Sunni Autonomy to Defeat the Islamic State
The Islamic State’s continuing march across large parts of Syria and Iraq, and two barbaric, high-profile murders of American journalists, are forcing policymakers to face a difficult ultimatum: continue to try to stop the Islamic State by holding Iraq together through a central government that has little credibility with Sunni Iraqis or accept a de facto Sunni independent territory and work to rid it of the Islamic State.
Bringing together Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians in a stable central government is important for maintaining the integrity of the parts of Iraq that are not under Islamic State control and for slowing its progress, but it is not what will defeat the organization.
Sunni trust in the political process and central government is broken beyond repair. Sunnis do not see the Shiite-led government as a political opponent they disagree with. They see it as an existential threat.
The local Iraqi players who aid the Islamic State — Sunni tribesman and former Saddam Hussein regime military elements — need to be enticed to turn against the organization. Getting them to “buy back in” will require a powerful incentive, and what this Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad currently has to offer is not enough.
It is time for a bold solution. Baghdad should offer the Sunni tribes some sort of political autonomy, or perhaps even independence in the territory the Islamic State has carved out, on the condition that they ruthlessly eject the jihadists. This new Iraqi Sunni political entity could be a new country, a semi-autonomous regional government like Kurdistan, or a federation of tribal powers under a loose national framework like the United Arab Emirates.
To be successful, the new territory would need to provide the three things Sunnis are now receiving from the Islamic State: protection from sectarian attacks, basic services, and salaries. How that is achieved will require intensive study and a long investment of time and money from the United States and any allies. But for starters, the United States could put considerable pressure on the government in Baghdad to keep Shiite militias and Shiite-dominated security services out of the Sunni territory. At the same time the United States should empower the appropriate tribes to establish Awakening-type armed forces to first claim territory from the Islamic State and then keep order. The United States and other allies could distribute arms, funds and aid in support of those forces through identified tribal leaders who have the largest constituencies. This in turn would create legitimate local Sunni leaders who have a true following among average Sunnis and form the basis of a political entity from which decisions could be made about the shape this territory will take and the type of government it will have.
A logical place to start a campaign against the Islamic State is in Ramadi. The Islamic State is still unable to control the Ramadi-Hit corridor because of local tribal opposition. Ramadi was the birthplace of the Awakening movement and home to the Awakening leader Ahmed Abu Risha and the Albu Fahd tribe. The Albu Fahd have historically rejected the strict interpretation of Islamic law adopted by al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to the Islamic State. They especially reject the fundamental al-Qaeda and Islamic State practice of declaring huge swaths of Sunnis as not real Muslims and therefore acceptable to kill, according to the landmark 2006 study, Iraq Tribal Study – al-Anbar Governorate: The Albu Fahd Tribe, The Albu Mahal Tribe and the Albu Issa Tribe.
After successfully leading the Awakening movement in Anbar province, the Shiite-dominated government issued an arrest warrant for Abu Risha on charges of financing terrorism. But when the Islamic State swept into Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in January, the panicked Iraqi government sought Abu Risha’s help in battling the group. While he and some other tribal leaders are helping to fight the Islamic State, they have made clear they aren’t fighting for the central government, but instead to defend their traditional territory to which they are deeply loyal.
Abu Risha’s case demonstrates the deep appeal an independent Sunni territory would hold. This makes the Ramadi area an ideal base from which to launch an anti-Islamic State campaign and build support for Iraqis and Syrians to govern this Sunni territory instead of a jihadist group rife with foreigners and disdainful of tribal traditions.
This would have to be done with eyes wide open for the dangers of mismanaging it. Empowering the tribes and former regime elements to fight the Islamic State and take control of a new Sunni territory is risky to be sure, but it is the better of several bad options to neutralize the Islamic State threat. Sunnis have little reason to ever again agree to political participation in an Iraqi or Syrian central government. The political buy-in that they will likely support is to a nation or federalized area where they are secure and independent.
Jill Carroll was a freelance journalist and staff writer at The Christian Science Monitor during five years living in the Middle East, including in Baghdad from 2003-2006.