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Defeating ISIS solves nothing without a political solution

The well-meaning current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has so far utterly failed to bring the long-suffering Sunnis in from the political cold

Dr. John C. Hulsman

Published: Updated:

Conventional wisdom would have you believe that things are looking up in the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As of the end of May, the caliphate has lost 46 percent of its territory in Iraq and 16 percent in Syria, according to the Pentagon - a faster collapse than American officials had thought possible.

The battle to retake Fallujah is underway, and even the regional capital Mosul and the overall ISIS capital Raqqa are under threat. Surely this is cause for celebration? As ever in the Middle East, if only it was that easy.

When it comes to the seemingly intractable crisis in Iraq especially, a comforting but wholly untrue Western narrative has taken hold: the chaos that has laid low this plucky but overmatched state is entirely the fault of the world’s most obvious Bond villain - ISIS.

This fairy tale has things back to front. ISIS is a disease, a symptom that feeds on the inherent weaknesses of both Iraq and Syria, but it is not the cause of the dysfunction. In the case of Iraq, the snake in the garden is the inherently unstable nature of the state itself, an artificial construct brought into being to suit short-sighted British imperial interests in the 1920s.

Until then, the Ottomans had sensibly enough divided the area into three provinces: a Kurdish-dominated north, a Sunni province in Baghdad, and a Shiite province in Basra. This roughly corresponded to political legitimacy on the ground, and worked well enough. The British, in forcing into a single country three groups with no historical record of coexisting, created the unworkable mess the rest of us have been dealing with ever since.

ISIS is a disease, a symptom that feeds on the inherent weaknesses of both Iraq and Syria, but it is not the cause of the dysfunction

Dr. John C. Hulsman

Leadership failure

The well-meaning current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has so far utterly failed to bring the long-suffering Sunnis in from the political cold. While promising in Feb. 2015 that the Sunni militias fighting their coreligionists in ISIS would be integrated into the country’s military, Iraq’s Shiite-dominated parliament has opposed this and the arming of Sunni fighters, so nothing has actually happened.

Even if ISIS is eradicated, Iraq will not exist as a real country, and Sunni radicalism will not be quelled, until the Shiite leadership in Baghdad makes real policy moves to confederalize the country to fit the ethnoreligious political realities on the ground.

There is no sign of this happening, as Abadi is unable to even pass largely technocratic reforms designed to limit the scourge of corruption, a policy that ought to be a no-brainer. To confederalize the country, to follow the seemingly counter-intuitive policy of giving up real power at the center in order to strengthen and save Iraq as a functioning entity, seems a task and a level of political imagination well beyond its present leaders.

If this proves to be the case, defeating ISIS does not matter strategically at all. The weakness of the Iraqi state, coupled with its Shiite chauvinist tendencies, doom the region to further radicalization of Iraqi Sunnis.

As happened after the ‘destruction’ of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS will merely reappear, perhaps in an even more virulent form. This is a recipe for endless regional chaos. Only by getting the politics right does the military defeat of ISIS mean anything.

Ultimately, this is a fight that is primarily up to the Iraqi people. No amount of outside help, training, aid, trade, loans, guns, advice, or even the destruction of ISIS changes the uncomfortable reality that unless the Shiite leadership remakes the politics of the country along sustainable lines, the rest of us are all largely wasting our time.

No one doubts that ISIS has acted diabolically, but that is not the point. Analysts have failed to look at why Iraq and Syria were so ripe to be taken advantage of in the first place. These endemic, intractable problems - not the presence of aggressive forces in the world - is what will doom them to weakness at best, and chaos at worst, even if ISIS disappears. We must be careful not to support countries that have no desire to help themselves.

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Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has given 1500 interviews, written over 510 articles, prepared over 1280 briefings, and delivered more than 470 speeches on foreign policy around the world.

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