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Muath Al Wari

The outer limit of the anti-ISIS mission

Iraqi Shiite fighters from the Popular Mobilization Units fire towards ISIS positions during clashes on the northern outskirts of Fallujah on 7 July 2015. (AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

The stated mission of the anti-ISIS US-led coalition is to “degrade, defeat, and ultimately destroy,” the Islamic State. A year into that campaign, it’s abundantly clear that the political failures of Iraq and Syria show no signs of improving. Consequently, the coalition should focus on degrading ISIS’s capabilities, defeating them militarily where possible, and dropping the pretense that destroying them is a practical goal, at least for the time being.

 

The fact of the matter is that destroying the so-called caliphate is necessarily a political objective. Accordingly, it requires a political solution which, in the current atmosphere, is manifestly unattainable. Throughout the region, political failure has been the necessary condition for the emergence and spread of Islamist insurgencies.

 

In Syria, the regime’s cynical toolbox of exploiting domestic cleavages was amplified by equally cynical regional dynamics, which, in turn, have been unimpeded; indeed reinforced by international paralysis. Taken together, this horrible parade worked to push a peaceful opposition into violence and extremism.

 

In Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki’s increasing sectarianism rolled back the Sahwa’s progress. The devastation of a Sunni reconciliation in its infancy completely undermined the national project, as it were. As a direct consequence, the ranks of a bourgeoning coupling of former Baathists and Zarqawists swelled. The failure of politics was the single most consequential factor in both Iraq and Syria.

 

None of these manifestations of political failure show any signs of serious improvement. In Iraq, the Sunni component needs to come to terms with its demographic inferiority. Sunni tribal leaders still talk as if they are a majority in Iraq and demand commensurate political power and representation. The disconnect between their actual and imagined numbers and the fantasy of returning to Saddam-era dominance must be abandoned if something is to be salvaged.

 

On the other hand, Baghdad is not exactly laying the groundwork for a political breakthrough with the Sunnis. Very few people in the Middle East respond well to threats, and the Sunnis of Iraq are no different. The Iraqi government has done little to convince them of a future in an Iraqi state dominated by Shiites. Compounded with the strong appeal of a cross-national Sunni identity, it is difficult to see them acquiescing to decreased political influence. The Sunnis’ refusal to accept their unfavorable demographic reality is buttressed by their belonging to a larger global whole. It is not for nothing that Sunni Islamist groups constantly appeal to the ‘Ummah of the billion.’ It reinforces a sense of entitlement, particularly in the absence of a persuasive Iraqi national project.

 

A year into the fall of Mosul, there is, remarkably, not one example of a serious initiative by the Iraqi government to assuage Sunni concerns. The National Guard law languishes in parliamentary purgatory, with talk of postponing its introduction for another six months. The proposition of arming the Sunni tribes — a potential signal of trust from Baghdad — is dead on arrival, and not for entirely sensible reasons. All the while the military footprint of the Popular Mobilization Units, which are comprised of Shiite fighters, grows. No political project to address legitimate Sunni grievances from Maliki’s reign has been put forward. It is difficult to escape the impression that this is anything but fiddling while Rome burns.

 

In Syria, the picture is even more dismaying. The absence of a political solution to the conflict, the seeming symbiosis between the regime and ISIS, and the flimsy moderate opposition suggests that the potential for destroying ISIS there is no more encouraging. Political process in Iraq is the primary responsibility of a single actor — the Iraqi government. But a political solution in Syria, essential to destroying ISIS, depends on more actors than one can count.

 

Of course, the regime’s utility in a political solution is minimal, but the utility of the other supposedly acceptable actors is not exceedingly convincing either. The moderate opposition is still, four years in, dysfunctional and divided. The only groups with something to show on the ground are Jaysh al-Islam, the Kurds, and a collection of extremist rebels including Jabhat al-Nusra. The post-Assad goals of each of these groups would impede, rather than enable, a palatable solution to the conflict. Regional players that could be useful are divided over their priorities and clients in the conflict, and the souring of relations between the United States and Russia make a great power-imposed solution all the more unlikely.

 

If the picture is this depressing, what is the point of constantly referring to the destruction of ISIS? Too many political variables, certainly outside Washington’s control, dictate the success or failure of this mission. ISIS cannot be destroyed if the Assad question is not resolved and a serious Iraqi national project is not launched, and neither eventuality is in America’s control to bring about. The bottom line is that the Islamic State is, for the time being, here to stay, or in their own parlance: baqiyah.

 

Of course, the US can expend whatever political capital and leverage it has in the region towards prodding the various actors towards compromise. Ultimately, however, compromise will come about when there is an indigenous recognition of the existential threat ISIS represents. It may be doubtful that ISIS will ever capture Baghdad or Damascus, but that is not the only nightmare scenario. Indeed, lighting the fuse of a regional sectarian conflagration is well within ISIS’s ability and plans. That fact, truly accepted and processed, should be enough to galvanize action.

 

Until then, however, degrading the Islamic State’s ability along with defeating it militarily where possible should constitute the outer limit of the anti-ISIS mission.

 

Muath Al Wari is a Middle East analyst based in Washington DC. He tweets @MuathAlWari

Iraqi Shiite fighters from the Popular Mobilization Units fire towards ISIS positions during clashes on the northern outskirts of Fallujah on 7 July 2015. (AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

If the picture is this depressing, what is the point of constantly referring to the destruction of ISIS? Too many political variables, certainly outside Washington’s control, dictate the success or failure of this mission."