World Affairs

The United States and the Islamic State

President Barack Obama has argued that the road to Mosul runs through Baghdad. That in order to defeat the Islamic State the first step is for the leadership in Baghdad to politically accommodate the Sunnis. The United States has insisted on and obtained Maliki’s head, arguing that Maliki was especially sectarian and angered the Sunnis. It seems to have agreed on a consensus candidate with Iran, Haider al-Abadi, who has now been charged with effecting the political accommodation. The United States has also made it clear that it will deploy air power to prevent the Islamic State to overrun the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG); and implicitly, Baghdad.

The logic of US policy is based on what one may call the Anbar theory. After relentless pressure from al-Qa‘idah in Iraq (AQI) on the occupying American and government forces in 2006-2007, the populace of the ‘Sunni triangle’—the 100-square-mile between Baghdad, Ramadi, and Tikrit—turned against AQI and joined the Americans in defeating the Salafist-Jihadist threat. By the Spring of 2009, there were 100,000 Sunni tribesmen on the American payroll. Along with the deployment of 20,000 additional troops, the Sahwa or Anbar Awakening decimated the ranks of AQI (which had rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq in October 2006). Political accommodation of the Sunnis in Baghdad played a role in reorienting the tribesmen away from AQI. The Sunnis were also said to be exasperated by AQI’s fanning of the sectarian war (by targeting the Shi’a to prompt retaliation), its imposition of harsh Sharia law, and its foreign origins. The theory says that the Islamic State (organizationally a direct descendent of AQI), which now spans across northern Iraq and Syria, can be defeated by effecting a similar reorientation of the Sunni populace. Is this theory valid?

I will argue that the prospects of such a reorientation are bleak. I will strengthen this argument by assuming that Baghdad will be entirely forthcoming in accommodating Sunni interests; itself an uncertain proposition. The argument is straightforward: the calculus of the Sunni populace now ruled by the Islamic State is considerably less conducive to a second Anbar Awakening. In the first place, it was clear to the Sunnis in 2006 that AQI was in no position to prevail against the United States. Therefore, continued support for AQI would only prolong the sectarian war without kicking out the invaders. The strength of US forces meant that by switching their allegiance, the Sunnis would be allying with the overwhelmingly dominant side who could not only be expected to prevail but also to provide security and largesse. By reducing the temperature of the sectarian war it would also enhance the security of the minority. Thus, the proposition was sufficiently attractive enough that coordination problems could be overcome and an en masse switch effected.

The Islamic State now controls a large swath of territory across northern Iraq and Syria. As opposed to 2006, when it fought to control neighborhoods against the occupying American land army, its control is now uncontested in the interior of the Islamic State’s territory. It has brought security to towns and cities torn by conflict by imposing a monopoly of violence on areas under its rule. It now has a sanctuary in northern Syria where it may tactically withdraw to regain strength and mobilize resources. It is no longer dependent on external sources for arms and money since it now regularly collects taxes and oil revenues.

Not only are the negative consequences of continued allegiance to the Islamic State considerably less dire (with the banishing of war to the frontier of the territory), the positive consequences of switching their allegiance are much more uncertain since they cannot assume that the Iraqi army and/or the Peshmerga will be able to prevail against the Islamic State. The Islamic State has prevailed in a number of battles against the Peshmerga, the Iraqi rump state’s army, the Syrian rump state’s army, a number of Syrian rebel groups, and even fellow Salafist-Jihadist al-Nusra Front (which has winnowed down from defections to the more radical and audacious Islamic State). What all this means is that in the calculus of the Sunni populace, the objective probability that the Islamic State will be able to hold on to its territory is not small at all, especially compared to 2006, when it was zero. Furthermore, the coordination problem of switching allegiance en masse is exacerbated by the threat of retaliation from the Islamic State. The populace of Mosul can hardly be expected to demand the ouster of their heavily armed masters.

To put it bluntly, the security interests of the Sunni populace in the territory controlled by the Islamic State dictate that they acquiesce to its rule. This is simply an outcome of state formation: the Sunnis would be gravely jeopardizing their own security by contesting the Islamic State. The deployment of American air power is only sufficient to contain the Islamic State and thwart its attempts to conquer more territory in Iraq. It is insufficient to roll-back the Islamic State from the territory already under its control. Unless the Iraqi rump state’s army and/or the Peshmerga can be transformed into much more effective fighting forces—another highly uncertain prospect—the United States will not be able to defeat the Islamic State without deploying ground forces.

Is the United States willing to tolerate a Salafist-Jihadist state in the heart of the Middle East? From what we have been given to understand since September 11, 2001, that is not an option. Winston Churchill once famously observed that Americans will always do the right thing, only after they have tried everything else. The right thing to do is to reach an accommodation with Tehran and Damascus with a view to restoring the territorial status quo ante circa 2011. This is not as blasphemous as it sounds. The only real American security interest in the Syrian conflict is containing the Salafist-Jihadist threat. For unless it is defeated, these fighters will emanate out to thirty countries just as they did in the aftermath of the Afghan campaign. And since you are unwilling to do the job yourself in Syria, Assad is the best man for the job.

Not only can Iran twist arms in Baghdad, it can provide elite ground forces to spearhead the attack against the Islamic State. If the US partners in a military campaign with Damascus and Tehran, it can easily bring sufficient military pressure to bear on the length and breadth of the Islamic State. By controlling the skies it can still control the overall military campaign. The Islamic State will not be able to survive a concerted attack on three fronts. A tilt away from the Saudis to Iran will also help in the ideational struggle against the Salafist-Jihadist threat by providing room to arm-twist the Saudis to moderate the Salafi ideologues on the Kingdom’s payroll (salafism, al Qa‘ida’s religious ideology, is the state ideology of Saudi Arabia.) A strategic realignment in the gulf is also in the American interest beyond the fight against the Salafist-Jihadist challenge. Iran is the natural regional hegemon of the gulf. An alliance with Iran will allow the United States to put gulf affairs on auto-pilot and finally pivot to Asia, where a strategic challenge of an entirely different magnitude awaits on the horizon.

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