Beyond The Islamic State: Iraq's Sunni Insurgency
By: Sinan Adnan with Aaron Reese
The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) is not the only violent group opposed to the government of Iraq. Groups ranging from Salafist-jihadist to Sunni nationalist have also been mobilized against Baghdad since at least 2013. They remain a threat to the government even if ISIS is removed, especially if the core concerns of Iraqi Sunnis remain unaddressed by the Iraqi government. The primary grievances of most Iraqi Sunnis include the integration of Shi‘a militias into the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), attacks by the ISF in Sunni civilian areas, and political exclusion in Baghdad.
This anti-government mobilization developed months before the fall of Mosul to ISIS in June 2014. Most of the current anti-government groups had been active during the Sunni insurgency following the fall of Saddam Hussein. The militancy of these groups and their prominence declined as Sunni political participation increased in 2009 and 2010. After the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, Maliki’s political marginalization of Sunni leaders and sectarian command of the Iraqi Security Forces spurred an anti-government protest movement, primarily in Sunni areas such as Anbar and Salah ad-Din. The protest movements spawned an organized, overt militant opposition to the Iraqi government after the Iraqi Security Forces killed civilians while attempting to clear a protest camp in Hawija in April 2013. The armed Sunni rebellion fostered the conditions in Fallujah and Mosul that ISIS exploited to capture the cities in January and June 2014, respectively.
Some of these groups, particularly the General Military Council of Iraqi Revolutionaries (GMCIR), have cooperated with ISIS in its campaign to expel the ISF from parts of Iraq. Nevertheless, most of them do not share ISIS’s long-term objectives for Iraq. Each group has come into direct confrontation with ISIS in 2014. Some of these groups may turn and fight ISIS, but the Iraqi government will not find them an acceptable partner because they oppose the Shi’a government in Baghdad. In fact, where ISIS is degraded by military action, these groups may seek to fill the vacuum and continue to challenge the ISF for control of Iraq’s Sunni heartland.
These groups vary in capability. Not every group is capable of mounting effective attacks, and not every group maintains widespread influence. Among the most capable are the General Military Council of Iraqi Revolutionaries, which is Ba‘athist aligned, and Ansar al-Islam. Both groups represent long-term threats to the Iraqi state. Even the smaller groups, though, disrupt ISF operations and make them vulnerable to better-equipped groups like the GMCIR, Ansar al-Islam, and ISIS. Should the Iraqi Security Forces launch ground assaults into Sunni areas that are currently under ISIS’s control, they will likely meet with armed resistance by these groups, which will likely prioritize the fight against the Iraqi state over the fight against ISIS.
The success of a ground war against ISIS in Iraq depends upon the Sunni population. This population, mostly behind the ISIS control line, is more proximate to the influence of ISIS and Sunni insurgent groups than to the Iraqi state or the U.S.-led counter-ISIS coalition. A strategy to destroy ISIS requires that these competing influences be outmatched to such a degree that the Sunni population once more decides to side with the Iraqi government to fight ISIS on behalf of the state. This will likely be the most difficult requirement for the counter-ISIS campaign.
Lack of national-level Sunni leadership feeds support for local insurgent groups. Many Sunni political leaders on the national stage lost credibility with the population during the protest movement, during which a number sought political accommodations with the Maliki government. Many of these national figures no longer effectively represent the Sunni population, as the 2014 parliamentary elections demonstrated. Inclusion of these national figures will not likely bring the wider Sunni population behind the government in Baghdad. Rather, a political accommodation in Baghdad that appeals to Iraq’s Sunni population is essential in order to mend this critical vulnerability of the Iraqi state permanently. Without this, the Sunni population will more likely oppose than welcome an Iraqi-led military campaign to retake Iraq’s cities from ISIS. Presently, the Sunni population living under ISIS control is disconnected from Sunni national politics, and this separation must also be overcome in order for Iraq to survive. A military campaign to destroy ISIS that does not treat this condition will accelerate Iraq’s descent into a sectarian civil war.