Many media outlets have created the impression that the crisis in Iraq is between the Iraqi government on one side and ISIS – a group of terrorists who we are told were “too extreme for Al-Qaeda”. In reality the situation is far more complex.
Since 2003, many Sunnis in Iraq have felt that they are the losers from the new “democratic” political status quo. Even when Sunni political parties have performed strongly in elections, complex games of sectarian coalition-building have largely conspired to slam the door in Sunni faces after each round of voting. Despite him being widely detested; these sectarian machinations have kept Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in power year after year.
Meanwhile Al-Maliki has used his strong position and the patronage of his Iranian backers to crack down against Sunni political rivals like Tariq al-Hashimi who was forced into exile.
Although it was the Sunni tribes which rose up against Al-Qaeda in Iraq and allowed for a few years of stability, this crucial Sunni role was met with a string of broken promises by Al-Maliki’s government which year upon hear has reinforced the marginalization and impoverishment of Sunni regions.
It was of course ISIS which spearheaded the sudden takeover of half of the Iraqi state this June; but it is not surprising that many Sunnis feel that this sudden turn of events is more of an opportunity than a threat.
Now that ISIS have renamed themselves as “The Islamic State” with the lands they control as the “Caliphate” Iraqi Sunnis will be faced with a difficult choice as to how to react with this new reality.
Iraq’s Sunnis are the key to solving this crisis. If ISIS pursue their normal approach of summary executions, harsh laws and a violent response to all those who oppose them; then sooner or later the resilient and strong-minded people of western Iraq will turn against them.
However, if Al-Maliki continues to unleash Iran-backed sectarian militias against towns like Tikrit and Mosul then he will find most of Iraq’s Sunnis united in opposition, even if than means standing alongside ISIS for the time being.
Many Sunni leaders have clearly stated that they see ISIS as an enemy; but for the time being ISIS is less of an enemy than the Shia militias Al-Maliki has cobbled together to try and retake the country.
Terrorism experts claim that ISIS has around 7,000 active fighters. 7,000 fighters without local support would struggle to hold onto a single town; let alone half of the state of Iraq and large swathes of territory in Syria. There are clearly large numbers of Iraqi Sunnis fighting alongside ISIS; as the defeat of the Iraqi army at the gates of Tikrit proves.
This makes the alliance of the US, Maliki’s militias, Russia and Iran as well as Bashar al-Assad against Sunni forces in Iraq and Syria a terrifying prospect.
Iran’s influence in Iraq is already dangerously strong. If America opens the door for a leading Iranian role in retaking the Sunni regions, then the result is to hand over the last remnants of Iraqi sovereignty to Iran.
By striking rebel-held areas on the Syria-Iraq border and trying to make diplomatic overtures to the US; Bashar al-Assad believes that he can both dig himself out of trouble domestically and portray himself to the west as an ally against terrorism; despite the evidence that ISIS in Syria is a demon largely of Al-Assad’s own creation. For example, the millions of dollars that the Syrian regime paid to ISIS in oil purchases, that allowed ISIS to purchase heavier weaponry.
If the US buys into the Iranian-Maliki narrative, then we risk seeing Iraq’s entire Sunni population written off as Al-Qaeda terrorists. Thus, we have the makings of massive civil and sectarian conflict that has already spread way beyond Iraq’s borders.
The regional implications of this conflict are terrifying. The territory ISIS now holds brings it into proximity with the borders of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. And if ISIS consolidates its position, this has implications for spreading extremism and sectarian tensions through the whole region and across the globe.
Undoubtedly ISIS must be combatted, but first there needs to be a political accord that brings in Iraq’s Sunnis and unites them against ISIS. If the US and Iran ally behind Al-Maliki for a military solution then Iraq’s Sunnis are already lost and the possibilities of reuniting Iraq go from ‘unlikely’ to ‘impossible’. Can Sunnis be convinced that remaining within a united Iraq is in their best interests? After nearly a decade of Al-Maliki they will take a lot of convincing.
Likewise, only major political concessions to the Kurds and a formula that banishes Maliki and gives a stronger voice to the component parts of Iraq can convince the Kurdish Authority that unilateral seizure of Kirkuk and other areas isn’t in their best interests.
As battles continue to range over key oil refineries and Iraq’s civil infrastructure we can say literally and metaphorically that the lights are going out all across Iraq. Decisive diplomacy; not rash military options or bizarre political alliances; is the only possible way out of this disasterous situation.