Why the U.S. could fail again in Iraq

From the standpoint of many Sunni Arabs, any American attempt to differentiate between the moderates and extremists is the epitome of political hypocrisy

Dr. Naser al-Tamimi
Dr. Naser al-Tamimi
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With the expansion of U.S. strikes against ISIS targets, the Middle East is moving rapidly towards a new military campaign which could last for years and the people of the region are watching the developments very closely with great concerns. It is clear that the American strategy focused primarily on beating ISIS in Iraq, but the strategy also implicates an effort to cut the supply lines from Syria and expand the fighting fronts in an attempt to give the Iraqi forces the opportunity to progress and regain the initiative.

However, developments in Iraq do not bode well, and the U.S. military campaign may contribute to rising popularity of ISIS. Indeed, we can say that the American campaign may fail or suffer great setbacks which may embarrass the Obama administration.

There are many indicators that demonstrate this matter. The issue of Iraq’s political representation, which reflects the aspirations of millions of Sunni Arabs, and the allocation of economic resources for the reconstruction of their areas, is still unresolved. Despite repeated assertions to Obama's administration about the need for the formation of an Iraqi government that reflects the aspirations of all, the situation on the ground indicates all changes that have occurred were just cosmetic in the eyes of many Iraqis, the Sunnis in particular.

Or as Francis Fukuyama and Karl Eikenberry bluntly state in the Financial Times: "Washington lacks the tools to bring about a political settlement that would instill real democracy in Syria or good governance in Iraq."

It seems that the United States has limited the political reform to the issue of replacing the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, with some small concessions to the Sunni politicians whose political influence is confined within the Green Zone only. To make matters worse, with the floundering Iraqi army and its weak performance, the influence of these militias has begun to grow and affect all vital organs of the Iraqi state. Even more worrying, the rule of the militias will be further enhanced as it will take time for the Iraqi government to organize the army, consequently exacerbate the fears of the Sunni Arabs more than ever.

From the standpoint of many Sunni Arabs, any American attempt to differentiate between the moderates and extremists is the epitome of political hypocrisy

Dr. Naser al-Tamimi

The other puzzle in America's strategy is creating the so-called Iraqi National Guard. Many of Sunni Arabs leaders are skeptical of America's intentions and believe it is a prelude to the division of Iraq. Perhaps talk about the creation of a national guard of Sunni Arabs is easier said than done. Indeed, the devil is in the details: what is the timetable to establish this new force? Who will train, fund and oversee their leadership? Will it be independent or affiliated with the Iraqi Ministry of Defense? Above all, what are the weapons that will be owned by this guard?

Intentions matter

Here we can say, if the new National Guard is to be established along the lines of the "Awakening" or Sahwat, there is no doubt it will be a failure from the start. However, if the intention is to set up new force with real power on the ground, the strong opposition may come from Shiite parties more than the Sunnis. Perhaps most importantly, the presence of the so-called National Guard under any form will without any doubts legitimizes the presence of armed Shiite militias. It's obvious that the Sunni Arabs do not trust the Americans or the Iraqi government alike, as the experience of the "Awakening" is still alive and fresh in the minds of most of them.

The other key issue worrying Sunnis Arab is the increasing activities of Shiite militias. While the United States is talking consistently about ISIS’s atrocities, Shiite militias are reportedly also carrying out violence against Sunni Arabs, especially in areas such as Diyala and Kirkuk provinces.

Additionally, the Sunnis accuse the Shiite militias of burning their shops, houses and farms as this was evident in places like Amerli (where the American planes gave air cover for Shiite militias and the Kurdish Peshmerga) and Ouja, the hometown of the late President Saddam Hussein in Tikrit. This situation is not a recipe for stability, but on the contrary, it will without any doubts rally the Sunni Arabs around the armed groups because the alternative is much worse.

The economic dimension

Another vital matter largely ignored by the Western media is the economic strangulation of many Sunnis areas, mass arrests and alleged torture by the Iraqi forces and Shiite militias. This situation is reportedly accompanied with Iraqi planes bombarding residential areas and daily shelling. These actions must be condemned and stopped, because it will complicate the situation and widen support for ISIS.

The economic side also has a great significance that cannot be ignored. ISIS currently provides many services for the poor and there are reportedly hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs who have become dependent on ISIS for their daily lives and jobs. All we hear is about is military escalations without providing any plans or details about the political and economic solutions, or how to provide reconstruction, homes and compensation for the millions of those vulnerable people. This is another recipe for increasing resentment and supporting the insurgency among the Sunni Arabs.


All this coincides with a general feeling among Sunnis Arab that they have become the targets of many around the world. Perhaps Obama's current policies towards Palestine, Syria and Yemen reinforce this feeling more strongly.

From the standpoint of many Sunni Arabs, any American attempt to differentiate between the moderates and extremists is the epitome of political hypocrisy. They recently witnessed moderate Sunni Islamist movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt who came to power legally and through the ballot box, crushed without mercy or sympathy. On the other hand, they see the West move decisively to strike ISIS, without dealing with the roots of legitimate Sunni grievances.

Ultimately, Obama says that the war against ISIS will be long and may take several years. Of course the United States and most countries in the alliance have the luxury to wait, but for many of the Sunni Arabs in Iraq they have waited long enough and now have nothing to lose. Such sentiments are dangerous.

Dr Naser al-Tamimi is a UK-based Middle East analyst, and author of the forthcoming book “China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance?” He is an Al Arabiya regular contributor, with a particular interest in energy politics, the political economy of the Gulf, and Middle East-Asia relations. The writer can be reached at: Twitter: @nasertamimi and email: [email protected]

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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