Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1210, (21 - 27 August 2014)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1210, (21 - 27 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Can IS be defeated?

It will take more than a new government in Iraq and US military prowess to stop IS, writes Salah Nasrawi

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Al-Ahram Weekly

In July 2011, as US combat troops were preparing to leave Iraq, Al-Qaeda put up a spectacular show of force in the heart of Baghdad. Its militants attacked a military checkpoint, killing 16 soldiers and setting their bodies on fire. In a final flourish, the attackers briefly planted IS’s black flag.

In the months after the US withdrawal, the terror group carried out more brazen strikes against government buildings in Baghdad, including key ministries and prisons. In one guerrilla-style assault, in July 2013, it freed some 500 of its senior members from the high-security Abu Ghraib prison.

The bold attacks were a clear sign of the failure of the “surge” in US troops. The so-called surge was a counter-insurgency measure taken by the Bush administration to support troop withdrawal from Iraq. Al-Qaeda sought to take advantage of the security vacuum to gain a foothold in the country. After the Americans left, the country would be policed by incompetent Iraqi security forces.

At that time, the Obama administration, which started a disengagement policy in Iraq disregarding what might follow, insisted that the US army was leaving Iraq secure and that the US-trained and equipped Iraqi security forces were capable of bringing peace to the war-torn country.

The truth is that Iraq was not only becoming less peaceful but that it was also being driven into a deeper security vacuum. This was due to the political stalemate largely caused by the failure of the US-backed Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki to pursue political reconciliation to end the Sunni insurgency. He needed to win over the Sunnis in order to pit them against Al-Qaeda.

The war-torn country soon reached a political impasse. Sunnis launched a nationwide protest in 2013 demanding an end to what they perceived as their marginalisation and mistreatment by the Shia-led government. The protest movement evolved into a rebellion which IS exploited to expand its presence.

Al-Maliki refused to begin a sectarian rapprochement. His government’s policy of excluding Sunnis enabled the brutal terrorist group to gain more grassroots support from Sunnis. It was marriage of inconvenience. The group continued its vicious warfare and set up the next stage in the cycle of violence to topple the Shia-led government.

Militarily, government efforts to defeat the group have not produced results. The group has asserted its leadership, changed its wider strategy and maintained momentum in preparation for an overall thrust to capture more territories and threaten Baghdad.

That trend continued until 10 June when the Islamic State (IS) seized the Iraqi city of Mosul in a lightning attack. The Iraqi army quickly collapsed. Declaring itself an Islamic caliphate, IS seized more assets and large swathes of land in four provinces and advanced toward Baghdad.

IS also pushed back Kurdish Peshmerga forces and overran several more cities in northern Iraq, including Sinjar, a Yazidi minority stronghold, and advanced to the provincial Kurdistan capital, Erbil.

Analysts in the western media who have been weighing in with scenarios on the best approaches to confront IS and end this intractable war are now suggesting that any strategy to defeat the terror network requires both government effort and US involvement. This strategy should include both political and military components in order to fight what has become a large-scale insurgency movement.

On the political level, they argue, a new all-inclusive government must be rapidly formed relations restored between Baghdad and Iraq’s Kurdish and Sunni populations. Militarily, they suggest, Iraq should be supplied with sophisticated US weapons, air force support and, probably, with boots on the ground.

They also believe it will take broader regional and international support, including a multilateral political approach and a robust military effort and coherent battle strategy to destroy IS.

This may look like proper strategic thinking, but looking more deeply into the suggestions, including an inclusive government and the need for US military support, they seem like forgone conclusions that do not amount to policy recommendations.

Haven’t we heard such things from the self-proclaimed Iraq experts and media pundits time and time again since the Iraqi conflict began following the US-led invasion? Is it not because of the flawed US policies in Iraq and the failures of Iraq’s post-invasion governments that the country has fallen into the present morass?

There is a great deal of naivety, to say the least, in assumptions that omit key elements in Iraq’s lingering crisis and reproduce short-term fixes that are divorced from reality and lack a larger political vision.

The post-10 June developments have brought a whole new set of challenges to the table. Iraq is now politically and geographically divided along ethno-sectarian lines, with each of its three main communities controlling its portion of the land.

More than two-thirds of Iraq is now under the control of IS-backed Sunni insurgents and independence-seeking Kurds. This has created new realities on the ground and fundamentally changed the equation, a factor that the Sunnis and Kurds will use to improve their position against the Shia majority in any settlement of the crisis.

It means that the communal struggle in Iraq is no longer about state largesse or even about political participation, but is rather about the communities’ futures in a united Iraq. The larger problem that any effort to end the current crisis must address is Iraq’s survival as a state and not merely the redistribution of power and wealth.

Let’s assume that the Iraqi factions successfully formed a new unity government tomorrow and enough incentives were provided to the Kurds and Sunnis to remain in Iraq. Even then, who could guarantee that the centrifugal forces tearing Iraq apart could be stopped?

A closer look at the post-10 June landscape reveals that the Sunni political elite involved in the political process and negotiating the new government deal is out of touch with its constituencies, now mostly under the control of IS and other Sunni insurgents.

It is true that some Sunni tribal leaders have expressed a willingness to work with the new government, under certain preconditions, to redress their grievances. But they will first have to convince other Sunni factions and tribes to be open to the idea of compromise.

Another task will be to confront IS, which holds a tight grip on their provinces. Important Sunni factions seem unwilling to do this because their ultimate objective is to restore their supremacy in Iraq and not to share power with the Shia.

The Kurds say their participation in the new government will only happen if they are allowed to control the territories they have seized during the current crisis, have the right to sell oil independently, and the ability to receive weapons directly from abroad.

With regard to possible US military intervention to fight IS, Washington has already started air strikes and provided weapons to roll back gains made by IS. But its commitment to a long-term involvement and to sending troops to fight the terror group remains in doubt.

Indeed, the prospect of US involvement in a large-scale war against IS seems out of

the question. So far, Obama has said there is no US military solution to the crisis. And there are no signs that a man who won his presidency on a promise to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will change his mind.

In the final analysis, what is being sought is an illusionary, short-term stability that would not stop Iraq from disintegrating into three separate entities. Some spin doctors advocate dividing Iraq into different ethno-sectarian regions, a plan proposed by US Vice-President Joe Biden in 2006, as the only solution left to end Iraq’s sectarian conflict.

While this strategy would spell the end of Iraq, a wishy-washy counterterrorism approach will not defeat the IS, or even eliminate its threat to other countries in the Middle East, and even beyond.

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