While the number of United States military personnel in Iraq grew to 300 last weekend, less noticed was a press release by al-Hayat Media Center, the media arm of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. The newly named Islamic State declared the establishment of a global caliphate, with its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the “imam and khalīfah for the Muslims everywhere.” While Baghdadi is audacious, the Islamic State’s declaration represents a critical overreach – it provides a unique and timely opportunity for Washington and its allies to drive a wedge between the jihadist group and Iraq’s Sunni population.
This isn’t the first time ISIL has blundered strategically. Its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI, was not content with merely attacking U.S. forces or Shiite civilian targets. It often intimidated and brutalized the Sunni population in areas it controlled. Even al-Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan became critical of AQI’s actions. In a 2005 letter, then al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri cautioned AQI’s founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi against alienating Iraqi’s Sunni population.
Al-Zawahiri’s warnings from Pakistan were prophetic—by late 2006, the Sahwah or “Awakening” of the Sunni tribes had sprung up across much of Anbar province. The Sahwah, as much as the U.S.“surge” strategy, turned the war against AQI and established the conditions for the fledgling Iraqi government and security forces to build capacity and the eventual U.S. departure.
Yet the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki failed to capitalize on the hard-won security gains. The Awakening fighters, dubbed the Sons of Iraq, numbered over 100,000 during the surge. The Iraqi government took over the program in 2008 and pledged to integrate roughly a quarter into the police and army and provide job training and assistance for the remainder. By many accounts, these promises were abandoned and following the U.S. withdrawal some former Sunni Awakening leaders were even targeted under dubious terrorism charges.
Meanwhile, ISIL, bolstered by an influx of fighters, material and support against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, began greedily eyeing western Iraq. For much of 2013, Sunnis in Anbar protested what they viewed as increasing sectarianism by Baghdad. Tensions came to a head on December 30th, 2013, when Iraqi troops forcibly dismantled a protest site in Ramadi, Anbar’s capital. The ensuing fighting left 17 dead and began a province-wide armed Sunni resistance. On January 4th, Iraqi troops fled Fallujah, but it was ISIL—not Sunni tribesmen—who seized it.
In fact, many former Awakening leaders, such as Ahmed Abu Risha who fought alongside U.S. forces in the surge, are cooperating with Iraqi security forces against ISIL. Overlooked by many in the media, these former allies still resist ISIS in many parts of the country.
There is already evidence that the Islamic State’s overreach has weakened it tactically. According to the BBC, Sunni militants in Mosul claimed that ISIL offered them an ultimatum—swear allegiance or forfeit their arms. Some are already contemplating alternatives, choosing to cache their weapons and decline further cooperation with ISIL. While many of these groups have strong ties to former Saddam Hussein-era officials and seek the return of a Sunni government, they are ideologically opposed to ISIL’s fundamentalist Salafi version of Islam. Yet their support is critical if ISIL wants to credibly threaten the Iraqi regime.
As Washington begins to ramp up its commitment to Baghdad, it should prioritize efforts to divide the Islamic State from the Sunni population. Any further assistance to Iraq should hinge upon Maliki’s assurances that Sunnis will play a greater role in the government, as President Barack Obama has demanded. Offering immunity for those who join the political process and revoking terrorism warrants against non ISIL-affiliated Sunnis would be a difficult yet substantial confidence-building measure. If the administration chooses further military involvement, perhaps embedding special operations forces advisors with Sunni fighters in the west and north would prove more effective than fusion centers or drone strikes, in isolation. And while the U.S. and Iran share interests in blunting the Islamic State’s advance, policymakers should continue to be wary of any endorsement of Tehran’s involvement, as many Iraqi Sunnis resist Iranian influence as much as they do ISIL’s.
The Obama administration is in a difficult position, as there are no good options in Iraq. But the Islamic State’s strategic blunder provides one opportunity to escalate involvement while keeping Iraqis in the lead and not playing into sectarian divisions. At this moment, we should all be reminded of al-Zawahiri’s 2005 message: without popular support, their movement “would be crushed in the shadows.”
Capt. Dave Miller is a US Army officer, master in public policy candidate at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He served three combat tours in Iraq between 2006-2011. The views provided are his own and do not represent official DOD or U.S. government policy or position.