Why Victory Over IS Won’t Solve the Real Problem Facing Iraq and Syria

by Derek Davison

A recent spate of high-casualty Islamic State-linked attacks in France, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and (arguably) Orlando, Florida, has raised fears about the group’s ability to carry out international terrorist strikes while also obscuring its failures at creating a “state.” The group has lost a considerable amount of the territory it controlled at the height of its military success. Particularly in Iraq, it’s lost some of its most important holdings—major cities like Tikrit, Mosul, and Fallujah, as well as the large oil refinery in Baiji. In Libya, where IS had gone to considerable effort to establish itself, forces allied with that country’s Government of National Accord are in the process of driving IS out of its stronghold in the city of Sirte. And just last week, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces reportedly regained control of the city of Manbij, the Islamic State’s last corridor between Raqqa, Syria, and the Turkish border.

However, the problem of Sunni Arab disenfranchisement and grievance—which fed the rise of IS to prominence in the first place—remains. Although the war against IS has been succeeding, this underlying problem has only gotten more intractable. Unless it is somehow addressed, the outlook for a post-IS Middle East appears grim. To understand these issues more clearly, I recently spoke with Wayne White, former deputy director of the State Department’s Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office and a LobeLog contributor.

LobeLog: Talk about why it’s important, even as IS is losing ground, that Sunni Arab resentment be addressed, and whether it can/will be addressed if and when IS is defeated.

Wayne White: Sunni Arab grievances against both the non-Sunni-dominated Syrian and Iraqi regimes, left unaddressed, will lead—whether under Syrian regime, Syrian Kurdish, Iraqi Kurdish, or Iraqi regime occupation—to further outbreaks of violence. Provocations in Syria relate to prolonged subordination to an Alawite-dominated regime and now likely occupation by a regime angered by years of bloody Sunni Arab resistance. Brutal Syrian treatment of real or suspected rebels or dissidents is well-documented. Likewise in Iraq: Shi‘a, who comprise not only the bulk of the Iraqi Army, but also of the notoriously abusive Shi‘a militias that are once again on the front lines, will likely mistreat Sunni Arabs under occupation. Atrocities will occur.

Moreover, in Syria especially, largely Sunni Arab cities and towns have been devastated in the fighting—repeatedly fought over and bombed indiscriminately. In Iraqi cities already badly damaged by fighting during the Sunni Arab insurgency of 2003-2009, as well as the ongoing aerial bombardment by the anti-IS coalition (especially given the Obama administration’s decision in April to relax the rules of engagement relating to air strikes), final re-conquest will mean, as in Syria, yet more destruction. In both Iraq and Syria, then, large infusions of funds and resources from Damascus and Baghdad would be needed to restore even a modicum of normalcy, but neither the two governments nor the Iraqi Kurds have such resources and are notoriously corrupt. So, judging from the past in Iraq particularly, Sunni Arabs can expect precious little assistance. This will breed deep resentment, unrest, and the emergence of at least some terrorism in one form or another.

Without sufficient context, the media has been characterizing anti-Shi’a and anti-government terrorist bombings in Baghdad as the doings of IS. In fact, such terrorism is merely a seamless continuation of identical al-Qaeda in Iraq terrorism ongoing since 2003-2004. In terms of intensity, the volume of such attacks was worse during Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s abuses against Sunni Arabs in the pre-IS era. This form of murky retaliatory terrorism could emerge once again from an undercurrent of Sunni Arab anger.

LL: In Iraq, Haider al-Abadi replaced Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister back in 2014 in part because of criticism that Maliki’s government had enabled IS to form by alienating Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. Has Abadi been any better for Sunni Arabs than Maliki was?

WW: Abadi has been only a bit better than Maliki. Although Iraq desperately needs to re-connect Sunni Arabs to Baghdad in order to fully turn the tables on IS, Abadi has been unable to offer Iraq’s Sunni Arabs guarantees of future political inclusion, some measure of protective autonomy, and a fair share of the economic pie. He couldn’t do it when IS was at the gates of Baghdad and the Iraqi army had just been shattered, and Baghdad has a lot less incentive (if any) to do it now that Iraqi forces are winning.

LL: How much of Abadi’s failure is his own fault and how much has to do with the structural challenges he faces? He’s had to try to reach out to Sunni Arabs while not alienating powerful Shi‘a militias elements of his own governing coalition. Has he been stymied by those things to some extent?

WW: Clearly, since most of the same Shi‘a powerbrokers who surrounded Maliki still comprise much of the ruling elite, the weaker Abadi simply couldn’t get enough support. So, yes, he has been stymied, but that assumes we can be sure Abadi himself doesn’t harbor similar views deep down. Consequently, the Iraqi advance has been doomed to a grinding slog in driving IS back, when it was known as far back as late 2014 that a number of tribes, Sunni Arab community leaders, and various locales behind IS lines have either given IS only lackluster support, remained neutral, or even fought against IS, forming a few unruly areas to which the IS writ does not extend. With a few Sunni Arab tribes fighting alongside the Iraqi Army regardless, a dynamic, credible Sunni Arab outreach from Baghdad probably would have won over a much larger number of additional Sunni Arab assets, disrupting IS’s Iraqi holdings sooner.

LL: Does the current popular Shi‘a movement against Abadi’s government, which seems to be more focused on improved governance than any kind of sectarian demand, offer any hope of improving the political climate for Sunni Arabs?

WW: Recent protests directed at the Abadi government actually relate to the entire dysfunctional, corrupt Shi‘a ruling elite. Past protests for reforms and good governance, such as those against the Maliki government a few years ago, produced practically no real change; the same will likely be the case this time around. If, however, sectarian quotas were relaxed—one of the protesters’ demands—it would actually rebound negatively on Sunni Arabs, as well as other minorities such as Kurds and Turcomen.

LL: How big an obstacle is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to an Iraqi reunification? Assuming IS is eventually defeated, might we expect to see open conflict between Kurds and Sunni Arabs?

WW: There are certain to be problems, probably including some measure of instability, in areas adjacent to the KRG zone once IS has been driven from Mosul and other areas nearby. Already KRG forces have “liberated” previously Arab or Christian villages and towns long claimed by the KRG (particularly in Nineveh Governate) and then proclaimed them “Kurdish.” This was facilitated by the flight of many residents from IS, many of them taking refuge inside the KRG. As the Kurds advance further, they will likely claim more localities for the KRG. This will generate great resentment and potential flashpoints. And the future status of thousands of the actual inhabitants of those areas, who are now living behind KRG lines, remains unknown.

LL: The Iraqi victory over IS in Tikrit was marred by reports of abuses by Shi‘a militias against the Sunni inhabitants of the city. In Ramadi, those militias were reportedly sidelined, but they participated in the liberation of Fallujah, and once again there were reports of abuses. Why were the militias reactivated for the Fallujah operation, and what does this suggest for the upcoming effort to liberate Mosul?

WW: The reintroduction of the militias (in Fallujah) sped up operations but brought with it the inevitable militia atrocities. Perhaps, under pressure from Republicans to show more progress against IS, the Obama administration turned a blind eye to the re-introduction of those elements to which it had strongly objected in late 2014 and 2015. There is no reason to believe Mosul will be any different because it is so large. Indeed, all stripes of Iraqi military forces probably will be pressed into service with plenty of destructive support from coalition air strikes along with ground-based artillery.

LL: Is there any outcome to the Syrian civil war that leaves Assad in power—even in a transitional capacity only—that would be acceptable to Syrian Sunnis?

WW: Following the wanton brutality of the Assad regime, including the near destruction of largely Sunni Arab population centers like Aleppo and Homs, it is highly unlikely that a formula could be found leaving Bashar al-Assad in power that they would accept. Likewise, the fairly rapid emergence of jihadi groups like the Nusra Front [now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham] and the Islamic State as the dominant rebel forces will make it difficult for a victorious Alawi-dominated regime to agree to an increased Sunni Arab role in a post-civil-war Syria. Syrian Kurds, although they have hopes for autonomy, never completely cut their ties to Damascus and also will remain leery of a Sunni Arab revival.

LL: Are “moderate” Syrian rebels, like the Free Syrian Army, still viable as a force apart from more extreme factions like Jabhat Fatah al-Sham? Is there any possibility that moderates could come out on top when the war finally ends?

WW: Any possibility of a moderate victory in Syria probably has been off the table since jihadi groups vastly overshadowed less successful moderate rebels. Now, however, with Russian intervention and ramped-up Iranian, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shi‘a militia involvement, the authoritarian and doubtless vengeful Assad regime is likely to remain dominant. Meanwhile, moderate rebels remain weaker militarily than any other single regime or rebel force on the Syrian battlefield.

Why the moderate rebels failed, why they so rapidly fell behind their emergent jihadi counterparts, is not entirely clear. It is known that from very early on, so-called moderate groups in key areas like Aleppo acted more like corrupt warlords and did not, as jihadis often did, attempt to re-establish some modicum of public services and fairer access to food, etc. Another big factor weakening the position of moderate rebels is that most of their holdings are in western (or “useful”) Syria, so Russian intervention and the ramped-up military effort of Iran and Iranian-sponsored forces for the bulk of their first year of effort largely targeted them, not so much al-Nusra and IS.

LL: Has the U.S. decision to back the Kurdish YPG militia (separately and as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces) been a net positive or net negative for American goals in Syria and the Middle East, and has it impacted America’s ability to cultivate a relationship with “moderate” rebels?

WW: There is no love lost between the YPG Kurds and Sunni Arabs, who also covet Sunni Arab territory, and efforts to field a moderate Sunni Arab force have not produced much in the way of progress—giving them little voice at any potential bargaining table where military clout and the ability to deliver it count for everything. Worse still, with Russian intervention as well as ramped-up Iranian/Hezbollah/Iraqi Shi‘a militia efforts in Syria propping Assad back up, those forces who are hostile to Sunni Arabs have zero reason to cut them any slack politically. Finally, the YPG’s ultimate political loyalties are unknown, despite seeking far greater autonomy from Damascus. Until last year the YPG maintained limited ties with the regime, and earlier this year received Russian air support during a military operation.

The main reason the US provided more aid to the YPG than to moderate rebels (although not all that much more because of Turkish obstruction) is that the YPG combatants were simply the only really effective anti-IS force in Syria aside from Syrian regime forces and their Iranian and Shi‘a allies. Another big reason was that arms given to relatively weak or to some degree moderate Islamist rebel groups either made their way into the hands of jihadis or were forcibly taken by them.

LL: What happens to Sunni Arabs in Syria and Iraq if/when IS is finally eradicated as a fighting force—and, in Syria’s case, once the civil war finally ends?

WW: It looks like the Fertile Crescent will remain at least as bad as it was under the Assads and Maliki: a land in which Sunni Arabs are second-class citizens or, worse, are abused, detained, banned from government jobs, denied anything approaching a fair share of the political pie. In effect, most Sunni Arabs will be treated as people under hostile occupation. Occasionally there will be flare-ups, and Sunni Arabs will remain vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist entities in the Fertile Crescent and internationally.

LL: Could partition—either “hard” partition into separate states or “soft” partition as in a federalist system—evolve into a stable status quo in either or both of these countries?

WW: Partition has a certain appeal as a solution to ethno-sectarian differences, but the situation on the ground is a lot more complex than most advocates of partition can fathom. Both Iraq and Syria have considerable areas of mixed populations. In the ugliness of the 2006-2008 sectarian war within a war in the greater Baghdad area, Sunni Arab or mixed areas of the capital were subjected to Shi‘a sectarian cleansing. And, given the heightened hostility produced by the latest conflict, exchanges of population probably would be necessary. In addition, boundaries that do not clearly exist now between disparate groups would have to be fashioned. This process alone would be fraught with danger, because winners (Alawi, Christians, and Kurds in Syria; Shi‘a and Kurds in Iraq) would be positioned to enforce the most favorable boundaries for their own people. Finally, Damascus and Baghdad are still somewhat mixed and would doubtless be dominated (and possibly be subjected to sectarian cleansing) by the winners, which would be highly objectionable to groups that wind up being left out. So this solution would inevitably sow the seeds of potential future conflict.

Any federal system would likely be corrupted by what we already saw in Iraq: a Shi‘a elite under a Maliki-type figure starving Sunni Arab and Kurdish regions of their fair share of national revenue—another source of severe stress. And without a fair revenue-sharing arrangement, Syria’s Kurdish and Iraq’s Sunni Arab regions would be unable to sustain themselves economically as quasi-independent entities, let alone as fully independent states.

LL: Is there anything the United States can do at this point or moving forward to try to improve the lot of Sunni Arabs in either country? Obviously Washington’s influence in a Syria still controlled by Assad will be slim to none, but what about in a post-IS Iraq?

WW: Under both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, Washington leaned hard on Baghdad to treat Sunni Arabs fairly and unabusively, but to no avail. Tehran clearly has more influence over Iraq’s new Shi‘a ruling elite and has no more reason than Iraqi Shi‘a to favor Sunni Arabs. And as for Syria, the US is clearly viewed as hostile to the Syrian regime and has very little real influence. Moreover, after facing a brutish Sunni Arab entity like IS, neither Baghdad nor Damascus will view Sunni Arabs in general as deserving of their attention in any positive way.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.


One Comment

  1. It’s not helpful in any way to write about what’s happenning or will happen in the Middle East focussing exclusively on religious and/or confessional factors ..this kind of articles serves only one objective which is the ultimate goal of Israel ….

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