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Mustafa Fahs

Tikrit campaign: perpetuating violence, not ending it

Seeking the help of Free Syrian Army fighters and some of the moderate Islamist factions is the best solution in Syria

An Iraqi security forces member stands looking at smoke billowing from the Ajeel oil field located 35km northeast of Tikrit on 11 March 2015 after it was reportedly set on fire by ISIS. (AFP/William Dunlop)

It is now an accepted fact that there is no way out of using force to stop the expansion of the Islamic State (ISIS). It is the only way the group can be weakened and the areas under its control in Syria and Iraq liberated. However, the use of force must respect sensitive social, sectarian and tribal balances. The terrorist group’s dominance in the areas it controls has not been a product of coincidence. It is the result of two factors: the vacuum produced by the lack of resources of Syrian rebel fighters in Raqqa Governorate and north of Aleppo; and the intentional or contrived absence of the Iraqi state in several parts of Iraq—areas that were unwilling to submit to central authority after having lost their privileges and their influence over state institutions when Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in 2003.

 

The political short-sightedness of the Iraqi authorities and the bad choices they have made over the past 10 years have created protective areas for ISIS. First there was the decision to dissolve the Iraqi Army and exclude Iraq’s Sunnis from effective participation in the decision making process. Then there was the failure to reabsorb Baath Party members who were not involved in Saddam’s atrocities, the discriminatory practices that accompanied reappointment of former army officers, the failure of national reconciliation, the betrayal of the Awakening Councils, the violent treatment of protesters in Anbar Province, the policy of arbitrary arrests and the confinement of detainees in Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib where ISIS was formed. All of this helped the group take control of vast swathes of Iraqi territory in a process that has raised many questions.

 

Notwithstanding this, a great responsibility also rests on the shoulders of Iraq’s independent Sunni community. Overcome by fear of the unknown, independent Sunnis overlooked the criminal practices of Al-Qaeda and the Baath Party. Rather than serving Sunni interests, their political elites were drawn in to the unfolding violence by ISIS’s Baathist allies, who had lost their privileges. As a result, the entire Sunni community has suffered.

 

Because of this, military regression by ISIS and the advances made by Iraqi forces on many fronts have been accompanied by an escalation of violence between Iraq’s constituent parts. This is because the inhabitants of areas where ISIS is regressing fear they may be collectively punished by some of the militias taking part in the fighting.

 

Although there are areas that have been liberated, the operation to free Tikrit is still in its initial phase. Already, it has begun to tread the path of violence and counter-violence because of the atrocities ISIS committed after taking control of the city, which included acts of ethnic cleansing and killing by sect. This has caused a desire for revenge to build up, with the other side now doing the same things ISIS did. The groups ISIS oppressed are now accused of forcing the city’s residents to leave and carrying out summary executions. This will throw all the ethnic and religious groups in Iraq into a vicious circle of reprisals and counter-reprisals. It would have been possible to avoid this situation if ultimate command on the battlefield had been in the hands of Iraq’s military and security institutions rather than being shared between the leaders of the Popular Mobilization militias and the Iraqi Army.

 

Likewise, the open participation by Quds Force commander General Qassem Soleimani and his soldiers as well as non-Iraqi Shiite volunteers in the fighting against ISIS has begun to anger official Arab actors. Now, they are accusing the US administration of supporting Shiite militias carrying out atrocities in Sunni areas. This will lead to a stance completely rejecting entry into Sunni areas by those forces. As a result, ISIS and Baathist forces will gain local support and be able to rearrange their positions in preparation for the next round of violence.

 

What is true in Iraq is also true in Syria. One sect should not be used to strike another sect. Bashar al-Assad cannot be used to strike ISIS, and Qassem Soleimani and the Popular Mobilization militias should not participate in the fight against ISIS in Iraq.

 

Seeking the help of Free Syrian Army fighters and some of the moderate Islamist factions is the best solution in Syria. In Iraq, government forces should be used and the National Guard and tribal forces should be properly armed in western areas. Arab interests in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts should also be taken into consideration. This could help reduce the increasing violence. Anything else will only make a new round of violence more inevitable and make it easier for the forces of extremism to present themselves as the only defense against a new invasion, ethnic cleansing and demographic change.

 

Additionally, the stability of the international anti-ISIS coalition is now under threat because the Sunni Arab states that form a key part of it have begun to feel cheated. They believe they are providing air cover for Iranian expansion on the ground in Iraq and Syria. This can only lead to intense popular resentment that will once again take a number of forms, and together they will provide the recipe for the next ISIS.

 

Mustafa Fahs tweets @mustafafahs

 

This article has been translated from the original by Ullin Hope

An Iraqi security forces member stands looking at smoke billowing from the Ajeel oil field located 35km northeast of Tikrit on 11 March 2015 after it was reportedly set on fire by ISIS. (AFP/William Dunlop)

What is true in Iraq is also true in Syria. One sect should not be used to strike another sect. Bashar al-Assad cannot be used to strike ISIS, and Qassem Soleimani and the Popular Mobilization militias should not participate in the fight against ISIS in Iraq."