Time and time again, the US administration has said that the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) cannot be defeated in Iraq without local Sunnis spearheading the fight. Just over a week ago, in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said, “We would like to see the [Iraqi] government do more to recruit, train, arm, and mobilize Sunni popular mobilization fighters in their communities.” But the dominant belief among Shia in Iraq’s government is that you do not need Sunnis to crush ISIS. Baghdad is chafing under what it sees as patronizing and misguided attempts by the United States to force it into unnecessary and unpopular political accommodations with Sunnis.
Based on its previous experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States believes that a strong “hearts and minds” strategy is the key to turning the tide in a counterinsurgency. In Iraq, that has included adopting extremely stringent rules of engagement that minimize civilian casualties and encouraging the Iraqi government to respond to Sunni political demands. Many Shia in government, however, see this as appeasement. They hold Sunnis responsible for the rise of ISIS in Iraq and believe that Sunnis have absolutely no right to demand anything while the country is at war.
Instead, the Iraqi government wants the United States to adopt a far more aggressive approach in its air campaign against ISIS, something closer to the “carpet bombing” advocated by Ted Cruz than the precision strikes mandated by President Barack Obama. Many Iraqi Shia politicians believe that ISIS can be crushed through a more merciless campaign and that the time to talk about politics is after victory is achieved.
Iraq’s Sunnis see things differently. They tend to see ISIS as a small band of extremists who have forced, bribed, and indoctrinated a minority of locals into supporting them. Their priority is to differentiate between the hardcore ideologues and those inadvertent supporters who can be saved. They fear that an indiscriminate approach by Shia forces would simply fuel greater extremism. Several of the Sunni tribal and political leaders, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that they want to “bring most ISIS members to peace” and that they do not want “to kill them all.”
While the United States remains skeptical of the more far-fetched proposals for defeating ISIS advocated by some Sunnis, including demands to suspend the constitution, reconstitute the army from scratch, and appoint a government of technocrats, it does in principle agree that local Sunnis must play a prominent role in both defeating ISIS and in securing liberated areas. This is why the United States has taken great pains to include a Sunni fighting force in the battle to liberate Ramadi and why it has insisted on sidelining Iraq’s Shi’ite mobilization units.
But the United States has two contradictory impulses. On the one hand it wants Sunni inclusion as a core part of its anti-ISIS strategy. On the other hand, it is a dogged defender of Iraq’s sovereignty and of Baghdad’s right to define its own security policy. So, as Baghdad remains thoroughly unconvinced that Sunni participation matters, the United States is left with a strategy that it cannot possibly implement.
Congress has made various moves to initiate legislation that would allow for the funding and arming of Sunnis and Kurds in Iraq independently of the central authority, but the Obama administration has fought against these attempts out of respect for the Iraqi government. While laudable in principle, it is worth remembering that the United States did not get permission from Baghdad the last time it defeated al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Iraqi government was completely opposed to arming the Sunni tribes in 2006, but once the initiative started to succeed, the government grudgingly accepted the program. Moreover, while the Obama administration bends over backwards trying to retain the support of the Iraqi government, antipathy towards the United States continues to grow throughout southern and central Iraq—with an astonishing number of Iraqi citizens believing that the United States actually supports ISIS.
This week, Ash Carter flew to Baghdad to offer Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi greater military assistance against ISIS in the form of Apache attack helicopters and the deployment of special advisers with Iraqi brigades. Abadi, who is under intense political pressure to distance himself from the United States, rejected the offer.
The Iraqi-US relationship requires some renegotiation. Perhaps it would be counterproductive for the United States to publicly act against the Iraqi government’s wishes, at a time when anti-American sentiment in Iraq (no doubt encouraged by the Iranians) is so virulent. Clearly, the Obama administration is not prepared to deploy the forces or spend the resources to mount an anti-ISIS campaign that the Iraqi government opposes. But continuing to pursue a strategy that the Iraqi government would undermine will not lead to success. Representatives of the US government, together with the United Nations, have tried incessantly to persuade the Iraqi government of the benefits of greater Sunni participation but have made little progress. Sadly, this conversation may need to happen between the United States and Iran, given the level of power and influence it exercises over many of the political actors in Iraq today.
Nussaibah Younis is a Senior Resident Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council.