President Barack Obama just announced that the US will deploy 450 more troops to Iraq in a push to train the country’s battered security forces to retake Ramadi from the Islamic State terror group.
But the strategy Obama is employing is likely doomed to fail given the circumstances, according to Michael Pregent, a terrorism analyst and former US Army intelligence officer in Iraq.
Pregent told Business Insider on Wednesday that despite White House assurances that US forces will double down on support to Sunni tribal fighters in Iraq, the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad is still going to be reluctant to empower Sunnis over concerns they could one day rise up against Baghdad.
“Today, Sunni tribes are still not being recruited quickly enough or in sufficient enough numbers,” Pregent, who served as a Defence Department advisor on the Iraqi security forces from 2006 to 2011, wrote in Foreign Affairs. “And the West is not arming them well enough to take on ISIS.
But, as the Obama administration argues, arming and training Sunnis to defend their own territory is the only viable way to beat back Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh) advances in these areas.
“Baghdad is deciding who gets trained by the Americans,” Pregent explained. “You can send more American advisers, but until they’re training Sunnis they’re not going to make a difference in the fight against ISIS.”
As the government in Baghdad vets potential fighters for the Iraqi army, they have been looking for connections to Sunni political leaders and Baathists who formerly supported ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, Pregent said.
“Baghdad and Iran are opposed to us training Sunnis, and the president cares about the nuke deal,” he said.
It has become increasingly clear that while ISIS has a strategy rooted in its long-term aspirations to expand its control of territory in the Middle East, the US response is floundering.
Obama admitted earlier this week that the US does not have a “complete strategy” to beat ISIS.
This is especially clear when looking at Syria, which is staunchly backed by Iran and largely ignored by the Obama administration while he pursues a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to make a nuclear deal with Iran, Assad’s main backer.
And now that Ramadi, the provincial capital of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province, has fallen to Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh), the group’s hold on a huge chunk of Iraq is tightening.
Obama has acknowledged that Sunnis are a key part of the fight against radical ISIS extremists, but forging a place for them in the fight is more complicated than it might seem.
“Iran is weighing heavily on this because they’re telling Baghdad to not allow Americans to arm and train a Sunni force because [the Sunnis] will become a problem in the future,” Pregent said. “We’ll be training Baghdad-vetted personnel and they will be Shia and they will likely have ties to the militias. And that is doing nothing to help win the Sunnis over, the very Sunnis we need to fight ISIS.”
The US-led anti-ISIS coalition has been carrying out air strikes in Iraq and Syria and training Iraqi security forces, but the Obama administration has been reluctant to commit any troops to the ground fight.
So Shia militias backed by Iran have stepped up as they have proven to be a more effective fighting force than the Iraqi army. But the Shia militias have been accused of committing atrocities against Sunni civilians as they battle ISIS, a Sunni terror group. Nevertheless, the US coordinates with them through the Iraqi army.
And the Iraqi government is not helping with the increasing sectarianism.
Sunnis fleeing cities taken over by ISIS have been turned away as they try to seek refuge in Baghdad, creating even more resentment toward the Shiite government and making it more likely that Sunni civilians will align with ISIS out of the desire for self-preservation.
And despite the lack of options for Sunnis wanting to escape ISIS-held areas, Shia politicians accuse any Sunnis who remain in Ramadi of being ISIS supporters, Pregent said.
“So Sunnis are thinking, ‘Why pick up a gun and fight ISIS when the government sees us as one of them?’ Pregent explained. “Because Shia militias ‘know no difference’ between ISIS militants and Sunni civilians, Sunnis are reluctant to fight the ISIS extremists who say they will protect them when they see such a lack of support from the government in Baghdad.”
This is all a boon to ISIS’ strategy. The extremists seek to convince Sunnis that ISIS is the only group looking out for Sunni interests, and as long as the government regards Sunnis with suspicion and Shia militias continue to harm Sunni civilians, this message is likely to stick with people who might have initially fought to keep ISIS out of their territory.
“The political situation is making it difficult for the US to develop an effective strategy in Iraq,” Pregent said. “You can’t have an effective strategy without Sunnis, and the political process of Baghdad is keeping that from happening.”
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