Anbar Awakening 2.0?

The insurgency in Iraq had never truly ended. While its intensity was low for years, the progression of a neighboring insurgency in Syria was bound to spillover into Iraq, most especially Anbar province—the epicenter of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, which borders Syria. As the second anniversary of the United States’ withdrawal from Iraq passed, it has become apparent that al-Qaeda’s strength and influence has returned in full force as militants gained control of Anbar’s major cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. The situation has brought Iraq to an inflection point, with the most serious security crisis in years coming at a time when Iraqis will soon head to the polls in the first general election following the US withdrawal.

“This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis,” said US Secretary of State John Kerry recently. “We’re not contemplating putting boots on the ground. This is their fight, but we’re going to help them in their fight.” Thus far, the security assistance offered by Washington is likely to be of marginal influence on the ground. Such aide provided to the Iraqi regime could potentially taint a neutral US role if no strings are attached to advance more reconciliatory behavior from the prime minister, particularly as he charts a course for a third term in office. The United States has relied on hard power in its bilateral relationship with Iraq, placing too much emphasis on security through enhanced capabilities, rather than through communal reconciliation and integration.

As al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) demonstrates its ability to clear and hold territory once again, another Sunni tribal backlash against it has also reemerged. The growth and visibility of AQI now shifts threat perceptions in Anbar away from Maliki, leading many tribal leaders to align with the central government against the insurgent group. A strong, tribal-based resistance towards AQI stretching back to the earlier years of the US military occupation will challenge al-Qaeda’s ability to maintain its grip. In 2005, as the Sunni insurgency progressed, the brutality and growing influence of the foreign-dominated AQI began forcing a realignment of security and business interests among Sunni Arab tribes in Anbar against the terrorist group. This shift in perceptions of the Sunni tribes, viewing AQI (and Iran) as the greater threats than the US occupier gave birth to the Sunni Awakening, a grassroots movement in Anbar that eventually spread across Iraq with US military support.

The prime minister has blamed the rise in violence currently plaguing Iraq as a spillover effect from Syria. That argument, however, is too simplistic. Indeed, it can neither be blamed squarely on the insurgency in neighboring Syria, nor on the prime minister’s authoritarian tendencies. Iraq has inherent, sectarian fault lines that have emerged and hardened from its own civil war. While the conflict in Syria and developments in the region have exacerbated hubris among Sunnis and fear among Shiites, the foundations of recurring instability have existed in Iraq, irrespective of the developments in Syria.

The ascendency and expansion of AQI not only indicates the negative effects the neighboring Syrian civil war is having on Iraq, but also represents the breakdown of the anti-AQI Awakening councils. Indeed, the Anbar Awakening, and the greater movement it spawned across Iraq with US military backing, was instrumental in limiting al-Qaeda’s resources and mobility. Unfortunately, their lack of integration and marginalization by the prime minister, and the terrorist attacks and intimidation they constantly endured had weakened a defensive and offensive front against militancy.

Instead, the correct context for the rise of violence is the interplay of both external and internal dynamics. Apart from greater resources and capabilities, AQI has succeeded in feeding off a regional and sectarian proxy war playing out in Syria. Maliki’s authoritarian behavior has been unhelpful at best, and reckless at worst, widening the communal divide between Sunnis and Shiites and between the central and provincial governments. Although Maliki is not the only political actor responsible for worsening tensions and political crises, his position and responsibility generate the greatest impact on these internal dynamics.

The prime minister’s coupling of the terrorist threat with the Sunni protest movement is too broad of a brush and makes for a disastrous approach toward combating Iraq’s terrorism problem. Although sectarian tensions are a reality in Iraq and the region, a sectarian civil war is not the dynamic that is emerging from clashes between government and local forces. Rather, the crisis in Anbar today is one that is intra-communal, and could lead to greater fragmentation and polarization within the Sunni community.

Even more worrisome are the potential political ramifications of this violence, especially given that Iraq is well into its electoral season. With the first post-US general election scheduled for April 2014, the stakes are extraordinarily high, and could have an effect on how Iraqi political factions behave in this crisis. The rise in violence across the Sunni provinces could significantly affect Sunni turnout in upcoming elections, whereby underrepresentation lays the seeds for greater political instability in Iraq.

The surge in Maliki’s electoral popularity and national appeal came as security in Iraq noticeably improved in 2008, partially due to the Awakening movement growing to over 100,000 members. But his image has suffered as violence has increased to levels not seen since 2008. The destabilizing events in Anbar in the last month, however, provides the prime minister a political opportunity to showcase his strength ahead of elections—alongside potential security and political risks. A heavy-handed approach from the Iraq Army could lead to a larger and deeper Sunni backlash, affecting stability in other nearby provinces.

It is unclear if the Iraqi security forces are capable of delivering a quick and responsible victory in Anbar. Should government forces become entrenched and the conflict prolonged with heavy casualties, Maliki would appear politically weak and incompetent, threatening his bid for a third term as prime minister. Initial failure could invite a dangerous incentive to take drastic measures in doubling-down on the military effort in an area that remains Iraq’s most dangerous region.

Thus far, the prime minister appears to have chosen the most prudent course of action. Rather than commit to a military effort led by the Iraq Army, Baghdad appears to be trying out a local-first model, striking a cooperative deal with Sunni Arab tribal sheikhs (some of them founders of the Anbar Awakening) to confront and root out the al-Qaeda threat in their backyard. Although the electoral cycle allows Iraqi leaders very little political room to maneuver towards deescalation, security interests are becoming more and more aligned, at least for the foreseeable future, between the Maliki regime and Anbari tribal leaders.

The prime minister appears to recognize the potential political windfalls of allowing the local tribal leaders take the lead. His government’s counterterrorism tactics against Sunni protesters and political leaders has severely damaged his standing within the community. Maliki’s behavior has certainly left him with a short list of potential coalition partners, exposing his vulnerability in maintaining his position. However, the strong re-emergence of AQI in the Sunni Arab heartland is providing Maliki the opportunity to make amends in fostering some Sunni allies—a component he most likely will need in hopes of achieving a third term.

Ramzy Mardini is an adjunct fellow at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies and a nonresident fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: Fallujah, Iraq in 2004. (Photo: Wikimedia)