Word is trickling out of Mosul that Iraqis are starting to chafe under the heavy-handed rule of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. New York Times correspondent Tim Arango reports of anger against ISIS for destroying a shrine to the biblical prophet Jonah. Residents actually gathered around Mosul’s ancient leaning minaret to prevent its destruction too.
There is also understandable concern that ISIS isn’t making life better for the people–its specialty, after all, is suicide bombings, not municipal governance. The Times quotes one Mosul resident interviewed by phone: “There are unorganized groups fighting ISIS now. If we had the power and the supplies, we could have kicked ISIS out of Mosul by now.”
This is a positive sign–it shows how unpopular Islamist fundamentalists are whenever they achieve power. But we should keep our euphoria about a potential anti-ISIS revolt firmly in check. The history of ISIS suggests that, however much Iraqis may resent their rule, they will successfully rise up only if they have strong outside support. Resentment of al-Qaeda in Iraq (the ISIS predecessor) did not boil over in Anbar Province until 2006 and even then it required American efforts during “the surge” to forge tribesmen into a 100,000-strong Sons of Iraq militia to fight against AQI. In prior years, nascent revolts in Anbar had been repressed with great brutality by AQI.
The question now is where can outside support come from to support an anti-ISIS revolt in western and northern Iraq? Probably not from the Iraqi government, which is identified with a Shiite sectarian agenda that only drives Sunnis further into ISIS’s arms and whose army has shown a depressing inability or unwillingness to fight hard under the political hacks appointed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
It is possible a change of leadership in Baghdad can revitalize the Iraqi army, lessen the government’s sectarian taint, and thereby allow effective partnering with the Sunni tribes. But don’t count on it. Even if a new prime minister is selected, there will still be deep-seated suspicion in the Sunni community, and understandably so. The only force the Sunnis would trust–despite our prior abandonment of them–is the United States.
But to become an effective catalyst for a Sunni revolt, the U.S. will have to send a lot more than 825 troops to Iraq–the current number. This week I testified before the House Armed Services Committee, presenting my own plan for rolling back ISIS gains. I suggested, in essence, a multi-pronged approach based on supporting relatively moderate factions in both Iraq and Syria–to wit, the Free Syrian Army, elements of the Iraqi security forces which have not been totally subordinated to the Iranian Quds Force, the Sunni tribes, and the Kurdish peshmerga.
I argued that we need to send at least 10,000 troops to act as advisers, intelligence gatherers, air controllers (to call in air strikes), and Special Operations raiders and that in Iraq these personnel need to be evenly distributed between the Iraqi army, the Sunni tribes, and the peshmerga. U.S. troops would not be on the frontlines of ground combat but they would be enabling proxies to fight far more effectively, as we have previously done in countries as disparate as Kosovo, Libya, and Afghanistan. This should be done in conjunction with a political strategy focused on replacing Maliki with a more inclusive figure.
Alas there is no sign that the Obama administration is seriously rethinking its abandonment of Iraq or its misguided policy of arming the current sectarian regime in Baghdad without real American oversight over how the weapons we provide are employed. Unless the administration is willing to roll up its sleeves and get more involved in Iraq (admittedly a difficult political pill for the anti-interventionist president to swallow), anti-ISIS sentiment among Sunnis is unlikely to lead to a serious revolt and ISIS will continue to strengthen its terrorist caliphate.