Fight Against Islamic State Exposes Iraq’s Persistent Weaknesses

Fight Against Islamic State Exposes Iraq’s Persistent Weaknesses
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, Paris, France, June 2, 2015 (AP photo by Kamil Zihnioglu).

Officials from 20 countries participating in the U.S.-led coalition against the so-called Islamic State (IS) met in Paris today to discuss their strategy against the insurgent group. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that air strikes and support to Iraqi forces are the right course of action against IS, though Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called IS’ advance in his country a “failure” of the international community.

Abadi has faced criticism since assuming office last September that he has not done enough to facilitate Sunni-Shiite reconciliation in Iraq. Iraq’s Sunnis find themselves in a difficult situation—“ground zero in the struggle” against IS, as Myriam Benraad put it for World Politics Review in March. “Any defeat of IS,” she added, “which arose and has been fed principally by the failure of political powers to grasp the scale of the problem in time, must include a political component addressing Sunni grievances in Iraq if it is to be sustainable.” That wouldn’t be easy:

The challenge is first and foremost a domestic one for Iraq: How to mobilize Sunnis against IS and bring them back to institutions from which they have been excluded for a decade? From de-Baathification, which became synonymous with “de-Sunnification,” after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, to the 2010 parliamentary elections, in which Iyad Allawi’s largely secular Sunni-backed coalition won a narrow electoral victory but lost out to then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the post-election wrangling, Iraq’s Sunnis had no good reason in 2014 to oppose a group that promised them liberation, revenge and political existence. It was the cooperation or non-interference of the Sunni tribes, formerly allied with the Americans against al-Qaida in Iraq between 2006 and 2008 but whose resentment toward Baghdad had since grown, that facilitated IS’ rise. The question now is whether Sunni aversion to Iraq’s political institutions can be reversed.

Iraqi Kurds are also facing difficult choices in the face of IS’ rise, which has put a long-fought drive for Kurdish independence on hold. Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces have been on the front lines of the fight against IS. But according to Hannes Cerny, writing for WPR last September, “the chances of a unilateral pursuit of Kurdish independence have once again receded, precisely because Iraqi Kurds have been prominently integrated into the international coalition to defeat the Islamic State.” Moreover, following a tough defeat to IS in northern Iraq last summer:

The failure of the peshmerga, expected to defend Kurdish independence, rattled Kurdish self-confidence and made it painfully obvious that in the hostile environment of today’s Middle East, a Kurdish state could not survive on its own. It also highlighted the fact that for all their talk of independence, Iraq’s Kurds remain dependent on Western goodwill and support.

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