In March, a deep sense of enthusiasm permeated much of the world as ISIS momentum seemingly diminished in Iraq and Syria. Many writers, myself included, wrote optimistically about the forthcoming demise of ISIS. Unfortunately, this wave of euphoria now runs counter to recent events.
A reinvigorated ISIS recently executed startling conquests of significant territories in both Syria and Iraq. While it would be premature to label this oscillation in momentum detrimental beyond repair, it still represents a discouraging setback. However, such a setback also provides a unique opportunity to seriously reassess the American-led coalition’s strategy against ISIS, especially in Iraq.
The Iraqi government is perpetuating a symbiotic relationship that serves nothing and no one but the war itself. When leaders in the government send Iran-backed Shia militias to combat ISIS in Sunni territory, it often exacerbates sectarian tensions that ISIS effectively exploits to bolster recruitment. Moreover, the United States is inadvertently intensifying this problem by providing military support for the Iraqi army while simultaneously ignoring deep-seated sectarian dilemmas. As a result, territorial gains on all sides of the conflict have proven to be particularly fragile and reversible.
This is certainly a conundrum worthy of attention; it illuminates the vital mistake of pursuing short-term solutions to long-term problems. Lost in strategizing against ISIS has been a sufficient acknowledgement of Iraq’s convoluted Sunni-Shia-Kurd trichotomy. Furthermore, the strategy is entirely based on hard power.
Hard power is unquestionably necessary when dealing with this genocidal army of terrorists, but it must be followed up with soft power. As political scientist Joseph Nye noted in his book Soft Power: the Means to Success in World Politics, “Smart power means learning better how to combine hard and soft power.”1
After US-backed Iraqi forces – aided by Kurdish forces and/or Shia militias – use hard power to push ISIS out of Sunni-populated territories (the majority of Kurds are Sunni, but not Arab), they must make paramount the implementation of soft power to win the hearts and minds of the Sunnis. If the Sunnis lack an adequate alternative to ISIS, it is just a matter of time until ISIS, or another extremist group just like it, rallies support and establishes a revolt.
There is a reason Sunni tribesman from Iraq’s Anbar province helped ISIS seize Ramadi from US-backed Iraqi military forces. As perplexing as it sounds, ISIS’s atavistic paradigm of governance is favorable to many of Iraq’s disenfranchised Sunnis. The reason being it supplants anarchy and marginalization from the Shia government with some type of law and order.
At the height of the Iraqi insurgency in 2007, Sunnis in the Anbar province grew disenchanted with al-Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) fanatic governance, and actually collaborated with U.S. forces in combating AQI. When this “Anbar Awakening” fused with the troop surge led by General David Petraeus, AQI was swiftly defeated. This presented the Iraqi government with ample opportunity to mitigate sectarian tensions.
Instead, then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki imprudently opted to continue marginalizing the country’s Sunni population. Maliki’s poor decision hugely inflamed anti-government sentiment among Sunnis. By ignoring this window of opportunity to work toward inclusion and equality, the stage was set for ISIS to rise from the ashes of AQI; and that is exactly what happened.
Despite recent tactical defeats, U.S.-backed Iraqi forces are capable of gaining territory back from ISIS as seen in Tikrit. However, like in 2007, simply pushing the extremists out and regaining territory is not enough. Without addressing the root problems derived from poor governance, groups like ISIS will always be able to mount opposition to the government.
It is time for the United States to acknowledge this dynamic and put pressure on the Abadi government in Baghdad to refrain from further contaminating the soul of Iraq with disastrous sectarian policies. The United States cannot afford to continue making the same mistakes over and over.
ISIS has continuously proven its ability to capitalize on the deep rift between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq. The Iraqi government must consciously depart from its fierce commitment to the status quo that is fueling the ISIS propaganda machine. It is optimal to learn from past mistakes and convince all of Iraqi society, not just Shias, that they have a place in Iraq.
A pluralistic society where all citizens have a voice is the only path to a sustainable solution. The country is approximately 60% Shia, and that, by nature, plays in their favor in a democratic society. A Shia majority, however, is far from an insurmountable issue. All democracies are malleable; they are designed to reflect the environment in which they exist. Nevertheless, that is why any democratic state must be built on pluralism.
Pluralism is the engine that drives tolerance and inclusion. Iraq’s lack of pluralism proves that it is not the democracy the government purports it to be. It is time the Iraqi government really starts acting like one. If it does, integration will happen. It may take a while, but it is inevitable.
Robert recently received his master’s degree in international relations from Suffolk University in Boston. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Nye, J. (2004). Soft Power: the Means to Success in World Politics. New York: Public Affairs, 32.
U.S. Navy Photo taken by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Margaret Keith and is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Image cropped.