To beat ISIS, exploit its contradictions
June 17th, 2014
12:30 PM ET

To beat ISIS, exploit its contradictions

By Frederic Wehrey, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Frederic Wehrey is a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a former advisor to Multi-National Force-Iraq and the author of Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings.

Back at the height of the U.S. war in Iraq, the late emir of what was then just the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) remarked that “Iraq is the university of terrorism.” Its curriculum, he believed, was made up of all the combat tactics students would learn there, before graduating to range beyond the borders of Mesopotamia. But the jihadi leader’s pupils seem to have absorbed another lesson from the Iraq War: the necessity of winning popular support and co-opting local sources of authority.

In its lightning sweep across northwestern Iraq, ISI’s successor, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has engaged in a careful strategy of civic administration, social outreach, and coalition building.

Tapping into a wellspring of Sunni grievances against Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, ISIS – though disowned by al Qaeda for its brutality – has allied itself with Sufi-tinged Baathists like the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshabandiya (The Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order), Sunni tribes, and Iraqi Islamist “resistance groups” like the Jaysh Muhammad and Ansar al-Sunnah. It has done so, ironically, by downplaying its own dogma, emphasizing Sunni Iraqi nationalism, and trumpeting Iraq’s clans as the real vanguard of the revolution. In the areas it has conquered, it has supported the appointment of former Saddam officials to political office, such as the recent election of Ahmad Abd al-Rashid as the governor of Salah al-Din Province. Prominent Iraqi religious authorities, such as the Grand Mufti of Iraq, Rafie al-Rifai and the Association of Muslim Scholars, have endorsed its campaign.

But there are questions about the durability of this coalition. Will a diverse constellation united by mutual enmity against a chauvinistic leader endure beyond the current battlefield euphoria, when tough questions of governance arise? Can the competing pulls of Iraqi nationalism and tribal particularism coexist with ISIS’s millenarian plan for a caliphate? And if ISIS devolves administration to such a diverse array of power centers, can it really be considered to have achieved its goal of a pure Islamic state?

If ISIS’s past behavior in Syria, its struggles in Anbar, and its own pronouncements and charters are any guide, there are sharp limits to this “big tent” approach. At its core, a profoundly totalitarian impulse is embedded in its DNA that leaves little room for co-habitation and will likely provoke a backlash. Like many a utopian movement, ISIS is afflicted by intolerance and a capacity for great violence. Try as it might, it cannot escape the shadow of its nihilistic progenitor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Already, fissures are developing over its uncompromising vision and imposition of sharia law. For every Tweet of trash collection, vaccinations, and children’s toy drives, there are corresponding images of mass executions, crucifixions, and beheadings. Add to this is its longstanding policy of extortion. And its recent killings of captured Iraqi soldiers countermands injunctions by its Sunni tribal allies, such as the emir of the Dulaym, to spare the security forces for their “brave decision” to surrender. A leader of one of its Baathist allies in Mosul recently accused it of being made up of “barbarians.” Tensions could also develop between its Syrian cohort and its overstretched Iraqi branch, which has swelled in the recent campaign, about goals and priorities.

But one thing is sure to make ISIS consolidate and flourish: a slide to sectarian war, spurred by a heavy-handed response by al-Maliki’s army and its allied Shiite militias. The tribes, ex-Saddamists, and other aggrieved Sunnis will endure its draconian mores if they see in it a useful umbrella in an existential fight for their people’s survival. Like Zarqawi, this is precisely what ISIS is aiming for by killing Shiites.

It is vital, therefore, that any response – Iraqi, Iranian, or American – be designed to exploit the divisions and contradictions within the organization and the coalition it has formed. Airstrikes can slow its march but its ultimate dislodging hinges on mitigating the Sunni grievances that have fueled its rise. Such a solution will invariably mean an even greater shift of power from Baghdad to the provinces – and a corresponding rise in hybrid governance marked by tribal, sectarian and “official” authorities working side-by-side.

In many respects, such an arrangement is not unprecedented. It harkens back, albeit imprecisely, to an earlier era under the British mandate when, as the historian Hana Batatu put it, “Iraq’s history to a large extent was the history of its sheikhs and their tribes.” This lasted until 1935, when the nascent Iraqi army under General Bakr Sidqi broke the back of the tribes and the military underwent a meteoric expansion in the coming decades.

The peace subsequently enforced by the army and security services throughout Iraq’s post-colonial history was always a peace of the graveyard: sectarian, tribal and ethnic identities were cynically managed and exploited. In the waning years of the Saddam era, with the weakening of state institutions through sanctions, the drift toward a destructive localism accelerated. In some sense, then, al-Maliki’s divisive rule – and his recent reliance on Shiite tribes and militias against ISIS – is simply a continuation of this trend. Redirecting it toward a more inclusive form of governance will be a herculean and generational task – one that cannot rest solely on airstrikes, or even the building of stronger security forces.

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Topics: Iraq

soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. The Entire GOP Platform In A Single Paragraph

    The GOP Prayer/Mantra/Solution: Dear God...With your loving kindness, help us to turn all the Old, Sick, Poor, Non-white, Non-christian, Female, and Gay people into slaves. Then, with your guidance and compassion, we will whip them until they are Young, Healthy, Rich, White, Christian, Male, and Straight. Or until they are dead. God...Grant us the knowledge to then turn them into Soylent Green to feed the military during the next "unfunded/off-the-books" war. God...Give us the strength during our speeches to repeatedly yell........TAX CUTS FOR THE RICH!!!..........and........GET RID OF SS AND MEDICARE!!!
    In your name we prey (purposely misspelled, or is it?)........Amen

    June 17, 2014 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  2. Ferhat Balkan

    If al-Maliki had treated the Sunnis as equals, this would've never happened. Now we have Iran aiding the Shia led government of al-Maliki and a Sunni uprising of people who have been oppressed for far too long. All a result of the so called "democracy" the Bush administration established in Iraq. The US should've never got involved.

    June 17, 2014 at 7:07 pm | Reply
    • rupert

      Ferhat, you have a point. Imagine if both groups were treated fairy. No favorites. I guess u are right.
      hi cutie patootie.

      June 17, 2014 at 10:55 pm | Reply
  3. chri§§y

    Woulda, shoulda, coulda!

    June 17, 2014 at 7:12 pm | Reply
  4. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    If I had a "Like" button, I'd push it for this excellent article by Frederic Wehrey.

    June 17, 2014 at 9:01 pm | Reply
  5. rupert

    Me too Joey. I would do the same thing.

    June 17, 2014 at 10:43 pm | Reply
  6. rupert

    Mmmmm. The ad showing the pizza from pizza hut is making me want some. $11 dollars. yum yum.

    June 17, 2014 at 10:46 pm | Reply
  7. rupert

    If Rudyard Kipling is ok by joey. Then Rudy is ok with me.

    June 17, 2014 at 10:48 pm | Reply
  8. rupert

    Fredrick Whereby. Your ok with me. Keep up the good work whatever it is.
    I trust Joey he is very cultured

    June 17, 2014 at 10:51 pm | Reply
  9. chri§§y

    Lol theres that "if" again!

    June 17, 2014 at 11:31 pm | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      @ chrissy,
      Yes, you got there first with the woulda-shoulda crack, but I was compelled to add my two cents.

      June 18, 2014 at 5:49 am | Reply
  10. chri§§y

    Lol @ Joey, but your two cents was worth its weight in gold my dear!

    June 18, 2014 at 5:55 am | Reply
  11. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    The only sensible thing to do now is to split Iraq into three.different states by giving the north to the Kurds, the south to the Shiites and west to the ISIS. Otherwise, there will be no true peace.

    June 18, 2014 at 10:59 am | Reply
  12. Allan Kinsman

    Reason is the only method to argument. This is not in the minds of those whose position is absolute and hence how an outside influence cannot intervene. A position well understood by thinking individuals. Where we find group mind through politics, religion, social or cultural influence a discussion cannot be reached through violence. It begats itself. The west has been fooling around for the last century creating an obstacle to it's natural evolution or not. As we continue to interfere it strikes me is there not a pink elephant standing in the middle of the room. The lack of alternative approaches from the west. We seem hell bend on forcing our form when for anyone outside can see the failures and who would trust someone who can't mind their own house. It eludes me Washington D.C. can't see itself yet no one steps up from a media source and expresses this all too obvious conclusion. The only thing you can say is the fight for power and control has created this monster. Now, the direction of the country is warped by these values.

    June 18, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Reply
  13. Allan Kinsman

    I see Dick Cheney is saying the "the failing Obama" approach. I can't stop laughing. What a joke. You guys ie, Bush-Cheney, messed this thing up with all your cleavor insight. What gets me is why is anything this guy saying getting in the press. What a waste!

    June 18, 2014 at 4:30 pm | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini

      Thank you, Allan. You nailed it!

      June 19, 2014 at 12:14 am | Reply
  14. j. von hettlingen

    Unfortunately politics in the Middle East is a zero-sum game. The survival of one is the destruction of another. An iron lid had been kept on a melting pot of ethnic and sectarian ingredients.
    Under Saddam Hussein there was no room for dissent and extremism. Only after his ouster Jihadists arrive and exploit the chaos. The Sunnis have a hard time to accept that they're being ruled by a Shia majority. Remnants of Saddam's regime, the Baathists side with the Jihadists, hoping to topple al-Maliki, yet they will never be able to rule the Shiites again.

    June 19, 2014 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  15. it is a little more complex than that

    The pic at the top of this article, men in pickup trucks wielding automatic weapons, looks so much like Mogadishu of the 1990's........ same crap, different decade.......... bottom line, with 7 billion humans on this planet, more and more "tribes" will implode into murder and thieving............ they can chant whatever they want to, regarding religion. We all know that religion and/or God has nothing to do with this nonsense. When millions of humans cannot find food, clothing and shelter by being "good little boys"........... they have no choice but to become "bad little boys"............ which causes their entire world to descend into chaos............. which merely increases their suffering............ sad stuff.............😦

    June 19, 2014 at 5:40 pm | Reply
  16. virginia

    oh! the Irony you all wait and see how Bush and Cheney become right in their predictions and choices when the Cycle makes its turn again...when Mission Creep takes over Bush and Cheney will sound like Gods again...well i sure hope Obama can avoid this "mission creep"...though it seems despite his actions to avoid it, nature is drawing him in any ways//

    June 21, 2014 at 3:00 am | Reply
  17. chri§§y

    Are you on mind altering drugs? Mission creep? And no way on earth that those two could EVER be in a class with "gods"...one is too stupid and the other is selfish and greedy and doesnt give a damn about humanity!

    June 21, 2014 at 5:21 pm | Reply

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