On September 10, 2014, President Obama laid out American objectives in Iraq. The U.S. would work to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group that calls itself the Islamic State. This is a commendable objective, but no one has clearly articulated the means to achieve it. In the absence of a clear American strategy, Iran has filled the void, playing a growing role in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. The Obama administration has been at best ambiguous about Iranian involvement in the conflict. General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has suggested that Iran may be playing a “positive” role against the Islamic State. This was also the leitmotif of Helene Cooper’s analysis in the New York Times yesterday. On a tactical, and perhaps even an operational level, this may be true, but from a strategic perspective, it is a serious blunder.
American and coalition forces have been willing to commit air power to the fight against the Islamic State, but this is not sufficient to defeat the organization. Current and retired generals have been quite clear on this point, and about the probable necessity of boots on the ground. The question on everyone’s minds is: Whose boots? The Iraqi and Syrian militaries have the will but not the capability to defeat the Islamic State; the U.S. has the capability but not the will. Having spent almost a decade fighting insurgents in Iraq, Americans have no appetite to relive that conflict. Arab states have supported operations against the Islamic State in the air but not on the ground. Turkey and the Kurds have been reluctant to carry out military operations beyond the defense of their own peoples and borders.
The only state with both the will and the capability to confront the Islamic State on the ground is Iran. The Islamic State is a militantly anti-Shi‘a organization. It has slaughtered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Shi‘a as it took control of Iraqi territory, and it has threatened to destroy holy Shi‘i shrines wherever it finds them. Iran, as a Shi‘i power, is averse to seeing the Islamic State operating close to its borders in neighboring Iraq and has shown a willingness to confront the organization militarily. Unlike the Iraqi army, Iran has considerable military, para-military, and intelligence capabilities. It can and does operate on the ground in Iraq. Thus, superficially, Iran and the U.S. appear to share a common interest in defeating the Islamic State.
Some have argued that this has led to tacit cooperation between U.S. air power and Iranian troops on the ground. In an early instance, when the Islamic State laid siege to the town of Amerli in August, some press reports indicated that Iranian forces were passing information to the Iraqis, who would then pass it to the U.S. military without specifying that it had come from Iranians. When the U.S. acted on such information, it was in essence providing close air support to Iranian boots on the ground. This combination of American air power and Iranian boots on the ground was effective; lifting the siege on Amerli proved a rare success early in the conflict against the Islamic State. The Obama administration has denied that coordination with the Iranians occurred, but some important voices—especially among realists, such as former Secretary of State James Baker—have suggested that the tacit cooperation that occurred between American air power and Iranian boots on the ground in Amerli could be the way forward. Yet, Amerli is not a Sunni Arab town. It is a Shi‘i Turkmen enclave. The tactics that worked there are not applicable to the rest of the mostly Sunni Arab regions held by the Islamic State. Any plan to use Iranian forces against the Islamic State more generally fails to take into account the political context that brought the Islamic State to power in Sunni Arab regions of Iraq in the first place. It would therefore be a deeply flawed strategy and would not likely achieve American objectives.
If the Islamic State were—as it is often depicted by senior U.S. officials—a militarily powerful but nihilist force with little local support and no ideology other than death and destruction, then Iranian boots on the ground may have been useful. In such a case, any ground forces willing to confront the organization with hard power could usefully contribute to the fight. However, the uncomfortable truth is that the Islamic State was welcomed by many Sunni Arab communities in Iraq. Indeed it was only able to take control of Iraqi cities because it found support among the local population. This support came from both spiritual and temporal authorities. When Mosul fell to the Islamic State, Iraq’s senior Sunni religious authority, Grand Mufti Rafi Al-Rifa’i, praised it as a “popular revolution,” which was supported by the Iraqi people. Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, the head of the Dulaim, which is Iraq’s largest Sunni tribal confederation, made similar statements in support of what had occurred in Mosul.
Most Sunni Arab Iraqis do not support the Islamic State’s militant interpretation of Islam, but many of these same Sunni Arab Iraqis saw the Islamic State as a Sunni ally in their struggle against what they considered to be the even more nefarious Iranian Shi‘is and the Iranian proxies who controlled the Iraqi government in Baghdad. The Islamic State was only able to gain a foothold in Iraq because Iraq’s Sunni Arabs despised the influence that Iran had in Iraq. In such a context, relying on Iranian ground forces to confront the Islamic State would be counterproductive. It would only push Iraq’s Sunni Arabs to continue supporting groups such as the Islamic State. Even if Iran managed to destroy the leadership and organization of the Islamic State, the political context that produced the organization would remain. A similar group would likely take the place of the Islamic State soon after.
If the U.S. wishes to destroy the Islamic State and other similar organizations, the boots on the ground need to be local Sunni Arabs supported by their tribal and religious authorities. If the 2003–10 Iraq War taught us anything, it was that groups like the Islamic State can only be defeated with the support of these local leaders. The Obama administration seemed to understand this fact. It pushed for former Prime Minister Maliki’s ouster and the formation of a more inclusive government in Baghdad. Nevertheless, these reforms are unlikely to be sufficient, and American official have not indicated that they understand the extent of the transformations that would likely be needed to win the support of these Sunni Arab tribal and religious leaders. Including a few ministers and security officials in the new government will not suffice. One should avoid a simplistic dichotomy that depicts Maliki’s government as sectarian and anti-Sunni and the new government under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as inclusive. It would be wonderful if that were the case, but even a cursory look at recent history should suffice to dispel the idea. Maliki’s government was not strictly sectarian. It is easy to forget that his Defense Minister—and then acting Defense Minister when parliament could not agree on a new nominee—was Sa‘doun al-Dulaimi, a Sunni from al-Anbar province and a member of the same powerful tribe as Ali Hatem al-Suleiman. The head of the Iraqi Air Force was Anwar Hamad Amen Ahmed, a Sunni from Kirkuk, who was a former Ba‘thist promoted to general by Saddam. The presence of these Sunnis in powerful positions did not alleviate Sunni discontent. Furthermore, in some instances, Maliki himself attempted to dampen sectarian conflict by reaching out to Arab Sunnis. For example, he reformed the hated de-Ba‘thification law, which had excluded many Sunni Arabs from public sector jobs.
The new government in Baghdad has not gone very far beyond these reforms. It added a few more Sunnis to its ranks, but the balance of power in critical positions remains largely unchanged. The new Defense Minister, Khaled al-Obeidi, like his predecessor, is a Sunni, but the new Interior Minister is a Shi‘i and a senior member of the Badr Corps—an Iranian-controlled, sectarian militia. Iraq needs more than a few token Sunnis in government. It needs a new social contract. As the Grand Mufti stated when Mosul fell, “the revolution will not end with Maliki’s ouster, we are moving to change the entire political process.”
The fact that the Islamic State was supported by large swaths of the Sunni Arab population is disconcerting, but it also leaves the U.S. an opening. Sunni Arab tribal and religious leaders have made it clear that their ties to the Islamic State are an alliance of convenience against a common foe. They do not share the Islamic State’s worldview. Such cleavages exist even among Sunni Islamic militants. One of the most powerful groups operating in Sunni Areas calls itself the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshbandi (JRTN), or the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Way. It is a militant Sufi organization with strong ties to the former Ba‘thist regime. In July, its leader, Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, released an audio recording in which he praised the “heroes and knights of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.” Al-Duri was Saddam’s deputy and is the highest ranking member of the former regime who is still at large. Such ties to the former regime undoubtedly facilitated a partnership between JRTN and the Islamic State. The head of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is not known to have ties to Saddam’s regime, but many of the organization’s senior leadership, including al-Baghdadi’s deputy, Fadel al-Hiyali, and Adnan Ismail Nejm, who heads the Islamic State’s military were Ba‘thist military officers under Saddam.
Despite al-Duri’s praise and the working relationship between the Islamic State and JRTN, the ideologies of the two groups are clearly at odds. JRTN’s followers are Sufi mystics, whom the militant Salafis in the Islamic State consider to be heretics. If the two groups were not fighting together against a mutual enemy, the Islamic State would likely be calling for these Sufis either to “convert” to their version of Islam or face death.
As such, cleavages in the Islamic State’s support network do exist. Tribal leaders have also made this explicit. Ali Hatem al-Suleiman stated rather bluntly that “tribal forces are capable of eliminating terrorists,” but if these Sunni Arabs continue to see the Islamic State in the context of conflict between Arab Sunnis and the Iranian-backed Shi‘i government in Baghdad, then turning them against the organization will be very difficult. Those who wish to defeat the Islamic State need to frame the conflict as a fight against a brutal terrorist organization that is a threat to all Muslims, regardless of whether they are Sunni or Shi‘i. Thankfully, an excellent means of framing the conflict in that manner exists. Sunni Arab states in the Gulf and Jordan are willing to join the fight against the Islamic State inside Iraq. There would be no better way of demonstrating to Iraq’s Sunni Arabs that the fight against the Islamic State is not a Sunni-Shi‘a conflict than having it be spearheaded by Sunni Arab powers.
A dominant narrative in the media has been that the Obama administration managed to secure token support from reluctant Arab partners in the fight against the Islamic State in order to give the coalition a façade of Sunni Arab support. This narrative is mistaken. The impediment that many Sunni Arab states face is not their reluctance. Some Sunni Arab states are quite enthusiastic about taking the fight to the Islamic State. The main obstacle they face is Iraq’s unwillingness to allow them to operate inside its borders. During an October 19 visit by a senior Arab League delegation to Baghdad, Iraq’s new Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari made it clear that Baghdad “has not requested and will not request” Arab States to fight in Iraq against the Islamic State. Such a policy is incredibly frustrating for those who would like to “ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. It demonstrates the continuation of the Iranian dominance over Iraqi politics in Baghdad and thus a continuation of the policies that were originally responsible for bringing the Islamic State to power. Indeed, there is only one reason for such a policy: the Iranians do not wish to allow their Sunni Arab rivals to gain a foothold in Iraq, and they will prevent them from doing so, even if it undermines the fight against the Islamic State. The message that such a policy sends to Sunni Arabs in Iraq is clear. The new government in Baghdad continues to put sectarian and even Iranian interests above that of a unified Iraq. This message completely undermines any effort to destroy the Islamic State.
If the U.S. wishes to defeat the Islamic State and drive it out of Iraq, it will need to convince the government in Baghdad that 1) Iranian assistance is ultimately counterproductive in winning back Sunni Arab territory from the Islamic State; and 2) the Sunni Arab states and the Iraqi Shi‘is have a shared interest in defeating the Islamic State. Importantly, this is perhaps the first time since 2003 that Iraqi Shi‘is and Sunni Arab states have shared what both sides perceive to be such a vital common interest. The U.S. still has considerable diplomatic, economic, and military means at its disposal, and it should employ them to begin a reconciliation process between Iraq’s Shi‘i-dominated government and Sunni Arab states. The U.S. needs to use all leverage at its disposal to convince Iraqi Shi‘is that continuing to rely on Iran is self-defeating. The U.S. may wish to tie military assistance to demands to limit Iran’s role. This appears to have occurred in the recent battle for Tikrit.
This is a good first step. Wasting resources on tactical victories in the context of a strategic failure is not advisable. If the Iraqi government cannot or will not work to curtail Iranian military involvement in the fight against the Islamic State, the U.S. needs to reevaluate its objectives in Iraq. A new goal may be to liberate and then protect the portions of northern Iraq, which are historically home to Kurds and other minorities, while working with Sunni Arab allies around the region to diminish and ultimately contain the Islamic State. This would allow the U.S. to protect its allies (the Kurds and other allies around the region) and provide a humanitarian refuge for minorities in Iraq, while limiting the ability of the Islamic State to wreak havoc in the region. It is not a perfect solution. It probably will not “ultimately destroy” the Islamic State—at least not in the short term—but it may be the best option available at the present time.