Sunni Sheikhs in Iraq Defect to ISIS

A number of traditional leaders among Iraq’s Sunni population have abandoned the Baghdad regime and have offered their support to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or ISIL). One cannot determine at this stage whether they voluntarily supported the declaration many of them signed in Fallujah or whether coercion was involved. Either way, this is a blow to the Baghdad government and calls into question whether Iraq has a future as a single state.

According to Al Jazeera, “The sheikhs’ statement said the only way peace would come to Anbar province would be if the tribes joined ISIL. They said they were joining ISIL’s self-declared ‘caliphate’ in order to ‘fight the infidels, apostates and Shias,” using a derogatory term to refer to them.” The network went on to note, “The inclusion of the al-Jumaili tribe in Wednesday’s pledge was of particular concern for Iraqi authorities, given the tribe’s influence in the contested Anbar province.”

The Sunni Arabs of western Iraq have been suspicious of the Baghdad government since the fall of the Saddamites. Under the al Maliki government, sectarian manipulation was raised to a high art. The current government of Haider Jawad Kadhim Al-Abadi is not as divisive as near as one can tell, but the damage has been done.

When much of Anbar fell to ISIS without noticeable resistance from the Iraqi army, the Baghdad government had little choice but to stiffen its defenses by calling on Shi’ite militias, most of which are funded from Iran. When these paramilitary forces crossed into Sunni territory, it didn’t go down well at all. Tarik al-Abdullah, secretary-general of the Anbar council, told Al Jazeera in May that the Shia fighters are “not very welcome.”

Worse, “It has been argued that Iranian advisers have taken an active part in the fight against ISIS in Iraq by providing heavy missiles to the Iraqi army to use in the battle for Anbar,” Abdul Wahab Ali, a Kurdish MP in the Iraqi Parliament, told Rudaw Monday. “Other neighboring Sunni countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia are not happy.”

And so, some Sunni sheikhs have crossed the floor to back ISIS. Given the relations between them and Baghdad, to say nothing of the Shi’ite militias, it is conceivable that some of the sheikhs have decided ISIS is better for them and their people than the Iraqi government. On the other hand, if ISIS coerced their support, it is still problematic because it demonstrates that the terrorist group’s reach is vastly greater than before. Dislodging it may not be easy, and ridding the province of its pernicious ideology will be harder than kicking its fighters out.

The anti-ISIS coalition’s strategy has been to use local ground forces with the support of American air and intelligence assets. There are now fewer coalition ground forces available, while ISIS has picked up hundreds. Moreover, it appears that the remaining ground forces are of an ethnic mix that makes them less capable of taking ISIS out.

Back in the Dark Ages, when George W. Bush was president, American policymakers would say that “As Iraqis stand up, America will stand down.” Thus far, the Sunni part of Iraq has opted not to stand up. This calls into question whether Iraq can continue as a unified state. The Kurds have long wanted their own nation, free from outside sovereignty. Now, some of the Sunni traditional leaders have gone so far as to support the abominable ISIS rather than the elected government of their nation. Like Gaul, Iraq is divided into three parts, and it might just be a matter of time before the world acknowledges that.