The dysfunctional alliance in Iraq
After losing a quarter of the territory it seized in Iraq less than a year ago and with its founder-leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, put out of action in an American air raid, the self-styled Islamic State (ISIS) might be thought to be on the run.
That would be to underestimate not only the remaining strength of the jihadists, but also the bitter divisions among the disparate forces ranged against them.
The state players and factions opposing ISIS in Iraq constitute less a united coalition than a collection of bitter rivals that appear more intent on preventing each other gaining an advantage than they are on confronting the common enemy.
This background of enmity means that potential allies constantly challenge each other’s motives and even accuse rivals of conspiring with insurgents.
The only common ground is that all the anti-ISIS players claim to support the territorial integrity of the Iraqi state, although their actions invariably indicate that sectarian interests, rather than national unity, take precedence.
It is worth reviewing the line-up of this dysfunctional non-alliance.
First comes the national government in Baghdad headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, successor of the power-hungry Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia sectarian whose violent suppression of Sunni dissent is seen as having contributed to driving large numbers of Sunnis into the arms of ISIS.
Al-Abadi, also a Shia, has attempted to portray himself as a non-sectarian leader. However, when this has involved wooing the Kurds and potential Sunni tribal allies with promises of more weapons to combat ISIS, he has faced a backlash from Shia hard-liners like Maliki.
He can boast that Tikrit has been liberated on his watch, but that was done to a great extent by Shia militias who stand accused of widespread bloody reprisals against Sunnis.
Post-Tikrit, Al-Abadi and the official armed forces will need all the domestic help they can get to push the offensive against ISIS in Anbar province and even towards Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and the insurgents’ stronghold seized in June 2014.
Local Sunnis, however, even if disillusioned by the realities of life in Baghdadi’s “caliphate”, might nevertheless be reluctant to swap jihadist rule for that by Shia militias.
That leaves the Kurds, the other significant Iraqi component in the military fight against ISIS. The peshmerga forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have been at the forefront of reversing the insurgents’ territorial gains in 2014.
However, much of their activity has focused on areas Arabised by Saddam Hussein and disputed with Baghdad. That has given rise to accusations from other Iraqi participants that the Kurds are exploiting the crisis to snatch territory that will be part of a future Kurdish state.
Hence a Republican-sponsored US congressional proposal that Washington should directly arm the Kurds and Sunnis to fight ISIS, if Baghdad fails to do so, prompted a furore this week when Iraq’s Shia-dominated parliament condemned the initiative as a bid to splinter Iraq.
That was nothing compared to the reaction from the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who threatened to revive his supposedly disbanded militias to attack US interests if Congress dared to treat Kurds and Sunnis as independent entities for the purpose of supplying them with weapons.
The Kurds continue to support the concept of a federated Iraqi state but with decreasing commitment given Erbil’s contentious relationship with Baghdad. Kurdish President Masoud Barzani was in Washington for talks expected to touch on enhanced rights for the Kurds.
The US administration, despite Iraqi accusations it is conspiring to break up the country, has in fact done its best to dampen Kurdish aspirations for independence.
If relations between the various anti- ISIS elements within Iraq are strained, then the divisions among the outside states involved are even more tenuous.
The United States and Iran both have a stake in confronting the insurgents and are ostensibly fighting on the same side. But suspicion rather than cooperation is the hallmark of an anti-ISIS campaign that has included both US air raids and Iranian-directed ground operations. Although Washington could argue that the air campaign it leads has provided a turning point against ISIS, many Iraqis continue to believe that ISIS is a creature of America and its allies.
In a revealing comment to America’s PBS radio, Major Jameel Hameed Khatim of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a Shia militia, said of ISIS: “The expertise is British, the intelligence is Jewish and the weapons are American. The Islamic State attacks are part of a British plan.” For every Major Khatim, of course, there is an analyst in Washington who will argue that Tehran wants ISIS to survive in Iraq simply to justify Iranian intervention there.
With this level of distrust and mutual paranoia among the enemies of ISIS, it might be premature to write off the caliphate.