Last month, in the wake of the Sunni uprising in Iraq, I had the opportunity to meet with tribal representatives and former senior members of Saddam Hussein’s military for several hours. They were not upset with the unrest: ISIS could kill Shi‘ite policemen, force government officials out, and expunge Mosul and surrounding areas of outsiders. Once that was complete, they said, they were confident that the tribes and former regime elements would hold the territory as ISIS moved on. When the time was ripe, they would turn on any remaining ISIS members and run their territory themselves or use their control and leverage to negotiate a new compact with a central government they despise and whose legitimacy they question.
Their strategy was analogous to releasing Ebola in a crowded room and assuming that they themselves would be immune. ISIS may be a lot of things, but it is not stupid: The group was not going to allow the tribes to turn on them as they did during the surge. Now, with their advance toward Baghdad checked, ISIS has set about consolidating its control. The destruction of the tomb of Nabi Yunus was the shot across the bow showing ISIS to be in control, and the Baathists and tribal elements to be in retreat. The former regime officials and Baathists might have flirted with Islamism, but they were more ethnic and sectarian chauvinists than iconoclastic, and had no desire to see the shrines and churches of their territory razed.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may be flawed and he may have lost any mandate for a third term, but the Baathist and Sunni tribes’ flirtation with ISIS in the run-up to the uprising affirms that Maliki’s paranoia was not without some basis. The problem with negotiating with nihilists is they are happy to pocket any concessions made or forced, but then simply continue to pursue their goal which is to overthrow the constitutional order. Some in Washington—especially in military circles—lose all dispassion when Maliki’s name is raised. They blame him for unwillingness to meet the expectations of some Sunni Islamists and Baathists whose expectations were raised by the appeasement inherent in the surge. But even if Maliki was not a forward-looking, progressive leader, it should not be Maliki who bears primary responsibility for the situation in which Iraq now finds itself, but rather the former regime elements and tribal figures who believed they could gain through force what they could not at the ballot box, and who were willing to flirt with the worst elements in society to achieve their aims.
Unfortunately, the ISIS contagion is spreading out of control. The group is motivated by ideology, not grievance–unless, of course, the grievance is the existence of any dissenting opinion or belief. It is essential that ISIS be quarantined, rolled back, and eradicated and it may take outside help to do so. But whenever that is done, let us hope policymakers do not misunderstand the genesis of the current problem. It was less Baghdad’s sectarianism than blowback from a shortsighted strategy among his sectarian opponents.