Iraq picture may not be as bleak as it seems
January 30th, 2014
08:32 AM ET

Iraq picture may not be as bleak as it seems

By Ben Connable, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Ben Connable is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. The views expressed are his own.

Over the past month, al Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has made a concerted effort to seize the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. Images of armed militants roaming the streets have generated widespread concern that Anbar Province – the heart of Sunni Iraq – is once again sliding into chaos. But while the danger in Anbar and Iraq more generally is real, understanding the threat there requires historical context and objective analysis. Indeed, both Iraqi and U.S. policy leaders should see opportunity as well as danger in the reported chaos in Anbar.

The danger, while sensationalized, is nonetheless a reality. An ISIS victory in Anbar against Nuri al-Maliki’s government, and its increasing power in rebel-held Syria, raises the specter of a resurgent al Qaeda in the heart of the Middle East. Some believe that al Qaeda’s actions might fan the flames of a burgeoning regional sectarian war between Sunni and Shia. Under this view, sectarian conflict in Iraq – fueled in Syria – might widen and lead to greater instability in much of the Middle East.

On the surface, at least, Anbar looks like an evolving disaster. And the daily reporting from Anbar certainly paints a grim picture. However, a more careful analysis reveals some exaggerations in reporting. At various times over the past month, ISIS fighters have taken control over parts of both Ramadi and Fallujah. They have rebuffed negotiations and defeated some Iraqi military and police efforts. But has ISIS seized, or controlled the two largest cities in Anbar Province? Evidence to support this claim is insufficient and conflicting. Most of the areas reported to be under ISIS influence are the same areas that supported al Qaeda from 2004-2006.

The ISIS attacks have received a lot of attention, but ISIS does not represent a majority of Iraqi Sunni in Anbar. Many Sunni Anbari leaders continue to reject al Qaeda. Some have even openly, if reluctantly, made temporary accommodations with the Shia-led Iraqi government to help expel ISIS from Anbar. ISIS is in Anbar, but it does not control Anbar.

More from GPS: Why Iraq is in turmoil

And while ISIS is portrayed as a monolithic, ideologically driven affiliate of the transnational al Qaeda organization, it is not at all clear that every member of ISIS now in Anbar is ideologically driven or particularly loyal. Doubtless some are zealots; suicide bombings attest to their motivation. But divisions certainly exist in ISIS as they do in virtually every institution or group in Iraqi society, including the Iraqi Army and Police.

Such divisions in ISIS might be exploited. Internal divisions undermined al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) during the U.S. war and contributed to its defeat. From 2004 through 2008 AQI liked to portray itself as a unified, ideologically pure insurgent group. However, in practice it consisted of thousands of individuals with varying identities. Many were criminals who used the AQI name to help further their illegal enterprises. When the Sunni Anbaris revolted against AQI, it shattered.

Still, there are numerous reasons to be concerned about the situation in Iraq today. The end of the U.S. war in 2011 did not end Sunni disenfranchisement and it did not bring enduring stability. The northern Iraqi city of Mosul, where the United States thinned its forces in 2006 to reinforce Ramadi, is increasingly unstable. If there is a Sunni revolt in Anbar, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are no better positioned to conduct counterinsurgency there than the United States was in 2003. A full-scale ISF counterinsurgency campaign in Anbar could be disastrous. Clearly some of the more extreme militants in Syria envision a broader war that would spread across the Levant and Iraq. Iraq may yet fail and it may become the focal point for a broader sectarian war.

More from CNN: Hawks are deluded about Iraq

Yet while the prospects for long-term, national-level stability in Iraq are not good, predictions of imminent disaster in Anbar should be viewed with caution. Reporting from Iraq is notoriously exaggerated. The ISIS attacks are concerning, but continuing rejection of al Qaeda by some Sunni is encouraging. And hidden in the complex layers of the Sunni Iraqi polity and leadership is an opportunity for al-Maliki, the Iraqi Sunni, and the United States.

Iraq’s prime minister should be commended for his mostly cautious approach in Anbar, and he should be encouraged to view the ISIS attacks as a chance to engage more directly with all Sunni leaders. There may be no permanent fix to the Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq, but more near-term cooperation from the Sunni elite may help reduce instability in Anbar to manageable levels. This temporary cooperation could even open the door for a deeper engagement that would benefit both sides. Any sign of even limited cooperation between Sunni and Shia Iraqis would help reduce support for ISIS.

U.S. policy is to provide additional weapons and, possibly, some training to the Iraqi military. This will strengthen the ISF, but may encourage aggressive ISF military action in urban areas, action that may alienate rather than help co-opt Sunni leaders. Reinforcing the ISF gives some Sunni leaders the mistaken impression that the United States wants to help Shia’ to fight Iraqi Sunnis. To avoid alienating these former Sunni allies the United States should therefore consider providing overt non-lethal aid and intelligence to the Sunni Anbaris who oppose al Qaeda. Even limited U.S. engagement with Sunni leaders would demonstrate good will and reduce a growing sense of Iraqi Sunni disenfranchisement.

Rearming the Sunni Anbaris is another option. And although that would raise serious issues for both the United States and al-Maliki, it is worth remembering that the United States fostered success in Iraq in 2006-2008 by supporting both the Sunni Anbari militias and ISF in the fight against al Qaeda.

With or without lethal aid, that is a policy worth considering now.

Post by:
Topics: Iraq • Terrorism

soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. lewtwo

    " And the daily reporting from Anbar certainly paints a grim picture."
    CNN rarely has "daily" reports on anything international.

    January 30, 2014 at 9:02 am |
    • j. von hettlingen

      There are reports on Iraqis fleeing fighting in western province of Anbar. The number has risen to 140,000, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR. Sunni militants allied to the ISIS, as well as armed tribesmen angry with the government, overran Falluja in early January after clashes triggered by a raid on protest camps there and in Ramadi. Civilians have to bear the brunt.

      February 2, 2014 at 11:10 am |
  2. matslats

    Er – not as bleak as what? And for whom?
    Who is this article intended to inform/influence?

    January 30, 2014 at 9:22 am |
    • Hogan's Goat

      I wondered the same thing. What is the intended audience here? Obviously the author's group wants us to get deeper and deeper into bed with Iraq, and the only question is "How much of the article was written by Dick Cheney?"

      January 30, 2014 at 3:56 pm |
  3. aurelius

    A few days ago, I booked a two week vacation in Iraq and appreciate this article for its candidness. I was caught in conflicts similar to this one and laughed at the reports that were printed in the Western media.

    January 30, 2014 at 11:10 am |
  4. wellyouknowme

    how about some facts to backup your claims....everything you said is conjecture, without supporting facts.

    January 30, 2014 at 12:44 pm |
  5. dan

    forget about the fake WMDs. nothing to see here. move along.

    January 30, 2014 at 1:22 pm |
  6. Joseph McCarthy

    Evidently, CNN didn't like what I posted above since my post was blocked. I still say, wouldn't it be better to negotiate with the ISIS and let them have western Iraq as a home state? I think this needs to be debated here.

    January 30, 2014 at 1:22 pm |

    Sounds like fact "washing" from all sides....this one included. I will believe what someone there says and thats all. No guessing from the bleachers.

    January 30, 2014 at 2:49 pm |
    • Hogan's Goat

      I sympathize greatly with the Iraqis, and I regret that we can't take them to raise right now. But we have our own troubles, and it's about time to let them have their sandy little home turf back.

      January 30, 2014 at 3:58 pm |
    • gstalvarado

      I have heard first hand accounts of how things are in Iraq currently from someone living there. It is not being exaggerated.

      February 5, 2014 at 7:30 pm |
  8. Hogan's Goat

    " Ben Connable is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. The views expressed are his own." I laughed so hard soda came out of my nose. His views are those of the RAND thinktank, of course.

    January 30, 2014 at 3:39 pm |
  9. joey

    the only solution is W88s for mecca and medina. parking lots for the new arabian wal marts. and all the sauds, from the youngest to the oldest, all genders, must be exterminated.

    January 30, 2014 at 3:52 pm |
    • Hogan's Goat

      "all the sauds, from the youngest to the oldest, all genders, must be exterminated."

      And this is why we don't let baby kangaroos set military policy.

      January 30, 2014 at 3:54 pm |
    • Tom Clark

      Genocide, yea thats the answer! It worked out so well for Adolph. Is your statement sarcasm, or insanity?

      February 2, 2014 at 12:43 pm |
  10. Hogan's Goat

    "CNN didn't like what I posted above since my post was blocked" It auto-blocks certain words. Do a google search on CLBUTTIC or BUTTBUTTINATED and you will know much more and be amused as well.

    January 30, 2014 at 3:53 pm |
  11. Patrick

    Exactly what does this Ben Connabe take us for anyway? He must think that we're all grade school dropouts if he expects us to believe his right-wing manure about Iraq above!

    January 30, 2014 at 4:00 pm |
  12. Mints

    Looks like cnn is getting bold with the disinformation

    January 30, 2014 at 5:42 pm |
    • Patrick

      Thank you, Mints. How true that rings!

      January 30, 2014 at 7:02 pm |
  13. bigaltheterp

    February 1, 2014 at 9:58 am |
  14. Tom Clark

    The US invasion and occupation resulted in death and destruction for many. Ignited the country in civil war,now we sit back and watch. Was this the real intention of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld? Or was it more about US arms and military contractor corporate profits?

    February 2, 2014 at 12:49 pm |
  15. Rick McDaniel

    Maybe.......maybe not. There is NO QUESTION, that iraq is far from being out of the woods, in terms of of defeating subversives in the country.

    February 2, 2014 at 4:53 pm |
  16. kommy

    No, no- its really peachy, not bleak- 2-3 bombs a day- this is definitely not bleak. Bases of Al Qaeda allover the place...or wait some of them as turned out – our allies, like Al Nusra. Two major cities in the hands of terrorists- definitely green, green what ever green color you want, emeraldish....

    February 5, 2014 at 8:02 pm |
  17. Fed

    Thanks for the laugh, I needed it. Who paid off the author to write this crock?

    February 7, 2014 at 8:11 am |
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