This piece was first published on King’s College London’s Kings Of War blog.
During the past few months, politicians, media outlets, and pundits alike have framed the current crisis in Iraq in a seemingly straightforward fashion.
The popular narrative goes as follows: a barbaric, Islamic extremist group, called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has established control over areas astride the border between Syria and Iraq. Vastly larger, but mostly ineffective, Iraqi armed forces have not been able to stop the ISIS advance whose militants have come close to reaching the outskirts of the capital Baghdad. Iraq, vexed by ineluctable sectarian conflict, now stands on the brink of civil war. However, the ISIS threat goes beyond the area it currently controls. In fact, the ISIS has ostensibly displayed global ambitions: its leadership has announced the creation of an Islamic caliphate and has called on Muslims worldwide to vow allegiance to its self-styled caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
There are at least three aspects of this popular narrative that are inaccurate and somewhat misleading.
1) First aspect: the current crisis in Iraq is all about the ISIS.
Although the ISIS has undoubtedly achieved the status of “ the public face” of the Iraqi insurgency, it could hardly be described as the only actor involved in the fighting. Reliable accounts, in fact, provide evidence that the insurgency in Iraq is a complex aggregation of diverse militant Sunni groups. An all but complete list of these groups includes, along with the ISIS, other Islamist extremist factions (such as Ansar al-Islam), the Military Council of the Tribes of Iraq (that comprises as many as eighty tribes), and the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order (a militant group that claims to have Kurdish and Shiite members and surely hosts many Sunni Baathists once loyal to the regime of Saddam Hussein). Notably, antipathies exist among members of this heterogeneous alliance. As an example, some Islamic extremist groups consider former Baathists to be infidels.
2) Second aspect: the root causes of the current crisis in Iraq mostly stem from religion and sectarian tensions.
Although the armed confrontation in Iraq has indeed pitted a Sunni insurgency against Shiite and Kurdish forces, the current conflict is by no means a theological confrontation rooted in the seventh century. The root causes behind the fighting are primarily political. Sunni political grievances include: fair access to government revenue and services, a say in the process of national decision-making, an end to rampant corruption in the Shiite-led government, and a modicum of social justice. These are clearly secular and not religious grievances. Notably, they are not new grievances either. During the last years of the George W. Bush presidency, in fact, the United States already acknowledged the existence of a number of such potentially destabilizing issues. Tellingly, embedded in the eighteen political “benchmarks” identified at the time by the United States to foster political reconciliation in Iraq, there were laws to distribute oil revenue equitably and provisions to reverse the purge of Baathists from government positions.
3) Third aspect: the goal of the ISIS leadership is to create a global caliphate.
It is true that the ISIS has announced the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in the territories the group has seized in Iraq and Syria. It is also true that the ISIS leadership has asked Muslims living beyond the areas under its direct control to swear their allegiance to the new caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. However, there are clear limits to the ISIS capability to achieve global reach. To begin with, the ISIS has scored its major military successes in areas where local populations were mostly friendly to the insurgency. ISIS is going to face a stiffer resistance in Shiite and Kurdish majority areas. Moreover, and this is linked to points 1 and 2, the current Iraqi insurgency is primarily a marriage of convenience. Cooperation among the above mentioned unlikely Sunni allies will probably terminate as soon as the common Shiite enemy is defeated. Ensuing infighting will likely weaken the insurgency and degrade its ability to seize additional territory. Furthermore, the appeal of the ISIS to Sunni communities in the wider Middle East should not be overestimated. Moderate Sunnis might not feel comfortable with ISIS extremist doctrine and tactics. Finally, the international coalition that is presently forming under the aegis of the United States will represent a huge obstacle not only to the ISIS potential expansionist goals but also to the extremist group’s very existence.
What does this tell us about the way the international community should respond to the current crisis in Iraq? I see at least two important implications:
1) The international community would be mistaken in considering the Iraqi insurgency solely, or primarily, as a terrorist threat.
2) Any international military intervention in Iraq must be followed by a serious long-term commitment by the international community to facilitate sectarian reconciliation and to pressure the government in Baghdad to resolve the political grievances that fueled the Sunni insurgency in the first place.