- - Wednesday, April 17, 2019


ISIS is defeated in Iraq, but the root causes that allowed many Sunni Iraqis to support that group of religious fanatics remain.

If those festering problems are not addressed, there will be another insurgency that — if not controlled — could lead to regional conflict. The governing elites of the Shiite majority have doubled down on the repression of the less than 30 percent of the population that is Sunni. The Shiites may not realize it as yet, but those Sunni grievances are a ticking time bomb.

ISIS will continue to attempt to wage a guerrilla war, but its chances of posing a serious threat to Iraq are minimal. An insurgency needs three things to be successful.

First, it needs to have achievable goals. The ISIS objective of sparking an apocalyptic worldwide Sunni-Shiite war was unpalatable to the vast majority of Sunnis. Second, it needs — if not the active support — the tolerance of the target population. The desperate Sunnis who turned to ISIS as a champion were soon disillusioned and sickened by ISIS barbarianism; they will not fall for ISIS propaganda again.

Third, a sustainable insurgency needs a sanctuary to provide supplies and for its fighters to rest and regroup when needed. No neighboring Sunni state bordering Iraq in its right mind will provide sanctuary for an insurgency that is as interested in overthrowing that nation’s current government as in killing Shiites. ISIS considers the governments of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Turkey as apostates that need to be overthrown; there will be no sanctuary in those kingdoms.

As ISIS fades, Sunni grievances continue to fester. Most informed observers consider the Sunni Awakening just as important — if not more so — than the Petraeus surge in defeating the post-Saddam al Qaeda in Iraq insurgency. But once the Americans left in 2011, the Shiite dominated Malaki government turned on the Sons of Iraq movement and reversed American brokered promises to the Sunni population.

Post-ISIS, the situation in Iraq’s primarily Sunni provinces has worsened with the presence of Shiite dominated militias, formally called Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). These groups have inflicted victor’s justice on the Sunnis that has crippled reconstruction by letting farms go fallow and allowing in cheap Syrian goods undercutting the local economy. If anything, the Sunni situation is now more dire than in 2014. If a competent insurgent movement ever arises, it will find fertile ground in Sunni-heavy provinces such as Anbar, Salahuddin and Nineveh.

What would a competent Sunni uprising look like? If it were to be successful, such an insurgency would have to be secular in nature and have achievable objectives. The sheiks who are the real power in Sunni Iraq dislike and distrust radical theologians; this is particularly true of the hard-drinking former Baathists who are extremely secular.

The insurgent objectives would have to be limited and nationalistic so as not to threaten the existence of the Shiite elites. These would probably include more local autonomy for all provinces — not just Sunni areas, withdrawal of PMF militias from Sunni-heavy provinces, and an end to predatory product dumping by Shiite allies in Syria and Iran. The last would be supported by Shiite farmers throughout the country.

By keeping the uprising secular, the insurgents would not usurp the prerogatives of tribal leaders, and would not threaten the Shiite, Christian, Yasidi and Turkmen minorities in predominately Sunni areas. The population does not have to be wildly supportive of the insurgency, but it should not be violently opposed to it. Most of Mao’s Chinese “sea of the population” did not actively support his revolutionary army, but enough did to give his insurgents shelter and support.

If the insurgents were to act diplomatically, they could likely obtain tacit — if not complicit — sanctuary from Jordan and/or Saudi Arabia if they refrain from threatening the governing elites of those kingdoms as ISIS does.

If a Sunni insurgent movement would confine its attacks to Popular Mobilization Forces militias, only fighting the regular army when attacked, and signals that it doesn’t pose an existential threat to Shiite governing elites, it is entirely possible that Baghdad would accept a negotiated settlement that would resolve prime Sunni grievances.

The United States would have a role to play in any such conflict, and that would be as honest broker in any negotiations, and as a hedge against the intervention of regular Iranian force which could trigger a regional Sunni-Shiite conflict.

To date, Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites have been slow learners. But someone has to wise up if the country is to survive.

• Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who served as a special adviser on counter-insurgency to the deputy secretary of Defense and as a civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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