The ‘Caliphate’ is on its last legs, but don’t assume what comes next is better.
During his inaugural address, President Trump reiterated, albeit more politely than during his campaign, one of his key policies – eradicating ISIS ‘from the face of the earth’. With the Department of Defense due to report back on their strategy next week, all eyes are on the plan to defeat ISIS. However, with Raqqa encircled and cut off and half of their biggest city, Mosul, liberated, ISIS is feeling the squeeze. We are already witnessing the last days of the ‘Caliphate’, but what happens next could be worse.
The formal ISIS ‘Caliphate’ is set to be destroyed. That was always going to be the case, it was inevitable from the moment ISIS declared war on anyone not in ISIS. However, with Sunni Arab frustration at boiling point, unprecedented Sunni-Shiite polarisation in the region, and a political landscape still ripe for an extremist narrative, the anti-ISIS coalition needs to anticipate and prevent the next Sunni insurgency – a goal that remains a whole lot more elusive.
Over the last decade, multiple anti-government organisations have competed to champion the Sunni cause, harness their discontent, and facilitate a full insurgency. Chief among these competitors in recent years is ISIS, rebranded from al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN) was another group that harnessed protest movements in order to stoke its own insurgency. JRTN, a neo-Baathist insurgent group made up mostly of Saddam-era Iraqi Army Officers, infused the anti-government protest movement with revolutionary rhetoric and traditional Baathist branding. Initially, JRTN supported the rise of ISIS because ISIS could further the anti-government cause, but this came to an end likely by the autumn of 2014 at which point ISIS began to brutally marginalize and suppress JRTN. ISIS’s military dominance forced JRTN to go to ground.
Contemporary U.S.-led Coalition operations to degrade and disrupt ISIS in 2017 may unlock the Sunni insurgency that began before ISIS’ dominance in the region. This outcome will transpire if conditions are not set to help Sunni Arabs in Iraq to address their original and mounting grievances. The U.S. and Iraqi Governments have been unable to address these grievances in 2016, as the Prime Minister Haider-al-Abadi government faces continued pressure from sectarian and militia leaders to maintain the Shiite-dominated Status Quo. There’s no doubt this leadership has furthered Sunni distrust in the government and reinforced feelings of injustice and discrimination. The origins of the crisis run deep and the issue of Sunni political representation is as acute and explosive as ever.
The resurgence of groups such as JRTN in Iraq has already begun. The campaign of rhetoric is underway. Criticising both ISIS and the Iraqi government, JRTN seeks to demonstrate they are the best champion for Sunnis in Iraq. Reports have also suggested that JRTN is setting conditions to take immediate advantage of ISIS’ losses in Mosul in order to reclaim the city and its networks. JRTN is systematically critical of ISIS’ methods purely to show itself as a kinder, more reasonable champion for Iraqi Sunnis, indicating that they are positioning themselves to inherit the mantle of Sunni resistance against the government.
Al-Qaida in Syria is also positioning itself to unify disparate Sunni Arab factions in Iraq and gain popular support in the wake of ISIS. AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called on Sunni’s to resist the “crusader” occupation of Iraq and resume “long guerrilla warfare” in a speech in August 2016, indicating AQ’s intent to reinvigorate a Sunni insurgency against the Baghdad government. AQ will no doubt try to build its networks on top of pre-existing cells along the Euphrates River valley in Anbar Province and in Ninawa Province, including Mosul. A recent report by the Institute for the Study of War has warned that ‘Attacks in Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDP) camps, especially in the Euphrates River Valley and Diyala Province, could signal that AQ or JRTN has infiltrated the camps and is seeking recruits.’ It is also likely AQ will try and reach Sunni populations in ungoverned Arab populations by providing religious classes, infrastructure, and utilities if possible, similar to AQAP in the Shabwah province of Yemen. The establishment of new organized groups of Sunni resistance fighters is a likely indicator that an AQ resurgence is underway.
For many groups like AQ and JRTN, opposing ISIS isn’t about saving the nation or the state, it’s an opportunity to reap the political spoils of conflict.
This is important because it is increasingly likely that what comes after ISIS may well be more Sunni militants. Already, other Salafi – or fundamentalist – groups are mopping up defectors. Crucially, Sunni’s still consider themselves the victims in all this. It is a big insult to the Sunni mentality that the Shia, the Kurdish, the Assad regime, Russia and other foreign countries are set to emerge as beneficiaries of the downfall of ISIS. For the future stability of Iraq and Syria, it would have been preferable if moderate Sunni groups had defeated ISIS. This fundamental sense of grievance that has come to define generations of Sunni populations in Iraq and Syria isn’t going to be lessened by the fall of ISIS – its growing. In the words of Rolf Holmboe, a former Danish Ambassador to Syria, “The Sunni insurgency isn’t going anywhere.”
It is now crucial for the Trump administration and the anti-ISIS coalition to prevent this outcome in any way they can. Anti-ISIS operations that do not explicitly factor-in the opportunities for JRTN and AQ will only enable them. Rather than simply focusing on eradicating ISIS, the Trump administration must act robustly to eliminate the political conditions that ensure ISIS, AQ, JRTN and others are able to incubate and recruit.
During the primaries, Trump repeatedly claimed to have a secret, “absolutely foolproof” plan to defeat Isis. This, it turns out, consisted of telling the Pentagon to come up with something. When it does present its plan to the White House, the measures should include three lines of effort directly addressed to preventing another Sunni Insurgency. Firstly, the anti-ISIS coalition must extend programmes to fully prepare the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in counterinsurgency measures, specifically against resurgent groups such as JRTN and AQ. Secondly, it is crucial that the IDP camps surrounding Mosul are secured with proper security forces. Using Shiite militia’s will only further inflame sectarian tensions and facilitate insurgent ideology. Lastly, the Coalition must seek to resolve the underlying political conditions that allow insurgent ideologies to take root. This includes both Iraq and Syria making credible commitments towards Sunni Arab inclusion.
Now is make-or-break time for Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria. Under intensifying pressure from government forces and with dwindling faith in a political solution, many Sunni Arabs have concluded their only realistic option is a violent conflict. The Trump administration must promote a strategy that convinces Sunni Arabs that that option isn’t necessary.
Trump has come into office impatient to finish off the ISIS Jihadi’s, but this time, the White House can’t afford to wrongly prioritise the narrow, short-term military objective of eliminating ISIS. The new strategy to be announced next week by the Pentagon better be a whole lot more than ‘bombing the s*** out of ISIS’, for all our sakes.