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ISIL Could Become the Voice of Sunnis If We Don't Find a Way to Stop It Soon

Haidar Mohammed Ali/AFP/Getty Images

The Islamic State in Iraq and Levant’s deep-rooted sense of purpose and its political, financial, and military ability have helped it carve out a safe haven between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This week’s American airstrikes could help roll ISIL back—but if the American people really do not want to be sucked into another war in the Middle East, then Washington will need to cement these gains by working with Arab allies to bolster the moderate Sunnis who would fill the vacuum in Syria and Iraq following an ISIL defeat.

ISIL’s power comes from its effectiveness in rallying Sunni Muslims to fight against what they perceive to be Iranian-backed Shia regimes in Baghdad and Damascus. Bashar al Assad and Nuri Kamal al Maliki’s attempts to shoot and cajole their Sunni populations into submission have attracted jihadists from all over the world to Syria and Iraq. Unlike other terrorist groups, which rely on financial networks and wealthy benefactors, ISIL emphasizes self-sufficiency, using extortion, sale of oil products, and the charging of taxes and fees to generate revenue. These funds allow it to carry out operations that net even more resources, including millions of dollars from Mosul’s banks and American military equipment. It uses these ill-gotten gains to buy the allegiance and support of local groups and tribes.

In return, ISIL institutes order, doling out harsh punishments for violations of Islamic law, while protecting local populations from the Assad and Maliki regimes. It is restoring Sunni pride as well, carrying out successful raids against the Iraqi army and Syrian forces that have seized oil refineries and gas fields. All of this led ISIL leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi on June 30 not only to declare the “Islamic State”, but the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate, an institution formally dissolved 90 years ago.

The Iraqi army has thus far proven incapable of pushing ISIL back, due in no small part to ISIL's military ability and newly captured equipment. But the Iraqi army’s losses are largely due to the Maliki government’s unwillingness to include Sunnis, which is the result of the support it receives from Iran. Kurdish forces, which Washington decided to arm this week, are in a position to push back on ISIL near its northern enclave but will be unable, and most likely unwilling, to deploy in Sunni areas of Iraq.

The same military and political limits hold true in Syria. Despite Assad’s recent battlefield gains in the west, his willingness and ability to operate in Eastern and central Syria, where his forces have sustained heavy losses, remains limited. Assad’s hardline position during the Geneva Peace talks and surrounding his “reelection” last June make it unlikely that the regime will peeling off moderate Sunnis to its side.

Some have advocated inviting Iran to take care of the ISIL problem for the United States as some part of a “grand bargain” over its nuclear program. But those talks are not going so well, and even if they lead to agreement, both Iranian and American officials say the issue of Iran’s nuclear and regional aspirations will remain “stove-piped” for technical and political reasons. Furthermore, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vigorously rejects working with the United States, and he has not given President Rouhani any authority over the Iraq or Syria files, unlike his reluctant assent to nuclear negotiations in pursuit of sanctions relief. Iranian-backed forces also bring little positive to the table: Militant groups backed or trained by the IRGC-Quds Force (the body that orchestrates training of Iranian-backed proxy groups), such as Hezbollah or the National Defense Companies, have had no or very limited ability operating far away from their strategic depth in Iran and Lebanon. Worse, Iran encourages sectarian excesses which drive Sunnis to reluctantly work with ISIL, seeing it as better than Iranian-sponsored death squads. 

The much talked about “moderate Sunnis” come from the same demographic as ISIL and Al Qaeda. But Sunni Arab states lack a “Quds Force-like” organization to train moderate Sunnis. Meanwhile, Sunni Arab society has to some extent supported jihadists in terms of money and men, replicating the low cost tools of the Quds Force in backing extremist Shia factions sans the discipline. These state’s lack of unity of purpose have so far only exacerbated the divisions among the Syrian and Iraq Sunnis.

Syria’s neighbors are also not in a position to root out ISIL, preferring to contain—with varying degrees of success—the crisis inside Syria. The most successful thus far has been Jordan, which has policed its border with Syria from the beginning of the conflict while working with the U.S. to covertly support the Syrian rebels. Nevertheless, Jordan has around one million Syrians in the country living outside refugee camps. The threat of terrorist attacks, run by the Assad regime or Sunni extremists, has caused Jordan to thus far shy away from the Obama Administration’s proposed program to more openly train and equip the Syrian opposition. 

Turkey, which has the longest and most open border with Syria, has only recently begun efforts to clamp down on jihadist groups operating from its territory into Syria—especially following ISIL’s taking of hostages in Turkey’s Mosul consulate. Like Jordan, Ankara does not want to intervene in Syria due to fears of terrorist attacks on its territory and now ironically sees Kurds, its historic adversary, as its best asset against containing ISIL.

Both Lebanon and Iraq, due to internal divisions and incapacity, are unable to intervene in Syria other than through sub-state actors such as Hezbollah, which has simultaneously coordinated with the working Lebanese government to contain spillover from Syria. Israel, other than covert assistance to some groups in the south and treatment of wounded, has also preferred to stay out of Syria in favor of containment.

ISIL’s recent successes, if sustained, risks not only a redrawing of the Sykes-Picot boundaries, but making ISIL and jihadists in general the authentic and authoritative voice for Sunnis in the Middle East. The continued victories of jihadist forces threaten the Arab Gulf Monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia, which, as guardians of the holy places, have assumed the primary political role in Islam since the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924. A defeat of jihadist forces at the hands of the Assad and Maliki regimes also risks domestic blowback against Gulf monarchies—indeed some rulers have used the excuse of the power of Salafists and general sympathies for Syria’s Sunni opposition for not cracking down earlier on jihadist financial networks.

Given ISIL’s recent successes, it would be optimistic to think their aspirations are limited to a caliphate between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. ISIL has moved its forces toward the borders with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and ISIL elements successfully attacked Lebanese Army positions along the frontier with Syria this week, taking prisoners. Meanwhile, analysts and European and American officials say hundreds, if not thousands, of ISIL and Al Qaeda operatives in Syria and the Islamic State are likely planning attacks either back home or elsewhere. These include Muhsin al-Fadhili, former head of Al Qaeda’s Iranian facilitation network; Sanafi al-Nasr, head of Al Qaeda’s Syria “Victory Committee”; Wafa al-Saudi, Al Qaeda’s former head of security for counter intelligence; as well as Al Qaeda founding member Firas al-Suri. Members of Al Qaeda Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are also reportedly in Syria, indicating a growing opportunity for connectivity, coordination, planning, and synchronization with Jebhat al-Nusra and other jihadists. Taken together with national-based Jihadist units from China, the Caucasus, Libya, Egypt, Sweden, and beyond, the “Islamic State” is already the next Afghanistan or Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas in terms of a durable safe haven and training ground for global Islamic terrorism.1

Given the consolidation of the Islamic State’s gains, and the lack of interest and capacity of its neighbors to uproot the organization in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State is likely to endure absent a more assertive and concerted U.S. policy involving military and political operations. Working with Iran and its clients in the Maliki and Assad governments will not solve the problem, due to both states’ limited military capacities and encouragement of sectarian brutality against Sunnis in both countries. While Iran and its allies may be a natural front on ISIL expansion further afield, empowering Iran and its allies now would be like throwing gasoline on sectarian fire.

If Washington seeks to find the “formula that speaks to the aspirations” of Sunnis outlined in President Obama’s recent New York Times interview, or the “geopolitical equilibrium” between Iran and the Arabs he outlined last autumn, Washington will need to work with allies in Iraq and the Arab Gulf countries to calm tensions and lead Sunnis in Syria and Iraq in a more moderate direction. It will be an uphill struggle: The jihadist narrative that America is waging war on Sunnis post September 11 continues. Many see Obama employing a double-standard in his decision to arm the Kurds and act to prevent a Yezidi “genocide” while refusing for three years to arm Syria’s Sunni-dominated opposition—who he continues to dismiss as mere “doctors, farmers, (and) pharmacists”—and enforce his red line against the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons against civilians.

These could involve pressure on the Maliki government to be more “inclusive,” supporting a change in that government, and special military operations. The success of that program would be heavily dependent on the degree of cooperation and coordination with Sunni regional allies. The Saudi government, which has been wary of American involvement in Iraq, will have to be convinced that Washington will commit to supporting non-jihadi Sunnis in Iraq and Syria militarily (via training) and politically (vis à vis Iraq and Syria’s Iran-backed governments). Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis, who are worried in a very existential way about working against ISIL, will have to be convinced that such a program carries enough potential to work thus risking their and their families' lives. Fortunately Arab Gulf countries have long-term relations with tribes in the areas ISIL controls and very deep pockets. Instead of relying on them to create a Quds Force-equivalent to train and support Sunni moderates in Syria and Iraq, the U.S. should play that role, working in concert with Arab intelligence agencies to coordinate and streamline their efforts to foster a viable moderate Sunni alternative that will fill the vacuum following any ISIL defeat.  

For Washington, such efforts could help stabilize two weak and effectively disintegrated states. For Arab allies, it would provide an opportunity to help moderate forces check both Sunni extremism and Iranian-dominated governments in Baghdad and Damascus. And for the American people, it would make it much less likely its servicemen would have to invade another Middle Eastern country in the wake of another massive terrorist attack.

  1. For an excellent account of the groups and individuals operating in Syria and their comparison to Afghanistan, see Aaron Zelin’s “Syria: The Epicenter of Future Jihad” Policy Watch 2278, Washington Institute for Near East Policy. This argument is supported by the author’s private conversations with European and US officials over the last year, as well as public testimony, outlining the growing Jihadist threat emanating out of Syria.