Has ISIS taken all of Anbar?

ISIS is on the advance. It took the city of Ramadi a few days ago, which was the Iraq government’s last stronghold in Anbar province. There had been a government counterattack under a blitz of six US airstrikes. With a supreme effort the Iraq forces regained full control of Al-Mukhabarat neighborhood in Ramadi, which is the capital city of Al-Anbar Governorate, meanwhile SWAT troops regained 75 percent of Al-Malab area. Those small successes were two days ago. ISIS counterattacked yesterday and Iraq government forces held out until they finally started to run out of ammunition, then they fled. As of today the entire province is now under ISIS control. More to the point, the Anglo-American policy of airstrike after airstrike is so often only serving to create refugees. It is not truly turning the tide against ISIS in Sunni areas; though it does clearly help draw a line in the sand by mere overwhelming bombardment when it comes to protecting cities like Baghdad and Kirkuk, So airstrikes can help turn the tide, but they must be used more judicially than at present. The US and its allies are now directly arming those few Sunni tribes that are loyal, and indeed starting to arm the Kurdistan Regional Government, by-passing Iraq’s central government (though it is far too little too late). But the USA simply fails to understand that defeating ISIS actually requires political strategies alongside the military action it is so fond of, key amongst which are reigning in Turkey as well as forcing the removal of Iraq’s deBaathification laws. Something the USA hasn’t the bottle to do.

Iraq’s Sectarian Division

The Iraqi forces’ current offensive on ISIS in the city of Tikrit has been taking place without the help of US airstrikes as the US seemed uneasy about the increasingly sectarian nature behind the involvement of Iranian Shiite forces. It is thought that over two-thirds of the current Iraqi forces are made up of Shiite militias and that the Iranian Major General, Qassim Suleimani, is playing an influential role in the campaign. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps are also reported to be present in the fight, operating heavy weaponry. Although not confirmed, it is thought that the growing role of Iranian forces and the high volume of Shiite militia fighters may be the reason for the lack of airstrikes. However, it is evident that this conflict, which was supposed to be liberating Iraq from ISIS, is instead creating a platform for a large-scale sectarian conflict. And the coalition has been very slow to realise the severity of this situation.

Sectarian violence from Shiite militias has been rife and at times comparable to that of ISIS. Last week a video of a young boy being executed was released online. His executioners were soldiers with the Iraqi flags on their arms and they could be heard calling for others to join the Shiite militias. This is not an isolated incident and Amnesty International released a report in October 2014 on the frequent abductions and killings of Sunni civilians by Shia militias. Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi has condemned and forbidden such sectarian violence but has been unable to prevent it.

Of course, the actions of ISIS have been fuelling sectarian fears and divisions. In June 2014, an ISIS twitter feed displayed pictures of hundreds of dead Shiites in Tikrit, surrounded by their ISIS killers. It is therefore inevitable that the thought of large Shia militias entering Tikrit provokes worries of vengeful, sectarian violence – particularly in the light of recent examples such as the execution of the young boy.

History seems to repeat itself in Iraq. Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath party consistently oppressed the Shiite majority and when he finally fell in 2003, a process of de-Baathification only served to polarise Iraqi politics. Since Saddam’s fall, Sunni politicians have been marginalised, particularly by previous Prime Minister, Nouri Maliki and in recent years many have been accused of terrorism – including former Vice-president, Tariq al-Hashemi, who was even sentenced to death although he managed to flee the country before charges could be brought against him.

Since 2003 sectarian tensions have intensified and for many Sunnis, resentment towards the government has been building. As a result there have consistently been sectarian clashes across the country, from Sunni insurgencies in the aftermath of Saddam’s fall to more recent clashes in Anbar province. Shiite military groups like Imam Ali Brigade and the Freeman of Mosul are leaving notes on the doorsteps of Sunni households with threats of an-eye-for-an-eye retribution. Regardless of whether these families are associated with ISIS, they fear becoming targets. Even some Yazidis who were ruthlessly persecuted and once co-existed peacefully with the Sunnis are pledging vengeance, quoting they will “never trust them again.”

The absence of a political process to accompany the air strikes is instead driving Sunni communities to consider allying with ISIS. However, reconciliation cannot take place without the complete removal of ISIS, the Shiites alone cannot defeat them. Some argue that if the Sunni tribes are armed then ISIS will not last a month. But there is simply no trust left between the communities.

It is for this reason that avoiding sectarian violence on the part of the Iraqi forces is of such importance. It will only serve to create further divisions and therefore give the opportunity for ISIS to be seen as protectors and liberators of the Sunni minority. It must not be allowed to descend into a sectarian civil war. If divisions continue to intensify then it could lead to a conflict that would continue long after the planned expulsion of ISIS.