A Sunni Awakening in Iraq and the future of IS
By Brian M Downing
Sunnis ruled Iraq since the country's creation after World War I. That state of affairs was overturned, unjustly and unwisely in their view, in 2003 when Saddam Hussein was ousted and a Shia majority came to power shortly thereafter.
Though composing only about 16% of the population, the Sunnis are nonetheless angered by their loss of power and marginalization. Recent events are playing into Sunni aspirations for greater power.
The Shia army and state are ineffectual, the Kurds are seeking
independence, and countries in the region are breaking apart into statelets. The Baghdad government desperately needs help against the Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, among other names) and the Sunnis have the forces and organization to turn the tide against it.
They proved their ability to defeat foreign jihadis in the Sunni Awakening beginning in 2005, and they are capable of effecting a second one. However, they will demand substantial political and financial concessions from the Shia government that will alter the landscape of Iraq and possibly form a new state in western Iraq and eastern Syria as well.
Shia Iraq in disarray
Despite being 60% of the population, the Shia have had great difficulty in building stable coalitions as they are deeply divided along tribal lines. Had they not been so divided, Sunni rulers could never have stayed in power as long as they did. Shia parties and their militias fought each other almost as much as they did the Sunnis during the sectarian warfare after 2003.
The new army, purged of many Sunni officers and NCOs, is riven by tribalism and corruption and is no longer able to hold the country together, neither as a national symbol nor as a repressive force. Baghdad has abandoned western and northern parts of the country to the Islamic State and Sunni insurgents, and the Kurds may soon declare independence. Thus far, despite numerical advantages and superior weaponry, the Shia army has been unable to mount an effective counteroffensive.
With the state in disarray and the army demonstrating insufficient fighting spirit, the viability of the new Iraq is in doubt. Though positions to the north and west of Baghdad have held, the capital is still in danger. A breakthrough by Sunni forces and sympathetic uprisings in Sunni parts of the capital could send the government packing for Basra, leaving Baghdad, with all its historical significance as the center of empires past, in Sunni hands once again.
The tenuous relationship between Sunnis and Islamic State
Over the years, Islamic State has been aided by indigenous Sunnis. The bombing campaign in Shia urban areas has enjoyed the support, or at least the acquiescence of, indigenous Sunni tribes, Salafi networks, and extant Ba'ath Party and military officers.
A campaign of that intensity and duration could not have evaded their watchful eyes in base areas of Anbar province and inside Baghdad itself. Nor would Islamic State forces have dared to sally forth into Mosul, Tikrit, and the approaches of Baghdad had they not trusted the Sunnis in base areas.
Indeed, Sunni insurgents served side by side with Islamic State forces in the offensive that took Mosul last June. In a noteworthy departure from Islamic State practice in Syria, where it has imposed itself as the new government, it has in Iraq appointed former army officers and Ba'ath Party officials to administer Mosul and surrounding areas.
However, Islamic State forces and Sunni insurgents have skirmished in recent weeks, suggesting the partnership is limited to opposing the Baghdad government and may not be enduring. This is hardly surprising as the foreign jihadis' vision of a restored caliphate has little resonance with the national ambitions of Sunni Iraqis.
Sunni insurgents are likely to turn against the foreign Islamists just as they did in the Sunni Awakening that eased the anti-Coalition insurgency. A second Awakening is being negotiated in Baghdad today by the US, Saudi Arabia, the new Shia government, and Sunni tribal leaders.
The most powerful Sunni tribe, the Dulaim confederation with several million members, has played crucial roles in Iraqi history and is on the verge of another one. The Dulaim were key parts of the Sunni army and security forces, then became principals of the anti-Western insurgency, and later shifted to the US in the Sunni Awakening.
The Dulaim have been helping Islamic State to oust Baghdad's authority from Sunni regions but have signaled Baghdad, and the US, that the alliance may not be enduring. Sheikh Ali Hatem al Suleiman recently announced: "Tribal forces are capable of eliminating terrorists. … We've done it before, we can do it again."
After several days of negotiating with American diplomats and Shia politicians, the sheikh recently announced support in ousting Islamic State and his militias have begun the fight.
The Dulaim sheik's words are not an idle boast. He can bring formidable assets to the fight against Islamic State. Many Dulaim are experienced fighters from as far back as the war with Iran (1980-88), the insurgency following the 2003 invasion, and the eradication of al-Qaeda shortly thereafter. Dulaim fighters likely outnumber Islamic State's troops 10-fold or more and have far greater local support than the jihadis.
In the first Awakening, the Sunnis were given US weapons and assured of fair participation in the new government. The government of Nouri al-Maliki, who stepped down on August 14, failed to oblige and indeed continued to marginalize the Sunnis in the army and state.
The Sunnis today are in a far better negotiating position. The Dulaim will demand arms from the US as they did in the first Awakening, but they will insist on substantive political change. They will demand political autonomy, the evacuation of remaining Shia troops from Sunni regions, and an increased share of the nation's oil revenue. Baghdad, on its back foot, is hardly in position to refuse.
Armed and victorious one day, the tribal fighters will likely turn their autonomy into near or complete independence. In that the Dulaim confederation sprawls across the Iraqi borders into the badly fragmented country of Syria, their fight against Islamic State may cross into that country. The Dulaim may then establish a statelet in eastern Syria which will one day align with western Iraq.
An autonomous Sunni region will be welcomed in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni principalities and efforts will be made to make it an independent state. Indeed, they have dreamed of such a move ever since Saddam's ouster destabilized the region and brought to power a Shia government aligned with "Persia".
A Sunni state will weaken Shia-dominated Iraq and serve as a buffer between Iran and Iraq in the east and Syria and Lebanon in the west. The Shia Crescent will be broken. Oil from the Sunni region - existing fields and promising new ones in Anbar - may one day flow south from Baiji, not to Iraqi ports but to Saudi ones. The ministers and operatives who help bring about this new state will one day be almost as well known in the Sunni world as the men whose work towards the end of World War I they are now overturning - French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot and Britain's Mark Sykes.
Naturally, Iran will object to a break in its line of communications with critical allies on the Mediterranean coast. However, there is little it can do to prevent it. Iran has thus far been reluctant to send troops to fight around Baghdad for fear of deepening the sectarian animosities in Iraq and the entire region. A campaign into the Sunni Triangle and Anbar is out of the question.
Preserving Iran's western lines of communication would require a considerable number of troops and substantial casualties in a long and probably unsuccessful campaign. At best, Iran can only seek to negotiate some guarantees with American and Saudi diplomats and perhaps also with the Dulaim who though predominantly Sunni have several Shia clans as well.
Islamic State troops in Iraq, numbering perhaps 6,000, are stretched thin across a winding 800-mile (1,300 kilometer) front in northern Iraq, from the Syrian border to the approaches to Baghdad. They may soon face attacks from all sides, the loss of safe havens, and the absence of secure lines of communication to base areas in western Iraq and eastern Syria.
Further, they are taking scores of casualties every day, and a coming Kurdish counteroffensive, in conjunction with attacks by the Dulaim from the south, will greatly increase those casualties.
Islamic State may have to ponder whether to continue a war of attrition against numerically superior forces or withdraw to safer areas in eastern Syria. Its disposition toward increasingly hostile populations - Shia or Sunni or Yazidi, Kurdish or Arab - is not in doubt and its wrath will be fearsome.
Islamic State fighters have heretofore demonstrated remarkable combat cohesion amid years of fighting in Syria and Iraq. They have known only victory, and a serious defeat may have profound adverse consequences on cohesion, morale and recruitment.
The Sunni tribes that constituted the core of Iraq's army, the anti-Coalition insurgency, and the Sunni Awakening against al-Qaeda may soon rid their country once again of foreign Islamist militants. However, they, like the Kurds to the north, will demand a price, and it may be the end of Iraq as a unified country.
Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst, author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of The Samson Heuristic.