Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Back to the tribes

As long as the Obama administration does not inspire trust with the tribes, expect them to keep fighting on the side of ISIS.

Sunni tribal fighters in Iraq. (AFP/Azhar Shallal)

The US-led campaign against the Islamic State group (ISIS) is failing. There are no tribes in Iraq or Syria willing to supplement US airpower and substitute US ground troops. On the contrary, tribal movement in the Levant -- telling from recent moves by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt -- suggests that the tribes do not believe America is sincere in fighting ISIS, and are rather making arrangements to buy goodwill with the radical Islamists, should these eventually beat the Shia minority forces and sweep the region.


To add insult to injury, President Barack Obama's administration deployed Deputy National Security Advisor Anthony Blinken to Iraq. As National Security Advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, Blinken served as Washington's "Iraq Czar" starting in 2009. He arranged for the formation of the second Maliki government and the eventual withdrawal -- and total American disengagement -- from Iraq.


Against all advice, Blinken bet on Maliki, often saying that the Iraqi prime minister was an ally because he was pumping more Iraqi oil, presumably against Tehran's wishes, and thus helping to push Iran's oil production offline without causing turbulence in world prices.


Needless to say, Blinken's focus on Iraqi oil made all conspiracy theories sound true. America was in Iraq for one thing only: Oil.


Another one of Blinken's grave mistakes was handing over the Sunni Sahwat tribal fighters to their Shia rival Maliki, who promptly stopped their payrolls and liquidated some of their leaders under false pretexts of terrorism.


The bonds that had been forged between US troops and Sunni tribal fighters who ejected Al-Qaeda from Iraq were therefore scrapped by an Obama administration that was keen to wash its hands of Iraq, even if that meant throwing its Iraqi Sunni and Kurdish allies under the bus.


Beaten and in distress, Iraq's Sunni tribes needed a new sponsor. They found ISIS, which not only won their allegiance, but sponsored the fights that these tribes had shelved a long time ago. The Sunnis started settling scores with their Kurdish and Shia rivals in Iraq, Syria, and probably soon in Lebanon as well. The fault lines in Mosul and Kobane predate the rise of ISIS, which only helped reactivate them.


The administration and Blinken's mistakes would have been rectified had Washington understood them. Washington treated the rise of ISIS, so far the best thing that has happened to many Sunni tribes since 2008, as a national security threat to the United States. Still, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey said that an "important assumption of this campaign is that we can, in fact, separate the moderate Sunni tribes from the ISIS ideology."


The assumption that there are moderate tribes and radical tribes is flawed. Then, why would the tribes care to join a campaign of counter-terrorism that promises them little? Syria's Bashar al-Assad will remain in place, and so will the Shia government in Baghdad. Behind them, Iran will keep on working hard to compromise Sunni power.


Before sending Blinken, who is certainly not the tribes' favorite, America should have asked itself: What tribal interests can be also served in a campaign against ISIS?


Obama had committed a similar mistake with Turkey by asking it to join a coalition with a single goal: To stem whoever threatens American interests. But Turkey has interests too, namely beating Kurdish PPK fighters and the Assad regime, and any coalition that does not take Ankara's concerns into account will not appeal to the Turks.


Michael Pregent, a former advisor to the US military in Iraq, said on a panel we were on together that tribal Iraqi men see General John Allen and scream "Allahu Akbar." Allen is one of those Americans whom the tribes fought with and trust.


The tribes of Iraq and Syria will only fight ISIS if they trust America and believe that Washington will be there for them in the long term, a lesson the Obama administration has yet to learn.


Those who know Jumblatt know that he often calls former US Ambassador to Lebanon and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, even though the latter has quit the US government to run the UN’s Department of Political Affairs.


For the tribes, trust is paramount and lasts long. Trust needs time to be earned and effort to be maintained. Obama's see-saw policies and his banging his head against the Iranian wall do not help. As long as the Obama administration does not inspire trust with the tribes, expect them to keep fighting on the side of ISIS, and expect Washington to get second-degree fighters who have been squabbling in Istanbul for over three years.


If winning the tribes proves "untrue," according to Dempsey, "We’ve got to go back to the drawing board." The sooner America does that, the better.


Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai. He tweets @hahussain

Sunni tribal fighters in Iraq. (AFP/Azhar Shallal)

Obama's see-saw policies and his banging his head against the Iranian wall do not help.

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    To suggest that America need to win the trust of the Tribes is so stupid - pardon my candor. What common ground could there be between two such diverse universes? Over what item of culture, religion, or social mores can these two parties come to trust one another. Admonitions like these are really blowing hot air, no more. If the Tribes do not see for themselves the danger that ISIS poses, then there is nothing to work on, and they - like the US - will have to live with the consequences of choosing the wrong side of history. ISIS is a raggedy vampire from Islam's antique past, and dangerous and bloody though it may be on the short term, no one in their right mind would believe that it poses some threat on the long term. The Obama administration is absolutely right in limiting its objectives to defending US interests, and no one else's interests. If the other parties to the alliance do not see their interests in fighting ISIS, the hell with them, for neither they nor ISIS matter in the end. All the pundits who have been screaming bloody murder for years over the lack of US enthusiasm for the causes they are paid to defend should realize by now that the West has, by and large, wizened up over treacherous and primitive Arab and Muslim politics. Colonialism is finally dead, for good. Obama has driven the final nail in its coffin. Stop calling Uncle Sam every time someone thumps a Koran in some forsaken desert. Arab and Muslim rulers know their fate is in the balance and if they do not clean their own houses, no one will d their dirty work for them. I have been loving watching the torment across the Arab and Muslim world. It is well-deserved. It is self-inflicted. And, best of all, it will last for a long time, and this is a movie I watch every evening on the news with a beer or a whiskey, knowing that in the end it is all for the good of mankind, including poor Arabs and Muslims. It is just now that the going is tough. It will eventually get better. A price to pay.

    October 20, 2014

  • Vlad Tepes

    HA! Your a very sick man. Sound like a Zionists too. Unfortunately for you, superpowers, as long as they exist, will always try to spread their influence and instill the their influence wherever there is precious materials to be had. Don't mistake obama's incompetence for "driving the nail in the coffin". Enjoy your Israel made beer and whisky too.

    October 25, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    FENRIRI -You are such an idiot. Every night, I put Al-Jazzera on and enjoy my Lebanese - not Israeli - beer and arak, right here in the mountains of the Lebanese heartland, watching Arab and Muslim idiots like you (though more courageous than you because you are playing the Arab Don Quixote from your hiding lair in Dearborn, Michigan) kill each other with American-made weapons. Every time I see a bomb blast through Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Tunis, Aden.... I cheer and I applaud, and I open another beer. t is truly a sorry spectacle to see all these Arabs and Muslims slaughtering one another WHILE blaming the West, and like you, while HIDING in the West. Again, FENRIRI, you are such an idiot.

    October 25, 2014

  • Vlad Tepes

    Okay bub, not that if matters but I'm White, not Arab or Muslim. And I don't live anywhere near Michigan, so your whole argument is moot. Not that it even is an argument. More of a pathetic rant from a Tel Aviv boozer and John.

    October 25, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Not that it matters either, (....) not knowing that Arabs are white caucasians. This further confirms to me that you are a (...)American living in Dearborn Michigan among the largest Muslim Arab population in the US, and that because of that proximity, you are a sympathizer of the terrorist organization Hezbollah. I bet you the CIA and the FBI and Homeland Security are watching you closely. Start deleting files from your computer...they could be used against you in Guantanamo.

    October 27, 2014

  • Vlad Tepes

    I'm sure they are following me, some of my friends, and a lot of other people for no good reason. We all know that from the intelligence leaks. Think whatever you want BTW. Your rants are always classic. Most ME people are not White either. My ancestry is from Europe. Indo-European, not Semitic. Hard for you to understand but that's the way it goes with some people.

    October 28, 2014