The executions of journalists Jim Foley and, apparently, Steven Sotloff have brought new urgency to public discussion over how to respond, how to stop the extremists of ISIS, or the Islamic State. Official debate seems to always focus on airstrikes, and pressure is rising for more. But despite the horror of these despicable killings, President Obama is right when he says there’s no U.S. military solution in Iraq.
It really shouldn’t surprise anyone that, in the medium and long term, U.S. bombing in Iraq and potentially in Syria is likely to make ISIS stronger. We’ve seen this before – in Afghanistan where bombing was supposed to eliminate al Qaeda, in Iraq where shock-and-awe was supposed to open the door to a new Middle East, in Libya where the US-NATO airstrikes were supposed to create democracy.
Why? Because in Iraq power remains divided along sectarian lines, and ISIS doesn’t operate alone. The extremist organization has succeeded at defeating army troops, taking and holding territory, and expanding political control not only because it is well-armed with U.S. weapons, well trained and well led – but also because it has important local allies, who are not terrorists. In Iraq especially, ISIS has support from a significant swath of Sunni Iraqis. Sunnis don’t support ISIS because of its calls for a 7th century-style caliphate, its attacks on women and non-Sunnis, or its gruesome punishments for perceived violations of its brand of Islamic law – but rather despite those extremist realities.
When the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq, one of the first things it did was to dismantle the military, sending home jobless the mostly Sunni officer corps. Then the occupation authorities dismantled the civil service, in what was known as “de-Baathification,” and hundreds of thousands more Sunnis lost their jobs. And especially during the last eight years, under the U.S.-backed Shi’a sectarian Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Sunnis in Iraq have faced terrible repression at the hands of their government and the Shi’a militias that support it – loss of jobs, mass arrests, torture, executions, all have left Sunnis disenfranchised and angry. Events like the recent attack on a Sunni mosque in Diyala province, killing over 70 people, with the Shi’a militias blamed for the assault seemingly still counting on impunity, if not actual support from the government in Baghdad, push Sunnis further towards regarding the Sunni ISIS fighters, however extreme, as the only protector of their interests.
That’s why ISIS has been able to rely on support from many Sunni tribal leaders and their militias, to count on military training from former Baathist generals, and to win support from ordinary Sunnis more terrified of the government’s repression than of the threat of ISIS’s extremist violence.
So when the U.S. bombs ISIS, many Sunni Iraqis don’t see it as the U.S. “going after terrorists.” They see U.S. bombers providing an air force for Kurdish fighters and supplying close air support to the Iraqi Army – which for years has functioned less as a national army and more as the biggest and best armed Shi’a militia in the country.
Despite the selection of a new prime minister-designate, Iraq’s military and security sectors remain under the control of Shi’a leaders. Many Sunnis thus see an alliance with ISIS as their only protection against a sectarian government – so while President Obama says his goal is to persuade Sunni leaders to break with ISIS, his airstrikes against ISIS have exactly the opposite effect.
We need to end the airstrikes and create a U.S. strategy recognizing that there really is no U.S. military solution. And when military action makes things worse, diplomacy becomes even more urgent. Changing the Iraqi government is crucial, but Washington can’t impose that on its own – not least because it isn’t the only outside player with influence in Baghdad.
Washington pays most of the bills, but Tehran holds far more influence in Baghdad these days. Iran is a regional power with size, oil wealth and water – and at the moment is one of the most stable countries in the Middle East. The nuclear talks with Iran appear to be going well, and the U.S. and Iran share a concern about the danger of ISIS further destabilizing Iraq.
Isn’t it time to open a new, much broader engagement with Iran, aiming at a “grand bargain” to not only resolve the nuclear crisis but also to recalibrate the whole U.S.-Iran relationship in the Middle East? That kind of change could really start to reduce the power of ISIS – something airstrikes can’t accomplish.
Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her books include Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.