated and had Ahmed al-Alwani, an influential sheikh of the Dulaimi tribe and active Sunni parliamentarian, arrested on charges of terrorism. At that point the Sunni protests turned into an armed opposition that extended to the towns of Fallujah and al-Karmah, so much so that the Iraqi army withdrew from those areas to avoid further tensions. Other tribes joined the Dulaimi, and the local security forces, largely composed of Sunnis, fell apart. This is what the Islamic State was waiting for: it infiltrated the cities of the protest with the support of several clans linked to former Baathists, beginning a campaign of intimidation against the civil and military authorities. Dozens of government officials, sheikhs and tribal militiamen were killed or executed in public. As such, what was mistakenly considered a "meteoric" jihadist conquest of Sunni provinces can explained by the state of revolt experienced by these territories for some, and with the progressive collapse of government institutions and the army. In fact, right from the beginning, the tribes have viewed the Islamic State with extreme suspicion, if not hostility. It was, however, a compelled choice, as the alternative was the much-hated Shiite government in Baghdad.

 

 

Limbo and lack of alternatives

 

 

Although some tribal militias played an active role in the liberation of Ramadi, as reported by the international press, in reality Iraqi Sunnis are currently in a sort of limbo. Even though the Islamic State is more of a phenomenon suffered passively, a political solution to the Iraqi Sunni question is still lacking. Until we offer them a viable alternative, Iraqi Sunnis will remain exposed to the temptation of supporting jihadist insurgent movements.

 

 

The incentives for a sectarian balance would first of all include the creation of a national guard recruited locally, into which tribal militias would flow. Secondly, the legislation against former Baathists should be softened to allow key personnel to come back to the institutions. Finally, the state should act decisively to reconstruct the liberated areas, starting from the ravaged Ramadi, where at least 10 billion dollars will be needed to rebuild the city according to The Wall Street Journal. However, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is too weak to implement these measures, being blocked by the Shiite parties and facing opposition from his predecessor, al-Maliki. The United States, which are pushing for a sectarian balance, no longer have the political weight they had in Baghdad in the past. Old and new actors such as Iran and Russia are strengthening their influence in the country. As Michael Weiss reported in the Daily Beast, even Moscow seems to drawing on the old American script from 2007, seeking to tighten relations with the Sunni tribes, to establish cooperation with them "to fight terrorism".

 

 

 

 

 

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