The US-led campaign against Islamic State isn’t working. It won’t unless it addresses Shia sectarianism in Iraq and Assad’s atrocities in Syria.
Ken Roth in Open Security:
The extraordinary brutality of the organisation which calls itself Islamic State (IS) has sparked utter revulsion around the world. Its mass executions, sexual enslavement, videotaped beheadings and now the burning to death of the Jordanian pilot have created an uncommon determination among governments of all political and religious stripes to end this scourge on the people of Iraq and Syria and the threat it poses elsewhere. But after sitting through a weekend of discussions at the Munich Security Conference, I am left with the sad conclusion that the anti-IS endeavour betrays more activity than strategy.
To understand what must be done about IS, it is helpful to remember the background to its rise. In Iraq, in addition to the chaos after the US invasion, the emergence of IS owes much to the abusive sectarian rule of the former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and the resulting radicalisation of Sunnis. With Iranian backing, Maliki took personal control of Iraqi security forces and supported the formation of Shia militias. Many of those militias brutally persecuted the minority Sunni population. They rounded up and arbitrarily detained Sunnis under vague laws and, along with government counter-terrorism units, summarily executed many. Meanwhile, the Iraqi air force indiscriminately bombed predominately Sunni cities, beginning in Anbar in January 2014.
The severity of these abuses played perfectly into IS plans: one rationale for IS atrocities appears to be to spark precisely such reactions, which in turn bolster its standing among the Sunni population. The group’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, was largely defeated by a combination of US military pressure and a military coalition of Sunni tribes in western Iraq, known as the Awakening Councils. But under Maliki many of the tribes which defeated the organisation became so fearful of slaughter and persecution by pro-government forces that, when conflict resumed in 2014, they felt safer fighting those forces than IS. Western governments, eager to put their own military involvement in Iraq behind them, largely shut their eyes to the worsening sectarian abuses overseen by Baghdad—and continued to ply it with arms.