The Islamic State Risks Alienating Iraq's Sunnis

6 MINS READAug 2, 2014 | 11:58 GMT
The Islamic State Risks Alienating Iraq's Sunnis
The Islamic State released a video during a post-Ramadan holiday, warning Iraqi soldiers that they risk being executed if captured.

The Islamic State's radical policies are gradually undermining the group's control over northern Iraq's Sunni Arab population. At this point, rising anti-jihadist sentiment has yet to produce serious infighting within the broader resistance, but recent developments are signaling a potential shift in this direction. As the rift between transnational jihadists and Iraq's Sunni Arab nationalists widens, Baghdad will exploit these divisions to weaken the insurgency. This could result in more clashes and infighting between the two camps, but Baghdad is unlikely to make serious progress on the security front until it addresses the political demands of Iraq's Sunni community.

The Iraqi army's failed campaign to retake the Sunni city of Tikrit in July showed that military offensives will not be enough to secure northern Iraq from the Islamic State and its Sunni militant allies. Baghdad's security forces have focused on eliminating small pockets of resistance around the capital and have been relatively successful. The country's southern Shiite core and its vital oil infrastructure have also remained largely secure. However, the Iraqi army has made very little progress in pushing north along the country's major highways and remains bogged down by fighting in population centers to the west in Anbar province. Security forces have also been unable to prevent smaller hit-and-run attacks from bands of insurgents operating from more rural areas north of Baghdad and are dealing with greater violence within the capital itself.

Baghdad's ability to regain control over Iraq's Sunni regions will depend on whether it can drive a wedge — directly or indirectly — between the transnational jihadists and Sunni nationalists who make up the resistance. This strategy proved successful in 2007, when U.S. forces empowered the more moderate elements within the Sunni community, commonly referred to as Awakening Councils, in their campaign to contain and weaken the al Qaeda insurgency. Baghdad is actively seeking opportunities to repeat this strategy now, especially since cracks are beginning to show within the opposition forces.

Baghdad is also aware that Iraq's Sunni population — with a large majority that does not share the Islamic State's radical goals — has been using the jihadists' military strength to voice its frustrations over years of disenfranchisement under Shiite rulers. With the Islamic State's unpredictable nature starting to create tensions, the Sunni nationalists may be willing to turn against the jihadists in return for political concessions.

Islamic State Timeline

Islamic State Timeline

Growing Divisions Among the Insurgents

Factions within the insurgency recently condemned the Islamic State's persecution of minority populations, particularly Christians, in the city of Mosul, expressing growing wariness over the jihadists' strict interpretation of Sharia. The destruction of several historic Islamic mosques and religious shrines across northern Iraq has also disillusioned Sunni Arabs. Anticipating the predictable backlash to such activity, Islamic State leadership likely believes that these actions will strengthen its radical support base across northern Iraq. Nevertheless, the recent rise in public criticism within the resistance has pressured the Islamic State to threaten or pre-emptively silence potential challengers to its leadership, often forcing these dissenting groups to swear oaths of allegiance to the jihadist cause.

Nationalist Sunni militias, many of which consist of fighters with ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and the former security apparatus, have begun to openly challenge the policies of the Islamic State, and increased tensions have led to a number of small-scale clashes. Since late June, reports of localized skirmishes, kidnappings, executions and assassinations indicate growing competition between jihadist elements and Sunni Arab militias such as the Naqshbandi Order, the Islamic Army and the Mujahideen Army. Yet aside from sporadic violence and growing public criticism, these militias have yet to directly challenge jihadist fighters on a larger scale. Although the Naqshbandi leadership on July 28 condemned the Islamic State's implementation of Sharia, officials were quick to deny reports that their organization had approved armed operations against the jihadists, claiming that such rumors were part of Baghdad's propaganda campaign meant to divide the resistance.

There have also been recent reports of armed militias forming within Mosul to counter the Islamic State's occupation of the city. On June 28, Iraqi media claimed that local leaders and tribal sheikhs had formed the Nineveh Freedom Command to expel jihadists from the city. Kurdish news outlet Basnews on July 28 announced that exiled Nineveh Gov. Atheel al-Nujaifi was in the process of mobilizing a clandestine group of local militias to rid Mosul of "sectarian forces." A separate report on July 30 from Iraqi media claimed that armed brigades would soon launch an assault to rid the city of jihadist elements. It was followed by a statement from Osama al-Nujaifi, leader of Iraq's largest Sunni political party, announcing the formation of the "Mosul Brigades" to fight the Islamic State. However, details on these resistance forces have been hard to come by, and Islamic State militants in Mosul's vicinity have yet to encounter any serious security challenges beyond localized skirmishes.

There are also reports that northern Iraq's powerful Sunni tribal confederations, which command a great deal of manpower and local influence, are reconsidering their relationship with the jihadists. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reportedly met with northern tribal leaders on a few occasions to offer military support, and in late June he promised to incorporate thousands of Sunni tribesmen into the defense and interior ministries' security forces. London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper on July 28 reported that the al-Jubouri and al-Obaidi tribes, two of the more powerful and strategically located Sunni tribes of northern Iraq, were forming militias to challenge the Islamic State. Reports on July 31 also claimed that local tribesmen had forcibly ejected more than 150 Islamic State fighters from areas north of Baqubah in Diyala province. Nevertheless, tribal representatives have made it clear they still remain opposed to the central government in Baghdad, and confrontations between the tribes and jihadists have been limited.

The Potential for Greater Anti-Jihadist Sentiment

Although there are clear indications of growing frustration with the Islamic State from within the Sunni resistance, these sentiments have not yet boiled over into a wider internal uprising against the jihadists. Stratfor has seen only limited indications that Baghdad has begun actively working to turn these rebel factions against the Islamic State. As these dissenters grow increasingly vocal and militant, however, Baghdad will increase its efforts to encourage splits, likely with incentives such as financial and material aid, political concessions or even direct military assistance from state security forces. By pursuing a divide-and-conquer strategy, Baghdad can slowly chip away at the Islamic State's support base and increase central government influence within the Sunni community. However, given the widespread Sunni mistrust of the Shiite leadership in Baghdad, this process will prove long and difficult, with the Sunnis driving a hard bargain and making far more serious demands than they have before.

In the next few months, resistance to the insurgency's jihadist elements is likely to grow and could lead to larger armed confrontations. However, given the jihadists' relatively small representation within the broader insurgency, this process is unlikely to result in many gains for Iraqi security forces. Until Baghdad begins seriously entertaining the Sunni opposition's demands for greater autonomy, the Iraqi army will face heavy resistance and experience little success in high-cost attempts to retake vast swaths of territory.

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