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Victory or Defeat against Islamic State

by Dr. Otmar Oehring, Joan Domingo
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has expanded its control over areas of northwestern Iraq and northeastern Syria since 2013. The terrorist group’s ideological and organizational roots lie in forces built and led by the late Abu Musab al Zarqawi in Iraq from 2002 till 2006 and Al-Qaeda.

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The IS uses every contemporary mode of messaging to recruit fighters, intimidate enemies and promote its claim to have established a caliphate . The IS has worked to legitimize its vision for a caliphate as laid out in publications such as the English-language magazine Dabiq. The IS believes that it has the duty to govern both the religious and political lives of Muslims, under the leadership of Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al Badri al Samarra’i also known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi . Al-Baghdadi is both the IS’s chief religious official and its senior statesman. The IS sees itself as an all-encompassing entity, one that eventually is meant to shoulder all the responsibilities of a traditional Islamic state . After its informal inception in August/September 2014, an international coalition of the willing started to provide its direct or indirect support for the fight against IS on both the military and logistic level. The IS’ ferocious ways have brought neighboring countries, NATO members and others to fight IS. The Obama administration as the main architect of the alliance, focused on building the coalition on the basis of a nucleus of Muslim member states in the Gulf, including many Sunni Gulf states to fight against the so-called caliphate. Among these Sunni Gulf States are the U.A.E, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar. Domestically, the IS’ brutality also alienated numerous of Iraq’s Sunni leaders, who originally welcomed the group at first, because of fears of Shiite domination. Now, the question still remains whether U.S President Barack Obama can rally the fractious coalition to fight against the IS – including operations and likely losses on the ground when recapturing urban centers of resistance such as Mosul - , and if the Sunni tribes in Iraq can fight alongside the U.S-led coalition.


During the times of Saddam Hussein Iraq had been a highly centralized state dominated by Sunni elites, who adapted policies that considered sub-national identities as a threat. In the aftermath of the US-led invasion Iraq’s conflict and instability were caused by Sunni resistance to the idea of ethno-sectarian power sharing - which required them to be a minority - including the fact that the Iraqi government is Shiite dominated and the Kurds are trying to form their own state within Iraq . This process is shaping the new political system, which caused sectarian tension among the Muslims – both Arabs and Kurds - and the competition for leadership continues. To be clear, in Iraq there are about 16-20 million Arabs, 65-80 percent are Shiites while 20-30 are Sunni Muslims. As for the Kurds, there are about 3.6-4.8 million and the majority of them are Sunnis, about 10 percent are Shiites . The sectarian conflict and competition among the Sunnis and Shiites made it easier for IS to expand its territory in Iraq. Hatred between the Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis could be to the benefit of the IS . However not all Sunnis swore allegiance to the so-called Islamic State.

The Dulaim Tribal Resistance

Tribes have become an increasingly important part of Iraqi society. There are about 150 tribes in Iraq and some are rather large . One of the largest is the Al-Dulaim. It numbers between two and four million and has a powerful social, political and economic force with ties to royal families across the Arab Gulf and Jordan . Just like any tribe it has to have a leader. Al-Dulaim’s leader is Sheikh Ali Hatem Suleiman . Suleiman was one of the leaders of the Sunni revolt in Ramadi, which was in the end of 2013 against former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who -through Sunni eyes- was known for inflaming sectarian tension. And Suleiman was also one of the tribal leaders who helped the U.S defeat Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2006. Fed up of the IS extremism, he was ready to share information with the U.S military regarding the IS’ supply routes, their recruitment efforts and location of some of the hostages back in August 2014 . However, Suleiman wanted the U.S to deal with them directly and not through the Iraqi central government. However, the Obama administration denied them an audience. Mark Al-Salih, a U.S based lobbyist, who lobbies on behalf of Suleiman, expressed that, “These folks are coming with actionable intelligence. The tribes can identify with great accuracy where the IS is, who’s supporting them, how they’re getting their money and even where they sleep at night.” Al-Salih explained that the U.S needs to work with Sunnis that have intelligence on the ground, who are being targeted by the IS and are fighting against them . Some experts believe that conducting airstrikes without proper intelligence or information on the ground can result in causalities, especially civilian causalities, which is what is happening at the moment. Fighting the IS needs professional troops with proper advisors and experience. Air strikes are not enough because warplanes cannot occupy land, soldiers can. What warplanes can do is just strike command areas and cause damage to buildings and civilians but it cannot go behind every terrorist. The U.S-administration explained their side that the reason they are not interested in supporting the Sunnis is, that it would undermine efforts to create a more comprehensive government in Baghdad. Iraqi forces battling to take back Tikrit, which has been under the IS’ control since June 2014, are now in control of the city. U.S aircrafts have bombed other parts of Iraq but avoided Tikrit until March 25th 2015 to avert appearing to be aiding Iranian backed forces . There is an overwhelming number of Shiite militias and volunteers armed and directed by Iran, which has rose fears that their victory would promote sectarian divisions in the majority Sunni city. Arming and helping the Sunnis, who want to fight the IS could help ease this tension However, it is not evident that the U.S are willing to arm and support the Sunnis. With that in mind, the oppression of the Sunnis by the Shiite dominated government is one of the core reasons mobilizing Sunni support for the IS in the first place. If not all Sunnis swore allegiance to the IS this, including the dismissal of the Obama administration, could. This would be the main and initial problem to deal with in order to defeat the IS.

Sunni Alienation

Although the IS has growing support from militants around the world, beyond Syria and Iraq, which boosts its reputation as the leading Jihadist group, on a good note, the IS does not hesitate to dispatch those who refuse to pledge loyalty . The Dulaim and Abu Nimr tribe have been subject to extreme violence by the IS and this type of violence discourages many Sunnis, especially in Iraq, to join its forces. On November 14th 2014, the IS slaughtered more than 300 members of Abu Nimr Sunni tribe, including women and children in the city of Anbar because of their support for the Iraqi government . Some Sunni tribes still believe that they will be able to defeat the IS, but in order to do that the Sunnis must turn against it and help defend Baghdad. That is why some Sunni tribes are forming their own militias, arming themselves, buying weapons from Iraqi soldiers and militia fighters . But while some Sunnis reject the IS’ methods and extremism, only a few turned against them and tried to push them out of their home area. The Sunni revolt against the government has given the IS a great opportunity to convince Sunnis to go against the Shiite dominated government and join their forces. Given this fact, it was reported that the IS was joined by Sunni tribal fighters, members of the Baath Party and the Iraqi army as well as other Sunni residents, despite their disagreement with the IS’ extreme ideology . Thus, the Sunnis allowed the IS to enter and dominate their provinces partly because out of fear of the IS, but greatly out of fear from the Iraqi security forces, which they believe is backed by Shiite groups sponsored and orchestrated by Iran.

U.S in the Coalition

President Obama has authorized the deployment of about 3,100 U.S military personnel to Iraq to advise Iraqi forces, gather intelligence on the IS and secure U.S personnel and facilities . Two thirds of those personnel are advisers and trainers for the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the Peshmerga. Their sole purpose is to address the severe weaknesses in Iraq’s ground forces. However, U.S advisers have come to the conclusion that, only half of all the ISF units are sufficiently capable in order for the U.S to help them regain territories lost to the IS . The word capable in this context, according to U.S officials, includes whether an ISF unit unites both Sunni and Shiite personnel, in which it does not . These personnel are expected to train 12 Iraqi brigades (nine ISF brigades and three Pershmerga brigades) a total of 25,000 personnel. The U.S congress authorized $1.6 billion in funding in regard to the Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in one condition, that foreign contributions equal to 40 percent of the $1.618 billion are contributed (of which half that contributed amount would come from the Iraqi government. ) The Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, is authorized to “provide assistance, including training, equipment, logistics support, supplies and services, stipends, facility and infrastructure repair and renovation, and sustainment, to military and other security forces of or associated with the Government of Iraq, including Kurdish and tribal security forces or other local security forces, with national security mission through December 31, 2016, for the following purposes:

1. Defending Iraq, its people, allies and partner nations from the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and groups supporting ISIL.

2. Securing the territory of Iraq.”

Iraq’s Anbar Province

Anbar, which is overwhelmingly Sunni, is a province that resisted the American invasion in 2003, gave life to the Awakening movement, that fought against Al-Qaeda and held peaceful protests against former Prime Minister Maliki in 2013 before it fell into the hands of the IS in early 2014 . Today, 80 percent of the western province of Anbar is controlled by the IS and the rest is under control of the army or the tribes . The Anbari provincial leadership is trying to ask the U.S to provide them with weapons, training and coordinated air strikes. The Anbaris want to fight against the IS because they can no longer take the IS destroying their homes, hospitals as well as their mass executions. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, who is participating in the airstrikes in the U.S-led coalition, is worried that IS militants might take over the part of Anbar which borders Jordan. Given that fact, King Abdullah adopted a new strategy to support the Iraqi tribes in Anbar in order to help them secure the Iraqi-Jordanian border. Before of the death of Jordanian Pilot Muath Kassasbeh, who was burned alive by IS fighters on January 3rd, Jordan has conducted 20 perent of total airstrikes in the coalition, which is more than the Americans have done. Some Jordanian experts say that it is true that Jordan is in total harmony with the tribes in Anbar but they are not in control and most of the lands in Anbar are vacant lands. Those Anbari leaders, who have left, still receive signals from people in Anbar that they are prepared to fight if provided with weapons and resources. However some analysts believe that even if the tribes were given proper and sophisticated weapons they will not be able to match the IS’ non-traditional tactics and the vast of land IS already controls.

The Iraqi National Guard

On 26 October 2014, current Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi visited Jordan to try and convince Sunni tribal leaders to return from exile and assist in the building of the National Guard. The Anbaris affirm that even though they held a protest against former Prime Minister Maliki, they have a good relationship with the current Prime Minister Abadi. The reason for this is, Abadi wanted to resolve the grievances the Sunnis were feeling in order to win their support. Some of these include, general amnesty for innocent Sunnis caught up in counter guerilla campaigns, a depoliticized justice system, amendments to anti-terror laws, reconstruction of damaged Sunni areas and most importantly, the formation of a National Guard . This was seen by Sunni political figures as a necessary step to achieve reconciliation and empower their communities, who distrust the army and national police . The draft law creating a National Guard has officially been approved by the Iraqi cabinet on February 3rd 2015, four months after the Prime Minster went to Jordan to convince the tribes to come back from exile. The National Guard law would set up provincially-based units to fight the IS, answerable to the Prime Minister. However, it would take years before the National Guard units are ready to fight. By the time they are the IS could have gained more territory and grown in number. This is something that also worries Jordan.

The Jordanian Strategy

Observers believe that Jordan cannot afford to wait for Baghdad to fulfill its promises to train Sunni tribes. The Jordanian strategy with the use of its historical ties with Sunni tribes in Iraq “calls for bypassing obstacles and initiate the training and arming of tribes both in Syria and Iraq as soon as possible, ” however, details of this new strategy is vague and it is unclear when and how the kingdom will execute it. Things in Iraq are dramatically changing, they are in a phase of rebuilding their state and given the civil war atmosphere Jordan must be cautious on how they are going to execute the strategy. Given the failure in Iraqi national identity, the integration policy and the failure in building their state a step by step plan in eliminating the IS with minimal negative consequences should be executed. The question still remains though, if Jordan has the means to train and support the Iraqi tribes. Although Jordan has trained soldiers before and despite the capabilities of its armed forces, Jordan cannot do it on her own and would need support from the coalition as well as approval from the Iraqi government to train Iraqi Sunni tribes. This strategy could work as planned because Jordan has been involved in peace keeping operations and the Jordanian chief of staff has visited Baghdad to show Jordan’s support to the tribes and the Iraqi army. Jordan’s intention is to provide training and support but not be involved on the ground. It is also possible for a federation between Anbar and Jordan to come into play, if worse comes to worse.

Tribal Efforts

Other tribes like, the Abu Nimr were able to form some sort of militia to fight the Islamic State, with limited support from the U.S government . Abu Nimr tribe has been currently recruiting Sunnis in Anbar to join the fight against the IS. The tribal leaders have declared that, the IS is a “common enemy of all tribes”. Because of this, the tribes led a conference on 13 January 2015 focused on uniting the effort of Anbar tribes on the fight against the IS . They stated that the “terrorism of the IS group” had boosted the unity of the tribes of Anbar and the local Anbar government will not stop any Iraqi forces, regardless of their regional or sectarian origins, from entering Anbar to fight the IS . Council members stated that the ISF, tribal fighters, and the Popular Mobilization Forces, PMF (Al- Hashd Al-Shaabi, ) would defeat the IS group and allow those displaced Iraqis to return home. The PMF is a paramilitary Shiite movement created by former Prime Minister Maliki, which received weapons and support from Iran from the early days of the fight against the IS, to provide support for the ISF to regain lost territories. Although the PMF is paid by Iraq’s Interior Ministry and has maintained a semi-official relationship with Iraqi military and security institutions, the Shiite militias are in an Iranian chain of command . U.S officials and military officers have stated that they are willing to further assist ISF in training and equip Iraqi tribesmen in predominantly Sunni Arab areas but such efforts need to be Iraqi-designed and led, and needs to be further discussed with Iraqi leaders. As said above, the Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, authorizes assistance to “tribal security forces or other security forces” and not just the ISF. However while 25,000 Iraqi and Peshmerga forces are trained, only 250 Sunni tribal fighters have been trained by U.S forces in the Anbar province. The Anbaris want to move faster with direct support from the coalition and as much as reconciliation is important, military support is as important.

Sunni Tribes in the U.S-led Coalition

Some experts believe, in order to beat the IS the U.S-led coalition needs to find credible Sunni partners, a genuine representation of Sunni communities that challenge the IS narrative without losing support of these communities . Tribes in Sunni dominated areas, challenge the IS narrative, they have a local force, each of them have a leader that the U.S-led coalition can build a partnership with and most importantly they are willing to reconcile. One of the probable reasons to why the U.S has not aided them yet is, not all Sunni communities are tribal communities, and tribal politics are very unstable. Most Iraqis identify strongly with their tribe more than the national government and they believe that if any member of their tribe is harmed they must be avenged. This leads to many tribal wars in Iraq, which gives the U.S the idea that they are not unified and they cannot be aided. At the moment, Iraqi tribes are fragile components, who have suffered greatly in the hands of the IS and have diminished greatly during the days of Saddam Hussein and after the U.S invasion in 2003. Loyalty was not to their tribes anymore but to the state (Baath Regime), which created a huge loop hole. The Sunnis have suffered, but not only in the hands of the IS, but in the hands of Shiite militias. The PMF have been recently accused of attacking Sunni tribes during the fight against the IS. If the attacks were to go on, it would be highly possible for the Sunni tribes to retaliate against the Shiite militias, which could turn the conflict sectarian. It is of high importance that Iran or the Iraqi government control the Shiite militias, so the Sunni population will not feel alienated. Some experts say that people outside of Iraq, who are not under the effect and impact of the IS, choose to believe in the sectarian conflict. However, inside Iraq, the Sunnis and the Shiites, who fight alongside each other, have seemed to have changed their priorities. To them, the problem is not Shiite-Sunni but the security of Iraq. It is believed that the IS could be the component that unifies the new Iraq and could eliminate all the ethnical, religious and sectarian divisions. The U.S-led coalition needs to find the right leader to support, aid financially and militarily, who are willing to work with the coalition alongside the ISF against the IS.

Hammer and Anvil

Many specialists have come up with strategies and expectations on how to win the fight against the IS, including the ‘Hammer and Anvil’ approach. This approach was apparently successful in preventing the IS’ expansion into Kurdish and Shiite areas: “IS could either choose to concentrate its forces to achieve local superiority over opposing ground troops and then be decimated by U.S air power, ‘Hammer,’ or it could avoid airstrikes by dispersing its forces into small units and be vulnerable to defeat by the opposing ground force, ‘Anvil. ’” If this is to work, the U.S needs to deploy a maximum of 100 Special Forces and combat air controllers to support local allies . However, this type of strategy is a traditional one, they bomb an area with airstrikes and artillery and then ground forces occupy the area. This tactic is used against a formal army and the IS is not a regular army but a militia and another kind of tactic should be used to fight against militias. A possible tactic that could be used, which should be the first and foremost step is, to secure and control the border between Iraq and Syria in order to divide the IS into two separate entities. The border is an international border and could be controlled by the Peshmerga and Iraqi army. This first step gives them the opportunity to cut off the support from Syria to Iraq and vice versa and then a plan can be organized to fight the IS. With the airstrikes, Special Forces are needed with experienced advisors and it would be important to target a control command where commanders reside, either by airstrikes or targeted special operations against the leadership. If they however would continue to use the strategies used today it could take them another five years. Political analysts have pointed out that the coalition knows how to fight and perfectly eliminate the IS, but it needs logistic support, political support and a guideline of working on long term strategies like de-radicalization strategies. It has been said that, leaders cannot rely on people, who are sources of extremism, to be the tool of de-radicalization, it is a lost cause. To some Jordanians, Jordan could be a model for de-radicalization if they change their educational curricula, however the question will still remain, who is going to create and teach these curricula? In addition, Jordan on a military level, is capable to fight the IS and also lead the coalition. However, in order for Jordan to lead, it needs support financially and militarily from the coalition.

The Awakening Movement vs. the Islamic State

If Jordan or any other member of the coalition decides to support the Sunni tribes to help in the fight against the IS it would be beneficial for two reasons. First, this approach has been done before and was successful, as seen in the experience of the “Awakening Groups.” Within the framework provided by America`s “Sons of Iraq” program, Awakening Groups were coalitions between tribal Sheiks and Iraqi military officers united to maintain security in their communities and were sponsored by the U.S military . Second, tribes provide a definition of identity that challenges the IS’ attempts to impose its own sectarian views on everyone . However, the first approach was successful and achieved because the U.S was in control and in charge back in 2006, when Al-Qaeda alienated the population. The U.S had committed to offering a surge of troops, and the Iraqi government promised millions of dollars in reconstruction of Sunni areas. However today, with the withdrawal of U.S soldiers, the Iraqi government should be in control, and so in order not to cause interference, if it could be done, the Iraqi government should collaborate and cooperate with the Sunni tribes. Now that Abadi has gained some sort of trust from the Sunnis this is his chance to prove to them that they too play a role and if they were to fight alongside the Iraqi Army it will consist of Iraqis and not Shiites, Sunnis or Kurds.


Supporting these tribes is beneficial for both the U.S-led coalition and Iraq. Both forces have the self-interest and potential numbers to challenge the IS. Strengthening these allies with minimal U.S presence will not only improve the effectiveness of the air campaign but also empower the only force with real motivation to defeat the IS . However, in principle, reconciliation between the Shiites and the Sunnis should be the first step because if reconciliation is in effect the real fight against IS should fall through. But, it is less than likely for either the Sunni or the Shiites to work together. Nevertheless, what could be a high possibility is someone to work as a mediator. Jordan would be eligible since it is now involved and has good relations with both the Sunni tribes and the Iraqi government and in addition, the United States. Jordan has acted as a mediator before and King Abdullah can help with the reconciliation process between the Shiites and Sunnis. As a descendent of Prophet Mohammad, King Abdullah has the credibility however, he needs to find partners to help him play the role of mediator, who are as credible as he is. Jordan can help quicken the pace in supporting and aiding the Sunni tribes and it can even try and encourage the Sunni tribes to work alongside the Iraqi Army. Finding the right leader who can assemble some Sunni tribes to work alongside the Iraqi Army and the U.S could strengthen and accelerate the fight against the IS. But the question is who could that be? It needs to be a leader of a tribe that is bigger in number, who is against the IS and has a strong stable leader.

The complete report with footnotes you can read at pdf.

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