by Wayne White
The US media and politicians from both parties have hyped the Islamic State (IS, ISIS or ISIL) threat, shifting public opinion dramatically in favor of wide-ranging air strikes. This has pressured the White House toward a more robust military campaign against ISIS. Yet so far, the American airstrikes might have inadvertently helped weaken a critical component of any US anti-ISIS strategy in Iraq: a credible government in Baghdad able to persuade Sunni Arabs to turn against ISIS.
Airstrikes were cleverly withheld for a while to force Baghdad’s Shia politicians to get rid of discredited Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. However, with Washington now so heavily invested in the anti-ISIS struggle, Iraq’s majority Shia politicians could feel less need to go the distance toward a refreshingly inclusive government.
Despite ISIS’s Syrian capital, its far richer holdings in Iraq are the jewel in the “Caliphate’s” crown. But if Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government, which includes Maliki, turns out to be as residually sectarian as some fear, the Iraqi campaign would be vastly more difficult, bloody, and divisive. Whatever the American strategy, the US must avoid being manipulated into doing Kurdish or Shia dirty work against Iraq’s Sunni Arabs under the guise of destroying ISIS.
Hyped “ISIS Crisis” at Home
Americans have received a steady diet of highly charged news about the ISIS threat in the Middle East and beyond. This has produced a circular effect in which politicians must appear responsive to heightened public fear by urging more extreme courses of action, which then causes public concern to spike.
Major news fora last Sunday were flush with US officials—from Senators Ted Cruz to Dianne Feinstein—urging much bolder military action. “Time’s a-wasting…it’s time for America to project power and strength,” warned Feinstein. Presumably, in this context, 157 airstrikes so far have not been nearly enough. Feinstein also suggested ISIS posed a threat to Baghdad and its US embassy when most experts agree an ISIS advance into such a vast urban area seems beyond its capabilities.
Cruz called for an “overwhelming air campaign to take them out.” Perhaps Sen. Cruz is unaware of the fact that no struggle against a force holding a large swathe of territory has been resolved through air power alone. Furthermore, since most ISIS combatants are located in populated areas, trying to destroy the group by air would involve huge numbers of collateral civilian casualties. The latter would smack of the Assad regime’s relentless bombardment of areas held by Syrian rebels, which has had an alienating effect.
All told, for the better part of a month, ISIS efforts to advance have been repelled—or even rolled back. Nevertheless, at least one major American media outlet continues to introduce reporting on developments regarding ISIS under misleading introductory logos on the continuing ISIS advance in Iraq.
Despite congratulations from President Barack Obama and praise from Secretary of State John Kerry, Iraq’s new government appears to fall short of the ideal tool needed to convince Sunni Arabs they would be welcomed back into the national fold after joining the fight against ISIS.
Prime Minister Abadi met the Sept. 8 deadline to form his government, but the result does not hold as much promise as hoped. Abadi announced the new government, although the powerful defense and interior portfolios remain in dispute; Abadi named a Sunni Arab defense minister, but Shia doubters held up his approval. In fact, intense factional and ethno-sectarian bickering threatened to derail the process through the last evening before the government was announced. And the Kurds have enough doubts that they only joined for a finite trial period.
Maliki, who is so despised by Sunni Arabs in ISIS-occupied areas, was also given one of the two vice presidential posts. Even though these posts are mainly ceremonial, Maliki’s presence is problematic. Many other cabinet members are among the same ministers who filled out previous disappointing, dysfunctional, corrupt and abusive Iraqi governments.
Many Sunni Arabs Want ISIS Out
Iraqi Sunni Arabs collaborating with, tolerating ISIS, or remaining on the sidelines (a number of the tribes) hoped Washington, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and other well-meaning parties would compel Baghdad’s dominant Shia politicians to turn away from Maliki’s vindictive sectarian politics. But due to Maliki’s betrayal of the 2006-07 Sunni Arab Awakening, they are more skeptical than ever of Baghdad.
Many Sunni Arab tribal and former army cadres opposed to ISIS are ready to fight, but that hinges on Baghdad’s performance. Some of them told BBC last week that mistrust among even those already clashing with ISIS behind its lines is so high that there was a common desire for Washington to guarantee fairness from the new government toward Sunni Arabs. That, of course, is highly unlikely.
Sunni Arabs Have Good Reason to be Afraid
Reuters reports that during the fighting to liberate the ISIS-surrounded Turcoman Shia town of Amerli last week, Shia militias in government service seemingly attacked any Sunni Arabs, making it unsafe for Sunni Arab refugees to return to their homes. An Iraqi flag was hard to find as Shia militias and Kurds showcased their own militia and Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) banners. The Shia militia finally barred the peshmerga from Amerli, with Kurds calling the militiamen “Shia IS.”
Meanwhile, farther north, before Sunni Arabs could return to towns reclaimed following recent US airstrikes, their homes had been torched or branded as Kurdish homes by peshmerga, who used the crisis to label all Sunni Arabs pro-ISIS.
Don’t Partner with Iran
With Sunni Arab anxieties running so high, the White House should be wary of the many calls for the US to embrace Iran as an ally against ISIS. Sunni Arabs, who have grown more fearful of the “Caliphate” in their midst, view Iran as a Shia sectarian enemy that stood behind the Maliki government’s anti-Sunni Arab abuses, along with those of Shia militias. It would be harder to convince Sunni Arabs already betrayed once to trust a hand extended to them by a new Iraq government and the US if Iran was a major partner. Of course, lower profile assistance from Iran would be welcome, but not a major public role.
Marching Orders for Washington
The White House should make a ramped up air campaign contingent on good behavior on the part of the Abadi government toward Sunni Arabs. Without strong initial demonstrations of goodwill, many Sunni Arabs could hold back from allying themselves with the government against ISIS.
Should they shy away from joining up, a seriously weakened Iraqi Army and relatively small peshmerga would be unable to provide the ground component needed to accompany air strikes aimed at retaking major swathes of real estate—especially cities. The ugly alternative would be pounding ISIS in urban areas, many of which might have been otherwise cleared to a great degree by pro-government Sunni Arab fighters. It also would mean greater government reliance on notorious Shia militias.
All concerned must be alert to the danger of US airpower being exploited for settling Shia or Kurdish sectarian scores against Sunni Arabs during or in the wake of driving out ISIS. Even if ISIS is reduced to insignificance, less judicious airstrikes alongside Shia and Kurdish atrocities would sustain ugly ethno-sectarian conflict in Iraq.