The US-led campaign against Islamic State isn’t working. It won’t unless it addresses Shia sectarianism in Iraq and Assad’s atrocities in Syria.
The extraordinary brutality of the organisation which calls itself Islamic State (IS) has sparked utter revulsion around the world. Its mass executions, sexual enslavement, videotaped beheadings and now the burning to death of the Jordanian pilot have created an uncommon determination among governments of all political and religious stripes to end this scourge on the people of Iraq and Syria and the threat it poses elsewhere. But after sitting through a weekend of discussions at the Munich Security Conference, I am left with the sad conclusion that the anti-IS endeavour betrays more activity than strategy.
To understand what must be done about IS, it is helpful to remember the background to its rise. In Iraq, in addition to the chaos after the US invasion, the emergence of IS owes much to the abusive sectarian rule of the former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and the resulting radicalisation of Sunnis. With Iranian backing, Maliki took personal control of Iraqi security forces and supported the formation of Shia militias. Many of those militias brutally persecuted the minority Sunni population. They rounded up and arbitrarily detained Sunnis under vague laws and, along with government counter-terrorism units, summarily executed many. Meanwhile, the Iraqi air force indiscriminately bombed predominately Sunni cities, beginning in Anbar in January 2014.
The severity of these abuses played perfectly into IS plans: one rationale for IS atrocities appears to be to spark precisely such reactions, which in turn bolster its standing among the Sunni population. The group’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, was largely defeated by a combination of US military pressure and a military coalition of Sunni tribes in western Iraq, known as the Awakening Councils. But under Maliki many of the tribes which defeated the organisation became so fearful of slaughter and persecution by pro-government forces that, when conflict resumed in 2014, they felt safer fighting those forces than IS. Western governments, eager to put their own military involvement in Iraq behind them, largely shut their eyes to the worsening sectarian abuses overseen by Baghdad—and continued to ply it with arms.
‘No less dangerous’
Today, there is broad recognition among policy-makers and the public that this indifference to atrocities under Maliki was a mistake. Maliki’s replacement as premier, Haider al-Abadi, has pledged more inclusive governance. I recently met him, and he largely acknowledged the problems of sectarian abuse—though lamented limits to his power to address them. He has taken some positive steps, dropping charges against the media, vowing to release prisoners held without warrant and making some effort to stop the indiscriminate bombing. Just last week, he publicly said he had “zero” tolerance for summary executions by the Shia militias, calling them “no less dangerous” than IS “terrorism” and ordering a public investigation into the alleged massacre of 72 civilians by militias and security forces in Diyala province.
One of Kerry’s aides described to me a three-part strategy for Syria: degrading IS through the bombing campaign, training the armed opposition and “trying to get something going politically”.
These are important steps but abusive sectarianism in Iraq has not ended, even as Western military aid continues to flow. Maliki still serves as one of Iraq’s three vice-presidents, without any investigation of his role in past abuses. Meanwhile, the weak government, its army a shambles, has vastly increased its reliance on the Shia militias. They remain the lead ground forces fighting IS, even as they kill and cleanse Sunnis from entire villages and neighbourhoods. Until these atrocities end, the Shia militias are likely to do more to aid IS recruitment than to defeat the jihadist group on the battlefield.
Yet in Munich there was barely a word about Shia militia abuse. In lieu of a comprehensive strategy, one US official spoke of five “lines of effort” in Iraq: degrading IS militarily, cutting the flows to it of fighters and of funds, addressing the humanitarian catastrophe it has left and fighting its ideology. He volunteered nothing about stopping Shia militia atrocities.
When I suggested the US government condition its military assistance on an end to these atrocities, he insisted the US lacked leverage because Iran’s military assistance was supposedly unconditional. But that approach makes the US look like it lacks both principles and an effective strategy. There is no way to win the trust of Sunnis needed to oppose IS while the Iraqi government condones their murder and forced displacement by the Shia militias.
It ought to be possible to work with Iran as well. Iran should have no interest in the slaughter by the militias it supports, if not for principled reasons then on the pragmatic basis that this is bolstering IS. In addition, Abadi should be encouraged to follow the call of the European Union for Iraq to join the International Criminal Court—hardly a panacea but at least a threat of international prosecution, at a time when domestic courts are too weak and intimidated to extend the rule of law to the Shia militias. The US government has supported empowering the ICC to address atrocities in Syria but has yet to broach the issue with regard to Iraq.
Incomplete as Western strategy is in Iraq, it is even worse in Syria. There, IS portrays itself as the force most capable of standing up to the deliberate attacks on the civilian population by the president, Bashar al-Assad, in areas held by rebel groups. There is no denying Assad’s extraordinary brutality: since the Syrian government turned over its chemical weapons, its most notorious weapon has been the barrel bomb—an oil drum or similar container filled with high explosives and metal fragments. The air force typically drops these bombs from a helicopter hovering at high altitudes to avoid anti-aircraft fire. From that height, they are impossible to target with any precision. Barrel bombs simply tumble to earth, killing far more Syrian civilians than IS.
Barrel bombs are so inaccurate that the Syrian military does not dare use them near the front lines, for fear of hitting its own troops. Rather, it drops them on areas held by rebel groups, knowing that they will destroy apartment buildings, hospitals, schools and other institutions of civilian life. In Aleppo, some civilians who have not fled the country have moved their families nearer the front line, preferring snipers and artillery to the horror of the barrel bombs.
When the Syrian government attacked civilians with chemical weapons, the United Nations Security Council pressed Assad to stop and to surrender his weapons. But while the Syrian government kills countless more civilians by indiscriminate attacks with conventional weapons such as barrel bombs, the Security Council, blocked by Russia, has largely stood on the sidelines. It called for a halt to indiscriminate attacks but has applied no pressure actually to end them.
This partial approach to Syria was on full display in Munich. The US secretary of state, John Kerry, waxed eloquent about the horrors of IS and trumpeted the US-led coalition’s response but when it came to Assad simply called him “a brutal dictator” and moved on. Kerry never mentioned the barrel bombs or the need for pressure on Assad to end his attacks on civilians.
One of Kerry’s aides described to me a three-part strategy for Syria: degrading IS through the bombing campaign, training the armed opposition and “trying to get something going politically”. But no one thinks the increasingly elusive moderate opposition that the US has committed to train will be capable anytime soon of serious military action—and, in any event, the US undertaking is focused on IS, not Assad. As for the sporadic efforts to achieve a peace accord, nationwide talks are going nowhere and efforts by the UN envoy, Staffan de Mistura, to craft local ‘freezes’ have yet to produce results.
The inattention to Assad’s atrocities is a gift to extremist recruiters who portray themselves as the only ones willing to stand up to him. Asking Syrians to address only IS atrocities, not Assad’s, is not a winning strategy. A broader concern with protecting Syrian civilians from depredations on all sides is required.
Part of Kerry’s relative silence about Assad’s atrocities may have been fear that the next step would require a broader US military effort, such as establishing a no-fly zone for the helicopters that deliver the barrel bombs. But there are also diplomatic steps that, judging by the conversations in Munich, do not seem to have been seriously tried. Russia and Iran have more clout with the Syrian government than anyone else but the US continues to hedge on Syria to avoid detracting from its primary concerns: Ukraine in the case of Russia and the nuclear question vis-à-vis Iran. Given the stakes, one would hope that US diplomats could walk and chew gum at the same time.
Another element of Western reluctance to address the barrel bombs may be fear of doing anything which might impede Assad’s capacity to prevent an IS takeover of the country. But because of their inaccuracy, barrel bombs have little if any military significance. They have been used almost exclusively for killing civilians. Ending their use is unlikely to have an appreciable effect on the balance of power between the Syrian government, the rebels and IS.
It’s time to move beyond ‘lines of effort’. Western governments need a strategy to address IS in both Iraq and Syria. And no strategy is realistic unless it addresses the atrocities that enable IS to grow. Reining in Iraq’s Shia militias and stopping Assad’s barrel-bombing of civilians are essential elements of any successful anti-IS strategy.