By Brigitte L. Nacos
My previous post focused entirely on the joint air strikes against ISIS in Syria and possible follow-up military actions. But military responses from the air and on the ground will not entirely change the conditions in which terrorist guerrillas like ISIS operate and commit their atrocities—not in Syria and not in Iraq or elsewhere. For this, far-reaching political changes would be needed; and these will not be easily achieved.
Of the two states in which ISIS controls large territories, Iraq is better situated for defeating ISIS and perhaps start to work towards a political compromise that accommodates the rights of its various religious and ethnic population groups.
To begin with, the military push against ISIS in Iraq has made for strange bedfellows in that both the United States and Iran are militarily involved in the fight against ISIS. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said yesterday according to the New York Times, “Had it not been for Iran’s efforts to rush military advisers and weaponry to Iraq three months ago, the radical group ‘would be residing in southern Baghdad’ today.” He actually chided the U.S. for not sooner moving against ISIS in Iraq. While both Tehran and Washington deny coordination between their military “advisors,” they nevertheless fight both against ISIS.
Shiites and Kurds depend on and want assistance by the Iranian and American military, but Sunnis are suspicious that Iraq’s Shiite dominated government in concert with Tehran and Washington fights not merely ISIS, Sunni extremists, but Iraq’s Sunni majority population. These sentiments on the part of Sunnis are understandable. After Sunni tribal leaders and their men joined the U.S. military in fighting and defeating Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the predecessor of ISIS, Sunnis were denied equitable representation in the Bagdad government and some of their political leaders persecuted by the al-Maliki regime.
A first step towards reconciliation would be if Iraq’s new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi puts together a new government in which Kurds, Shiites, and the Sunni majority are fairly represented. Only then would there a chance, not certainty, that Sunnis again join the fight against terrorists, this time ISIS, as they fought AQI side by side with Americans in the Anbar Awakening.