A Crucial Part Of America’s ISIS Strategy Is In Shambles

Iraq sunni tribes
Masked Sunni Muslims gunmen take position with their weapons during their patrol in the city of Falluja, 70 km (43 miles) west of Baghdad, February 26, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

As ISIS militants consolidate gains in Iraq, the US and the US-backed government in Baghdad are becoming increasingly dependent on finding Sunni tribal partners who would rise up against the militants.

Although this approach worked in the Sunni tribal awakening from 2005 to 2010 that crushed Al Qaeda in Iraq, it’s going poorly this time around.

“There is an opportunity for the government to work with the tribes, but the facts on the ground are that ISIS has infiltrated these communities and depleted their ability to go against it,” Ahmed Ali, an Iraq analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told The New York Times. “Time is not on the Iraqi government’s side.”

It doesn’t help that the Shia-dominated government has been antagonizing Iraq’s minority Sunni population for years.

Indeed, ISIS took full advantage of the Sunni discontent and has actively recruited Sunni tribes.

Sunni tribes that refused to join ISIS found themselves pursued and facing mass execution by ISIS. Without reliable streams of weapons and supplies, Sunni tribes that might otherwise have battled the jihadists were woefully unequipped and unprepared.


Baghdad remains sceptical about the possibility of arming the tribes, however, especially as Shia Iran pressures it to avoid giving too much power to Sunni groups.

“The United States is not the first player in Iraq. Iran is the first player in Iraq. They think Sunni fighters will be like militias for the Sunnis,” Najim al Jabouri, a retired Iraqi army general who is now a fellow at the National Defence University in Washington, told Jonathan Landay of McClatchy. “I think Iran is working very hard to stop the United States’ strategy in Iraq.”

This is only one of many ways that Iran is stifling Obama’s plans in Iraq.

“The American approach is to leave Iraq to the Iraqis,” Sami al-Askari, a former member of Iraq’s parliament and one-time senior adviser to former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, told Reuters. “The Iranians don’t say leave Iraq to the Iraqis. They say leave Iraq to us.”

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