Success of the ISIS campaign will only end up strengthening Shiite hold on Iraq.
To go by much of the commentary about Iraq in recent days, the country is already past the breaking point under the lightning campaign by Sunni insurgents. It would be no surprise if the next few weeks brought them to the gates of Baghdad. But an assault on Baghdad, or even its capture, would be an illusory victory. It can only end in defeat — and the strengthening of the insurgents’ sworn Shiite enemies in Baghdad and, especially, Tehran.
First, consider the brute demographic reality. Unlike in Syria, Sunnis are a relatively small part of the Iraqi population, about 25 per cent — though they are a majority in some areas of the west and north. And in Baghdad their numbers are minuscule. The reason for this lies in an earlier Sunni revolt triggered by the second gulf war. Baghdad was the target then, too, and its Sunni population was about 35 per cent. As the Sunnis asserted themselves militarily, Shiites struck back; by 2008, when their fury was largely spent, Sunnis were reduced to as little as 12 per cent of the city’s population.
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If the insurgents of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, enter Baghdad’s residual Sunni neighbourhoods, they will likely be welcomed, but they won’t have much to work with, nor will they have the strategic depth they will need in the street fighting that ensues. Moreover, rather like what happened in Syria, the Sunni offensive is likely to spur a transformation of the Iraqi army from the sorry mess it is now into a more resilient and operationally effective force.
The character of the Sunni offensive will mobilise more than just the army. Mass execution has been meshed with the use of religious symbolism by the insurgents, who framed their objective as extirpating “the filth” — Shiite teaching and believers — from Najaf and Karbala, the two holiest Shiite cities. In a minority war on a majority population, this is a suicidal tactic. The Shiites will hit back even harder than last time. In addition to being hobbled by their paltry numbers, the rebels have chosen to make war on an adversary with powerful friends who have a serious stake in the future of Iraq.
Iran has already pledged assistance to the government of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki and reportedly deployed elite units of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to Iraq. The United States has sent an aircraft carrier and amphibious assault ship to the Persian Gulf and stepped up intelligence help for the Iraqi government. Although Washington is unlikely to use force directly against the rebels — in part because insurgents don’t present the kind of targets that American air power is optimised to destroy, and in part because of reluctance to re-engage militarily in Iraq — the kind of advisory help, material assistance and diplomatic support that is on offer will stiffen Iraq’s spine. Perceptions, real or imagined, of American and Iranian collusion will help, too.
At the same time, gulf states that tacitly support the rebels as payback against Iran for its perceived takeover of Iraq will do nothing to support the rebels’ military campaign, for fear of creating an uncontrollable situation, even if their nationals privately fund the rebel army. And once the fighting is over, the Sunnis will be even more isolated than before. President Obama’s call for a multi-ethnic governing coalition aside, it is inconceivable that Maliki will now reverse his policy of excluding Sunnis from governance. In short, despite the rapid
success of the Sunni campaign, it is a kamikaze attack that will make the Shiite hold on the Iraqi state stronger, not weaker.
That said, it’s unlikely that Maliki will have the stomach to retake the Sunni-majority areas of western Iraq any time soon. The rump Iraq, like the Assad regime in Syria, will be ever more in thrall to Iran, and committed to domestic policies that make the reconstitution of the country via a political process ever more unlikely. That’s hardly an optimal outcome for Washington: Among other things, Washington’s support for the Maliki government will put further strain on its ties to the gulf states; it will also complicate any effort to deal aggressively with Iran, with which it will find itself in an odd-couple alliance.
American policymakers might anticipate that the insurgency will burn itself out before it presents a real threat to American interests. But they can’t relax too much, because to the extent that this sectarian brawl produces something resembling a winner, it won’t be in Washington, Mosul or Baghdad — but in Tehran.
Simon, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, was the senior director for the Middle East and North Africa at the NSC from 2011 to 2012