America vs. ISIS: Be Careful What You Wish For

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.

Disappointing Lineup

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.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. A stepped up “Air Campaign”. Sure, just like the Israelis did in Gaza. Wouldn’t that look great. More civilians killed-100’s of women/children-with perhaps a few IS troops, just for the bragging rights. When will these fools ever learn? They screwed up in the first place, have been doing same ever since. $Billions spent, $Billions more to be spent, and for what? All the while, the U.S. infrastructure is falling apart. So damn easy for the pundits sitting on their ivory thrones, giving advice about how to kill others, but nothing else. How long are the American taxpayer, “going to be fooled again”, as the song goes? As for Iran, make peace with them, then perhaps the area might think twice before continuing this war. Right now, nobody seems to have any plan, other than use Air Power, as long as they can point the finger at “O”. There seems to be no end to the neocon/republicon babble, considering it was their own members who started this mess and really screwed things up. Delusional denial, the mantra being sung in Washington and beyond.

  2. Sunni arabs are small minority and should accept that . They will never get 0% of the gov posts period.

  3. Here we go again! Good old US of A imposing their John Wayne morality on ancient civilizations, while madmen walk the streets back home carrying loaded military weapons and the government presides over botched judicial executions. And then you wonder why everyone hates you? Get your own yard in order before you set yourselves up as policemen of the World………

  4. United States Have a moral obligation to the Sunnis/Chritians/Yazidis in Iraq. I believe most of the mess we have today is a direct result of Iranian intervention. As a hard core hardline secular Arab. I believe US should aid peshmerga. Sunni Arabs have not complained a lot about peshmerga as much about Shia.
    The key Point is United States need to be consistent. Early after Iraq invasion United States committed a tremendous sin of “allowing” Shia Militias into Iraqi Security forces. I put allowing here because I know it might not have been the US choice. But never the less, tolerated such choice. Middle east needs secular governments not sectarian governments. Relying on short term remedies will Only exacerbate the problem.

  5. The Sunni Arab countries are weak. Despite the billions of dollars of weapons they buy, they have no serious army that can fight. The only possible army is Egyptian and Egypt is paralyzed by its own political and economical crisis. Therefore the only strong army the Sunnis can be proud of is… ISIS.

    Now that the Sunni Gulf countries are worried for their own skin, they call the Christian big brother, the USA for help. How humiliating must it be for the Moslem Arab youth. No wonder young Arabs are pouring to join ISIS.
    The humiliating intervention of Americans in the region will certainly give a boost to international terrorism. ISIS destroyed in Iraq and Syria will re appear in the Arab Gulf countries and Western countries more blood thirsty than ever.
    The Shias and Iran will not be blamed for the civilians that would be killed in the US airstrikes. The USA will be hated even more.
    That would be the legacy of Obama.

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