The advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Iraq and corresponding events, along with ISIS’s effective use of social media, have given rise to narratives across the world of media. Some of those narratives are thoughtless overreactions to the sudden appearance of ISIS on the world stage, a story that has been all to easy to sensationalize. Not surprisingly, among those emerging narratives are serious misconceptions about ISIS and the current context of Iraq and the region.
As part of its mission, the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC) seeks to promote a greater understanding of Iraq and build a better relationship between Americans and Iraqis. With that in mind, we’d like to identify the top 10 misconceptions of the current crisis in Iraq.
Misconception #1: Iraq’s disintegration is a foregone conclusion
If you’ve picked up a newspaper you’ve seen articles and op-ed’s using the word “disintegration.” Others, like this week’s Time Magazine Cover, proclaim “The End of Iraq.” There’s no doubt that the situation in Iraq is serious and requires urgent action. Yet, articles predicting Iraq’s demise overstate the current situation. A significant risk exists, but the spectre of Iraq’s disintegration has not yet arrived.
While sectarian tensions are rising, hope for national reconciliation through political action is still possible. On June 17, well recognized Shia members of parliament and prominent Sunnis met in an effort to bridge sectarian divides. Although the meetings have yet to yield concrete results, it signals the willingness of large segments within Iraq for potential reconciliation, as well as a government that has not abandoned dialogue.
There’s still hope in Iraq that the situation can be resolved. Given the right pressure on Maliki, with the help of the international community, Iraq may be brought back from the brink.
Misconception # 2: This is purely an Iraq vs. ISIS conflict
The ISIS vs. Iraqi government, is an oversimplified assessment of the situation. Numerous militias surround both players, making the current situation in Iraq complicated and fluid.
The Sunni militants are not a single group or solely ISIS, but rather a coalition. ISIS is joined by several Sunni groups, including Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN), Jaish al Mujahideen, Jammat Ansar al-Islam, Al-Jaish al-islami fil Iraq and numerous tribes. While the groups appear united in their push against Maliki’s government, interests beyond such a goal vary.
The side fighting against ISIS may be equally numerous and complicated. The Iraq military military is joined by scads of Shia militias and the Peshmerga. Among the Shia groups Badr, The Sadrist Promised Day Brigade and Asai’b Ahl al-Haq are perhaps the most prominent. Much like the Sunni coalition, militias in this grouping have a variation of political interests and goals in the conflict.
Cohesion between groups and their coordination will likely be perplexing processes throughout the crisis. The continuing conflict will not be a simple 1-on-1 match-up, but rather a dynamic environment of clashes and partnerships.
Misconception #3: They have been killing each other for thousands of years and will do so for thousands more.
Statements like, “they have been killing each other for thousands of years,” make simple and perhaps dangerous assumptions of the war. The narrative makes an essentialist assumption that because someone comes from a particular community, they are bound to act in a particular way. In this assumption Sunnis and Shias are doomed to fight one another. The argument unfortunately ignores the political factors that precipitated in the crisis and the political solutions that may bring it to an end.
There’s no dispute that a sectarian dimension exists to the conflict, with tensions rising upon the news that one of the Shia militias executed Sunni Imam Nihab al-Jibouri and two of his aides. The event comes at a time when other concerning sectarian trends are occurring including the partnership of ISIS with Baathist and Sunni tribes, threats towards Shias and their holy sites, the upsurge in Shia militant mobilization, Iran’s presence and mass executions of suspected government workers in Mosul. There’s no denying the critical sectarian dimension of this conflict and the implications it has on its resolutions, however this is not the culmination of over a thousand years of hatred.
The sectarian dimension present in the conflict is the result of political problems facing Iraq. Throughout his past two terms, Nouri al-Maliki’s policies have raised sectarian tensions throughout the countries, as many Sunnis faced marginalization faced by Shias under Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. Much of the ISIS support came from Sunnis marginalized by the local police and military in Mosul and northern Iraq. Favoritism for Shias and authoritarian policies have been a key story in the leadup to the crisis.
Unfortunately, those caught between extremes are often forgotten in conflict. For the 11,000 ISIS members that vow to destroy Shia holy sites, there are millions who choose not to fight. For every group that chooses to execute an Imam, there are more that seek national reconciliation. Groups like the Initiative of Iraqi Intellectuals for the Unity of Iraq and trending twitter hashtags like #NO2ISIS, indicate a widespread group of Iraqis that desire peaceful reconciliation. When we simply call this a sectarian conflict, we take away power from those caught in between.
Sunnis are not doomed to fight Shia. There are those that push against sectarianism amongst civil society and religious leadership. In assuming that these groups have natural tendencies to fight, we simplify complex events.
Misconception #4: Videos of Sunnis celebrating ISIS’s arrival show the groups popularity
The celebration of some Sunnis on the arrival of ISIS, generated a perception among many that the group was popular and Sunnis would soon rally around it. This is incorrect. Many have fled that cities that were attacked by ISIS and those that celebrated their arrival cited their discontent with the regime and the marginalization of Sunni groups.
In the meantime ISIS has taken steps to win the hearts and minds of the local population. In the Atlantic Monthly, Aaron Zelin highlights the “soft-power governing strategy” the group has used in previous towns, including a food kitchen in Raqa. It is possible that as life goes on in cities like Mosul, the harsh reality of life under ISIS may undermine the initial support they received from marginalized Sunnis.
Misconception #5: ISIS is unstoppable.
ISIS is a challenge. The seizure of Mosul boosted key funding and military resources for the group, which demonstrated talents in tactics, commitment and strategy. In rapidly capturing Mosul, Tikri, and Kirkuk, ISIS projected itself as an unstoppable force.
Despite its initial success, there are reasons to believe the group can be stopped. First, ISIS consists of 11,000 fighters in all of Iraq and Syria; a military preponderance 1/3 of the Kurdish Peshmerga and 1/25 of Iraq’s armed forces. Its takeover of Mosul primarily resulted from military absence, which would have outnumbered the invading militias 40:1. Secondly, with its limited size the group will have trouble holding its vast territory. Some think that ISIS may be overextended and will have trouble holding the territories it has taken. Finally, its success is not solely the result of ISIS action. Charles Lister notes that success may be contingent on the ability of ISIS to maintain strong relationships with other Sunni groups. As discussed in an article by Tim Arango, some of the groups have stronger roots to the local communities and serious ideological differences. These relationships will likely become more fragile if ISIS needs to hold territory.
Not only is the group vulnerable, but the Peshmerga and Iraq military have shown signs of their ability to hold off ISIS advances near their key territories. Iraq’s military forces have been able to control Samarra and the Peshmerga showed similar abilities after moving into Kirkuk. With a largely Shia populated surrounding the area, its unlikely that Baghdad and the surrounding area will fall. Recent developments indicate that the group can be stopped. Yet defeating the group will require political reconciliation and international support.
Misconception #6: People are only fleeing because of ISIS
After the incursion of ISIS into Mosul, we witnessed a mass exodus of over half a million displaced persons. Many reports attributed the movement to a fear of ISIS and life under the extremist militants. While one only has to look at the rules of conduct set by the extremist militant groups, it’s the potential reprisal of Nouri Al-Maliki’s government that’s driving some away.
What kind of military action would the Iraqi military likely take? The military made use of ‘barrel bombs’ and other indiscriminate munitions on residential neighborhoods in the Fallujah area early in may, according to a Human Rights Watch report. A recurrence of such tactics is likely, a fact recognized by some who chose to flee Mosul and other cities controlled by ISIS.
Its unlikely airstrikes from the United States would yield different humanitarian consequences. Although targeting ISIS militants along highways and some of their supply lines would be very effective, much of ISIS is based in populated urban centers. Without adequate intelligence on the ground, drone strikes would likely prove both inefficient and indiscriminate.
Misconception #7: This is a purely military problem
A typical viewpoint of the situation understands the crisis as a military problem with military solutions. Military support for Iraq’s government may solve the short-term fight against such an Islamist group. Yet such action treats symptoms and fails to serve as a cure.
The rise and success of ISIS and its partner groups is a manifestation of the larger political challenges facing Iraq. The ability of ISIS to gain support from groups like JRTN and other Sunni militants comes from a legacy of sectarian policies from Maliki’s regime. The Iraqi military’s inability to deal with the militant group is not a problem of troop preponderance or capabilities, but rather a political one. Several accounts attribute the military’s inaction in Mosul to such sectarian policies, as Sunni military personnel simply did not want to fight. Without political reconciliation and reform, sectarian divisions will continue to exist, hampering the country’s ability to prevent such militant groups from emerging.
Drone strikes and military assistance will not be enough to end the crisis. Political reform that strengthens democratic institutions and ends authoritarian and sectarian policies will be the ultimate solution to a persistent crisis.
Misconception #8: The blame falls on the Withdrawal
Statements made by US elected officials unfortunately focus on one question; Who’s to blame? Members of the GOP attack the Obama administration, citing its withdrawal and failure to negotiate an adequate Standing Forces Agreement with Iraq. While there is blame to be placed on the Obama administration, the withdrawal blame game is problematic for several reasons.
First, it neglects the previous reckless actions of the Bush administration that have contributed to the crisis. While the initial invasion and decision to invade may have been the biggest blunder (although there were plenty pushing for it across the political spectrum), the administrations actions after the invasion helped form a country with weak institutions. The most prominent example is Paul Bremer’s decision to dissolve the Iraqi military and purge Baath Party members from their civilian posts. In doing so, the Bush administration eliminated the strongest remaining institutions of the Iraqi regime.
Secondly, the focus on withdrawal neglects other blunders made during the Obama administration. In a Foreign Affairs article written in 2012, Ned Parker argues that Washington and the Obama administration abandoned a commitment to securing democratic principles in favor for “… securing its long-term strategic relationship with Baghdad, especially with the prime minister, so that it could more easily withdraw forces.” More than the withdrawal itself, it was a failure to shore up key democratic institutions and principles and precipitous cuts to foreign aid, These are things the Education for Peace in Iraq Center called for back in November 2013 when it sounded the alarm of an impending crisis.
Finally, the withdrawal blame game, along with its counterpart the invasion blame game, fail to acknowledge a deeper responsibility we have as a country regardless of administration. There’s plenty of blame to share. Unfortunately, seeking an answer of Who’s to blame? replaces constructive dialogue on what the US response towards the crisis should be.
Misconception # 9: Iran’s presence in Iraq is a new development
On June 13, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iran sent two cadres of its Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). While the event was well reported, many took the news as a new incursion into Iraq from Ayatollah Khamenei’s special forces. While there are reasons to be concerned with the country’s influence, it is not new.
Michael Eisenstadt notes that since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran has attempted to increase their influence in Iraq, particularly among the Sadrists and other Shia groups. Although Iran holds some political, trade and religious influence in the country, its proxies will likely be its most influential asset in the crisis.
Several months before the Iraq crisis, Iran’s proxies recruited fighters, showing an increased militant presence in the country. Phillip Smyth of the Washington Institute notes that “Iran’s proxies—including Kataib Hezbollah (KH) and Asaib Ahl al-Haqq (AAH)—had already redeployed some of their forces fighting in Syria back to Iraq. Extensive evidence shows that these proxy groups have been recruiting fighters for Iraq and that such recruits are working closely with the Iraqi army and Internal Security Forces (ISF).” Not only are these proxies in Iraq, but they are very much in the thick of the crisis.
Misconception #10: The US has no role to play
For a war weary nation, the phrases, “We’ve done our part”, “It’s their fight” and “It’s not in the US interests to get involved in such a war” have become common place. Many have turned towards new era of isolationism towards Iraq. While the situation is sensitive given escalating sectarian tensions and American weariness of re-engagement with Iraq, the United States can play an important role in the crisis.
While further military action is debated, the US should continue to increase their humanitarian commitment to the current crisis, articulate a long term strategy for Iraq and push for political reconciliation and reform. As stated by the Obama administration and recommended from the commentators likes of Marc Lynch and Kenneth Pollack, the US can perhaps use military assistance as leverage to drive political reforms. While the debate rages on regarding the use of military action or who’s to blame, one thing should be clear; the United States is not absent from a key role in the crisis.
What can we do to combat the Top 10 Misconceptions?
These misconceptions can induce paralysis; pushing individuals to disengage from Iraq and its current crisis. Yet, by combating these ideas, we understand the impact we can play in its resolution. We encourage you to continue learning about Iraq and its current situation, donate to organizations helping those throughout this humanitarian crisis and finally be a key political advocate for Iraqis in pushing your communities and countries for greater assistance.
Mark Abman is the primary researcher and contributor to the article. Follow him on Twitter @AbmanM