The strategy required to dismantle the Islamic State group

The strategy required to dismantle the Islamic State group
Comment: Rather than attempting to destroy the Islamic State group, the allies should be attempting to talk to disenchanted Sunni elements within the group.
6 min read
25 Mar, 2015
The current strategy is not weakening the IS' relationship with its Sunni core [Reuters]

Over the past few days, Iraqi government optimism over its military offensive on Tikrit has waned significantly.

In contrast to a week ago, the sense that the recapture of Tikrit is imminent has disappeared and morale has sunk among the Iraqi army forces, the militias of the Popular Mobilisation Forces as well as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Disputes and contradictions, meanwhile, have also started to emerge within the international and regional coalition, between the partners on the ground in Iraq and even behind the closed doors of the Iraqi government and its security and military institutions.

The secret of the IS' power is its bedrock of Sunni support.

The basis of the current crises is the digression that took place in the course of the current war. Everybody has fallen into the trap of a sectarian mindset even though they claimed caution and warned against it. It is partly due to the fact that because of the lack of military forces capable of carrying out aerial bombings, whether from the Iraqi army or Sunni tribes, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have directly taken over the leadership of the battles on the ground in Iraq and Syria.

The US administration previously spoke about the necessity of avoiding the sectarian aspect of this conflict, and relying on Sunnis (describing them as the "deadly weapon" against the IS), and the importance of bringing the political process and military solution together in Iraq.

However all of this has now disappeared on the battlefield. Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian general in charge of the Quds Force, insisted on following his own agenda in the battlefield and not adhering to the US agenda or even the vision of the allies. This is meant to be a victory for him and Iran.

Of course, such developments have created obvious cracks, which will deepen within the international and regional coalition, firstly with regards to the US, UK and France's opinion of a relationship with Iran and the fate of Bashar al-Assad, and secondly between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US.

But most importantly, and most dangerously, the current process will not serve the strategy of breaking the connection and communication between the Sunni community and IS. In fact, it is strengthening this relationship and handing IS propaganda credibility.

Perhaps the allies and opponents of IS are aware of this problem and perhaps they are completely aware of the significance of the current involvement. But the dilemma they are talking about has, from the outset, represented one of the biggest weaknesses of the international coalition. It is manifested in the lack of a strong and active Sunni party on the ground that could truly be relied on in the fight against IS, whether in Iraq or Syria.

This reading, however, ignores the fact that the Iraqi government, supported operationally by Iranian forces, does not want and perhaps even fears arming and empowering Sunnis to fight IS as there is a serious lack of trust between the two sides. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that the previous international discourse about the Sunni military role in fighting IS, was neither realistic nor logical in light of the circumstances of the current situation and for various reasons such as the Sunni community's lack of trust in the Iraqi government and its fragmentation.

Moreover, there is also the tragedy of the Sunni elites participating in the political process as it looks like they have been isolated by both the Iraqi government on the one hand and the majority of the Sunni community outside of Baghdad on the other hand.

So what is the solution?

It is now necessary to think about an idea that was previously silenced and not up for discussion or consideration; namely, dialogue with IS. More specifically, a dialogue with some of the elements within this organisation that can relate more to the Sunni crisis, and the existential concerns of which they are conscious, than to the religious and intellectual ideologies that the IS promotes.

There is an important element within the military and security organisation of the group whose priority is Iraqi Sunnis. Perhaps this alliance could be weakened through indirect negotiations with members of IS who have suffered marginalisation, exclusion and starvation by virtue of the fact that they were members of the former Iraqi army. This applies to a large section of people, and they are the key to finding an alternative to IS.

Some might believe that this option is unrealistic but dismantling IS and analysing its different components and distinguishing between them is one of the most important weapons in dealing with the organisation. This is a strategy that essentially differs from what the US author, David Ignatius, previously referred to as "dirty weapons". He said that US officials have started using propaganda and psychological warfare by creating conflict between members arriving from abroad and Iraqis within the organisation.

The Iraqi government does not want and perhaps even fears arming and empowering Sunnis to fight the IS.

That short-sighted and superficial vision is not the missing strategy we are talking about. Rather, it is a deeper vision based on the goal of actually dismantling IS on the ground, by grasping the nature of the organisation and its components and dynamics, and reaching the flexible Iraqi military wing and negotiating with it to present political solutions and a convincing strategy, a strategy the US continued to be hesitant about with regards to the Taliban, and then finally adopted when it was too late.

The secret of IS power is its bedrock of Sunni support. And what is happening now in Iraq is not weakening the relationship between the organisation and the Sunni core, but rather consolidating and strengthening it. At the end of the day, this will lead to a vicious cycle of conflict.

It goes without saying, this kind of weapon requires a fundamental condition that does not exist at the moment: namely, a real political horizon, and an agreement on a required political solution. This is something that would not be easy for Iran and its allies to accept, unless there was a regional balance and another strong player sat at the table and declared its conditions to support the political-military solution.

This is where the importance of the current Saudi-Iranian rapprochement comes in, which has developed slowly and hesitantly, and is still fragile and vulnerable, but regionally it could represent an important key to setting Iraq back on track.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.