To Defeat ISIL, Empower Sunni Iraqis and Syrians

U.S., Iraqi soldiers conduct cordon and search mission near Kirkuk

Thirteen years after 9/11, Islamic militants have seized a state-sized territory in the heart of the Middle East, and the United States is struggling to determine how to respond. The two main approaches the United States has used thus far to combat extremists — large-scale, prolonged deployments of ground troops and pinprick drone strikes — do not effectively address the problem. Drone strikes alone can disrupt terrorist organizations, but cannot lay the foundations for political stability necessary to prevent their regrowth. Prolonged deployments of U.S. ground troops, on the other hand, require massive investment in terms of U.S. lives and dollars, and often still lead to uncertain results. It was less than three years ago, after all, that U.S. troops left Iraq. To leave U.S. forces on the ground engaged in internecine conflicts indefinitely is not a viable strategy. A new model is needed, one that not only disrupts terrorist organizations but builds up political and security architectures that can prevent their regrowth, and does so at a cost that is reasonable within the United States.

The beginnings of such a model can be seen in northern Iraq today with U.S. airpower buttressing local ground forces, giving them the added boost they need to overpower Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters. Such a model carries risks, however, the seeds of which can already be seen. Shiite militias are said to be among the fighters on the ground in northern Iraq along with the Kurdish peshmerga, and reports from Iraq indicate tensions among militias who are vying for control of ground seized from ISIL. Backing anyone who is willing to fight IS may result in tactical victories, but will certainly lead to strategic ruin in the long run. Even the perception on the ground that the United States is acting with Iran as the air force for Shiite militias will only drive Sunnis further into ISIL’s arms, regardless of how U.S. leaders parse their actions. The United States must choose its partners carefully with the aim of empowering relatively moderate Sunni Iraqis and Syrians to build a bulwark against ISIL’s return.

Such an approach will not be quick, and will take a sustained political-military campaign to empower Sunni Iraqis and Syrians who are willing to fight ISIL. Credible Sunni alternatives to ISIL are needed, however, in order to build up a political-security architecture in western Iraq and Syria that includes Sunnis and also is not hostile to U.S. interests. ISIL has been able to take root within Iraq and Syria, along with other extremist rebels, because Sunnis within each country have been disempowered (or worse) and have found that no one else is willing to support them. In Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki’s government took systematic steps to marginalize Sunnis during his tenure. The promise of the Sunni “Awakening” that threw off al-Qaeda never materialized; instead the Iraqi government demobilized Sunni local security forces and cut Iraqi Sunnis out of the political and economic benefits of participation in the state. As a result, ISIL has found willing partners among disenfranchised Sunni nationalists, former Baathists, and Sunni tribes. In Syria the situation is far worse with Bashar al-Assad’s regime murdering its citizens, and the international community — including the United States — moving slowly, to put it charitably, to support those on the ground. It is not surprising that ISIL and other extremists have been able to gain supporters under these conditions. Syria and Iraq are not traditional hotbeds of religious extremism, and ISIL’s extreme ideology is no doubt distasteful to many relatively secular Iraqis and Syrians. The Sunni Awakening in Iraq, after all, was in large part a rejection of al-Qaeda’s extreme and brutal methods. But Sunnis in Iraq and Syria are also being given no viable alternative vision of a future, and many have clearly decided that the future ISIL offers is preferred to the ones being offered by the Syrian and Iraqi states.

A new awakening is needed, but in order for it to occur, there needs to be a vision of the future on the table that gives Sunnis a stake in the prevailing order. In Iraq, this must include national-level power sharing, something the first Sunni Awakening promised but the central government never delivered on. The combination of a new Iraqi prime minister, an outside threat (ISIL) to all Iraqis, and a renewed need by Iraq for U.S. military and financial support — which gives the U.S. leverage — presents at least the opportunity for a different outcome this time. Ultimately, the day-to-day life of Sunni Iraqis needs to improve. This means security, economic opportunities, and a political voice. Unlike during the first Awakening, however, Sunni tribes will not have U.S. forces on the ground to back them in their struggle, and Iraqi security forces have already proven themselves unreliable. Sunni tribes will have to defend themselves, and the U.S. should provide airpower, weapons, and money to strengthen their hand. This should include not only the immediate task of pushing back ISIL, but forging Sunni tribes into viable local security forces for the long term to keep extremists from returning.

Across the border in Syria, the United States should similarly work with regional partners to strengthen the hand of moderate opposition elements through political, military, and economic support. These include a hodgepodge of groups under the broad umbrella label “Free Syrian Army” and some independent moderate Islamist groups. While Syrian moderate opposition groups are currently fragmented and weak relative to Islamic extremists, a concerted effort to support them with money, weapons, humanitarian aid, and political support could strengthen their hand over time. As the moderate opposition grows stronger, it may be able to peel away some “swing Islamists” from organizations like the Islamic Front as well. There is no quick fix to the civil war in Syria, but a first step toward any solution will be shoring up a credible third way between Assad and Islamic extremists like ISIL.

The objections to such an approach — that there are no viable options in Syria and that in Iraq empowering Sunnis will accelerate the disintegration of the state — have merit, but are outweighed by the drawbacks in any alternative. In Syria, a do-nothing approach only allows ISIL to grow, and siding with Assad against ISIL will only further marginalize Sunni Syrians who will see that only extremists are willing to fight to defend their lives. The relatively moderate Syrian opposition may not be very strong and may not be all that moderate, but it is the best option for U.S. partners on the ground. The opposition need not be pro-American. In fact its credibility and longevity are much stronger if it is not seen as an American puppet. It needs only not have hostile intentions toward the United States.

In Iraq, arming Sunni tribes directly raises the fear that empowering non-state groups will tug at the already-fraying Iraqi state. But non-state groups are already running rampant throughout Iraq. Kurdish and Shiite militias are leading the fight on the ground against ISIL, and Iraqi government forces are marginal players at best. The Iraqi government’s weakness is already a reality. Sunni local forces that can fight against ISIL are needed if Sunni-dominated regions of Iraq are to be turned back against the threat. Even if Shiite and Kurdish militias were to form the vanguard of an advance across western Iraq, their presence is likely to lead to increased sectarian fighting or even atrocities. The use of Shiite militias in Sunni-dominated areas risks another Sunni-Shiite civil war, and may convince Sunni Arabs that siding with extremists like ISIL is their only option. While arming Sunni Iraqis directly does empower yet another non-state group with Iraq, Sunni Iraqis are far less likely to be able to launch a successful bid for independence than Iraqi Kurds. In an ideal situation, arms would be supplied through the Iraqi government, increasing the ties between Sunni tribes and the central government. If this is not possible, then supporting Sunni tribes through covert action authorities, but with the knowledge of the Iraqi government, as the United States did for the Kurdish peshmerga, is an alternative. A stronger hand for Iraqi Sunnis may accelerate the centrifugal forces pulling Iraq apart, or may force the central government to give Sunnis a larger voice in the state. In either case, whether Iraq is doomed as a unified state or only sliding toward a more decentralized structure, the United States would do well to have direct ties to Iraqi Sunnis to prevent the return of ISIL.

The Obama administration has already signaled increased support for moderate Syrian rebels and has conducted airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq. As the administration crafts a long-term comprehensive strategy for defeating ISIL, empowering Sunni Iraqis — ideally through the Iraqi government, but unilaterally if necessary — should be a key element. Across the border in Syria, while the administration should partner with other nations to strengthen moderate rebels, it should resist calls by regional partners to take direct military action against Assad. While occasional pinprick strikes against ISIL leaders in Syria may be necessary, it will be hard for regional partners to understand the rationale behind a larger U.S. air campaign in Syria that falls short of toppling Assad, knowing the United States has the military capability to do so. Attempts to thread the needle between enough airstrikes to support moderate rebels, but not enough to bring down Assad, will likely be met with a wink and a nudge from regional partners: “Like Libya, right?” But until moderate rebels are strong enough to maintain security in a post-Assad world, the chaos and bloodletting against Alawites that would accompany Assad’s downfall in the short term would only feed sectarian conflict and strengthen ISIL and other radicals.

Building up moderate Sunni alternatives to ISIL will take time, resources, close collaboration with regional partners, and patience. It also will require a willingness to stomach temporary setbacks, as working through partners on the ground inevitably leads to less direct control over their actions. Some partners will turn out to be unreliable, and may change sides or collapse. But the United States must keep its eye on the long-term goal: a political-security architecture in Iraq and Syria that gives Sunnis a stake in the future and a viable alternative to extremism.


Paul Scharre is a former Army Ranger and was a civil affairs specialist in the sectarian-mixed region of Diyala province in Iraq during the 2007-2008 U.S. “surge.” From 2008-2013 he worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is currently a fellow and Director of the 20YY Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security.


Photo credit: DVIDSHUB