Dr. Amatzia Baram's picture
A way ahead in Iraq & Syria
Posted on Nov 19, 2015

“IS” cannot be defeated as long as it controls territory that can produce large revenue and serve as base for operations – it has the Iraqi-Syrian desert that is providing them with some $1.5m per day worth of oil, in addition to ransom, an endless supply of archeological items and a few million Islamic tax (zakat, kharaj, ‘ushr) payers.

They are probably the richest Islamic terrorist organization in history, richer even than the dreaded Assassins of Alamut Mountain, who terrorized the Islamic world and the Crusaders between the 11th and 13th centuries.

So, what does the French president’s announcement that “France is at war” mean?

An enhanced air campaign without ground troops will take years to destroy “IS”. In the meantime, they can wreak havoc in the West. And yet the reluctance to send ground forces to eradicate “IS” is understandable. While military victory can be achieved quickly, controlling this vast area is another thing altogether.

Rather than liberation, most Sunni Muslims will see the invasion as a pro-Iranian foreign occupation. A Sunni insurgency is therefore to be expected, and for an extended period of time.

Furthermore: can the local population under foreign occupation rise out of the ashes and build a stable and peaceful political system in a brand-new “Syriraq”, devastated and cut-off from the high seas?

It may still be necessary to put Western boots on the ground, but a less drastic and more promising way needs to be tried first.

A sample of the solution is already enfolding in front of our eyes. With Allied air support, the Kurds of Iraq and Syria have already pushed IS out of large swaths of land.

In early November the Iraqi Kurds launched a renewed offensive to drive “IS” out of Sinjar, in Iraq’s north-west. They must be helped much more, but the Kurds do not have the numbers to liberate either of the two countries.

Most of the Sunni-Arab tribes of Iraq and Syria living in “IS”-occupied areas are sitting on the fence, waiting.

They are hostile to “IS” due to its super-extreme interpretation of the Islamic law, very alien to local traditions, but they are also hostile to the Alawite regime in Damascus, to the Shi’i government in Baghdad, and to the Shi’i-Persian overlords in Tehran.

If their expectations are met by the international coalition, they will fight “IS” and win.

A few Iraqi Sunni tribes, like albu-Nimr, albu-Risha and parts of the Jubbur, have already joined the war against “IS.” However, a few others have joined “IS.” The majority, including the two largest tribal federations of Dulaym and Shammar Jarba and many others, are still waiting.

The Sunni Arab tribes of Iraq will require a commitment that the West will guard their rights once “IS” is out of the way.

This will include the right to establish autonomy similar to the Kurdish one in Iraq that will have its own national guard and will receive an equitable share in the Iraqi oil revenues.

Also, most Sunni Arabs of Iraq are demanding to end the 2003 de-Ba`thification laws that de-facto have been used as an anti-Sunni tool.

Due to an Iranian dictate and pressures from some Shi’i-Iraqi militias, Shi’i-hegemonic Baghdad is so far unwilling or unable to accept these demands, and the Iraqi tribes remain on the sidelines.

In Syria, the position of the tribes and clans is more opaque but Syria, too, will most likely become a loose federation if it survives at all. Like the Kurds, the Sunni-Arab tribes in eastern Syria need to be assured that the areas they liberate from “IS” will receive an autonomous status as part of the new Syria.

Tribal support for putting down an insurgency worked well in Iraq. Since early 2007, under General David Petraeus, the US decided to approach the Sunni tribes for cooperation against al-Qa`ida in a systematic way. By early 2009, with the Sunni tribal Awakening (al-sahwah) militia under Shaykh Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha as part of the Surge, the insurgency was defeated. By 2010 however, the tribes and the Sunni community as a whole were left to the mercy of a paranoid, vindictive and bigotted PM Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad.

The result was the resurrection of al-Qa`ida, later “IS.”

Today the tribes are reluctant to stick their necks without Western military support and a clear political commitment for the post-“IS” era.

Even if Baghdad and Tehran object, and so far they do, weapons are needed, and such a diplomatic commitment must be given.

Sunni Arabs, rather than unruly Shi’i militias or Western troops must liberate the Sunni-Arab areas, and now is the time.


Dr. Amatzia Baram is a professor of Middle East History and Director of the Center for Iraq Studies at the University of Haifa.