Many Potential Allies In The Fight Against ISIS Have Already Been Lost

As many observers have pointed out, one of the keys to defeating ISIS on the ground, especially in Iraq, involves enlisting the support of Sunni tribes that have been alienated by the Iraqi Government. Toward that end, the United States and other powers spent the better part of the summer working on convincing Iraqi political leaders to look to someone other than Nouri al-Maliki, who had been responsible for much of that alienation, as Prime Minister. While that effort has succeeded, it turns out that many of the potential allies that had been candidates to join the fight are already lost:

 In the Islamic State’s rapid consolidation of the Sunni parts of Iraq and Syria, the jihadists have used a double-pronged strategy to gain the obedience of Sunni tribes. While using their abundant cash and arms to entice tribal leaders to join their self-declared caliphate, the jihadists have also eliminated potential foes, hunting down soldiers, police officers, government officials and anyone who once cooperated with the United States as it battled Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Now, as the United States and the Iraqi government urgently seek to enlist the Sunni tribes to fight the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, they are struggling to undo the militants’ success in co-opting or conquering the majority of them.

Officials admit little success in wooing new Sunni allies, beyond their fitful efforts to arm and supply the tribes who were already fighting the Islamic State — and mostly losing. So far, distrust of the Baghdad government’s intentions and its ability to protect the tribes has won out.

“There is an opportunity for the government to work with the tribes, but the facts on the ground are that ISIS has infiltrated these communities and depleted their ability to go against it,” said Ahmed Ali, an Iraq analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “Time is not on the Iraqi government’s side.”

Much of the Islamic State’s success at holding Sunni areas comes from its deft manipulation of tribal dynamics. Portraying itself as a defender of Sunnis who for years have been abused by Iraq’s Shiite-majority government, the Islamic State has offered cash and arms to tribal leaders and fighters, often allowing them local autonomy as long as they remain loyal.

At the same time, as it has expanded into new towns, the Islamic State has immediately identified potential government supporters for death. Residents of areas overrun by the Islamic State say its fighters often carry names of soldiers and police officers. If those people have already fled, the jihadists blow up their homes to make sure they do not return. At checkpoints, its men sometimes run names through computerized databases, dragging off those who have worked for the government.

“They come in with a list of names and are more organized than state intelligence,” said Sheikh Naim al-Gaood, a leader of the Albu Nimr tribe.

The most brutal treatment is often of tribes who cooperated with the United States against Al Qaeda in Iraq in past years, mostly through the so-called Sunni Awakening movement supported by the Americans.

Analysts say that the tribes that have joined the Islamic State have not done so because of its extremist ideology. For most, it has been a practical decision to ally with the authority they believe can best ensure security, and resources for their men.

So turning the tide is likely to require a steady influx of guns and money, and a track record of success. Essentially, the government must give them a better deal than they get from the Islamic State.

“There is a large number of the people from the tribes who are with ISIS; this we can’t deny,” said Wasfi al-Aasi, an Obeidi tribal sheikh who opposes the jihadists and has met with American officials. “But that does not mean that any tribe that has some members with ISIS is entirely with ISIS.”

It remains unclear how successful even a reliable long-term effort by the Iraqi government to enlist the tribal fighters can be. Though American cash and battlefield presence helped the Awakening succeed before, both are lacking this time around. American officials say the United States is encouraging the process, but that all arms and salaries must come from the Iraqi government.

Quite obviously, without these tribes, any long term effort against ISIS is going to be difficult going forward, something that ISIS itself is no doubt aware of. Indeed, given the fact that many of the leaders of ISIS were involved in the violence that led to the surge and the so-called “Anbar Awakening” that helped to reduce violence starting in 2007 they have no doubt learned the lesson that the key to blunting any counterattack is to either co-opt these tribes, or eliminate those leaders who may turn against them. If that plan works, then efforts to dislodge ISIS from Iraq are going to be far more difficult than they already seem to be.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. stonetools says:

    ISIS executes another American:

    Islamic State (Isis) has released a video appearing to show the British terrorist known as “Jihadi John” standing over the severed head of US aid worker Peter Kassig.

    Kassig is the latest of five US and UK hostages to have been murdered in cold blood in Syria as part of a propaganda initiative by Isis.

    The footage also showed what appeared to be the mass beheading of several captured Syrian soldiers

    So ISIS maybe not so harmless. Seems to me it’s worth making the effort to at least dislodge them from Iraq. I also think their continuing brutality is going to recruit more enemies than they kill.

  2. Robin Cohen says:

    Here we are again, fighting another bunch of religious nut jobs and training the stupid Iraqis to protect their own country. Repeatedly making the same mistakes is a sign of ignorance and, some say, insanity. Why do we not bomb the crap out of all Isis territory? Level the ground, no survivors. To hell with the chicken, stupid Iraqis. Destroy all Isis territory and get out.