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Why Sunnis Won’t Fight ISIS

Iraq’s Sunnis won’t fight ISIS for the U.S., says NIQASH [1], a non-profit media organization operating out of Berlin. Without Sunni support, Obama’s war in Iraq cannot succeed. Here’s why.

Negotiations Fail

According [2] to NIQASH, a source at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad said there have been secret negotiations between various Sunni Muslim armed factions, via Arab and Iraqi Kurdish intermediaries, for the past three months. At the request of U.S. diplomats and military personnel, Shia officials from the Iraqi government have also met with these groups in Erbil, Kurdistan and Amman, Jordan.

At the same time Gen. John Allen, Obama’s appointed coordinator of U.S. efforts in Iraq, has been trying to contact the Sunni tribal leaders he worked with in Anbar during the previous war’s “Awakening [3].” “But it was surprising,” a NIQASH source reported, “Most of General Allen’s former allies refused to cooperate with us. And some of them are actually now living outside of Iraq because of the Iraqi government’s policies.”


With some irony, America’s failure to secure the 2006 Awakening caused those Sunnis sympathetic to America’s aims to flee Shia persecution. Those “good guys” are thus not available in 2014 to help out America in the current war.

ISIS and the Sunnis

When ISIS first took control of Sunni areas in western Iraq, anger towards the Shia government in Baghdad caused many to see them as liberators. The Iraqi army, along with paramilitary police from the Interior Ministry, had engaged in a multi-year campaign of beating, imprisoning, and arresting Sunnis, to the point where many felt that Baghdad was occupying, not governing. For the Sunnis and ISIS, the Baghdad government was a common enemy, and a marriage of necessity formed.

Events in Baghdad do little to assuage Sunni fears. A recent report [4] suggests the new Iraqi Prime Minister, almost certainly against America’s wishes, will nominate a Shia Badr Militia leader as Interior Minister. Since the Shias took control of Iraq following the American invasion of 2003, the Interior Ministry, which controls the police and the prisons, has been a prime tool of repression and punishment.

Still, cracks in the ISIS-Sunni relationship have started to form. Many of the Sunni groups, especially those led by former Baathists, are largely secular in nature, seeing their Sunni ties as broadly cultural rather than strictly religious. ISIS’s requests to pledge allegiance to its cause, coupled with demands to implement Sharia law, have created friction. Some internecine fighting has taken place. The U.S. has sought to exploit these issues to break the indigenous Sunnis away from ISIS, and ultimately to turn the Sunnis into American proxy boots on the ground, as was done with the Kurds.

Obama’s problem is that most Sunnis are fearful about cooperating via America with the Shia government in Baghdad. They believe history will repeat itself and the Americans and the Shia government will betray them, exactly as they betrayed them only a few years ago when the Awakening movement collapsed.

Sorry Mr. President

The Sunnis seem to be choosing a middle ground, one which does not serve Obama’s interests.

According to a 1920s Revolution Brigade [5] Sunni leader, various militias came to the decision “not to support the international coalition against ISIS.” They also decided not to cooperate with ISIS, saying “If the Iraqi army or the Shia militias attack Sunni areas we control, we will fight both groups.”

“We are against the acts of the hard-line Islamic State. And we are also against bombed cars exploding randomly in Baghdad,” Abu Samir al-Jumaili, one of the Sunni Mujahideen Army’s leaders in Anbar province, told [2] NIQASH. “However we are also opposed to the government’s sectarian policies against Sunnis…  In 2006 we cooperated to expel al-Qaeda from Sunni cities but the government did not keep its end of the bargain. They chased our leaders and arrested us … The ISIS group are terrorists but so are the Shia militias.”

History is a Witch

There is no path by which America can succeed in its goals in Iraq—repel ISIS and keep the country together—without the active participation of the Sunnis. It is very unlikely that will happen.

Obama’s strategy rests on the assumption [6] that the Sunnis can be bribed and coerced into breaking with ISIS, no matter the state of things in Baghdad. That’s hard to imagine. As with al-Qaeda in Iraq during the American occupation years, the Islamic State is Sunni muscle against a Shia government that, left to its own devices, would continue to marginalize, if not simply slaughter, them. In 2006, U.S. officials did indeed convince Sunni tribal leaders into accepting arms and payments in return for fighting al-Qaeda. That deal, the Awakening, came with assurances that the United States would always stand by them.

America didn’t stand. Instead, it turned the program over to the Shia government and headed for the door marked exit. The Shias reneged on the deal.

Once bitten, twice shy, so why, only a few years later, would the Sunnis go for the same bad deal? It appears they will not, and that by itself suggests the current Iraq war will not succeed. It is foolish for Obama to expect otherwise.

Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during the Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Me [7]a [7]nt Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People [7]. His new book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent [8], is available now.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Why Sunnis Won’t Fight ISIS"

#1 Comment By John On October 17, 2014 @ 9:10 am

If somebody assured the Sunn’is in 2006 that the United States would always be there to protect them from the central government we were so recently proud of establishing (e.g., purple thumbs in Congress), then that person probably exceeded his brief.

#2 Comment By balconesfault On October 17, 2014 @ 10:43 am

Yep. The Sunnis have no reason whatsoever to expect that the Shia will be nice to them. Then again, for Saddam’s reign, the Sunnis, including many of those guys we’re trying to work with now, were complicit in doing horrible things to the Shia population.

It’s pretty much looking like Joe Biden circa 2006-2007 was right – Iraq should have been broken into three autonomous regions. The Shia could be allied with Iran for their security, the Kurds could pretty much do what they’ve been doing already, and the Sunnis would have support from the Saudis and Turks which may well have allowed them to basically backdoor eliminate any movement or ISIS outside of Syria.

Now … if only Biden had been right about Iraq back in 2002, as well as Hillary and a host of other Dems. Not that I believe a unified Democratic front against an Iraq invasion would have deterred Bush/Cheney – but at least their hands would be cleaner.

#3 Comment By The Wet One On October 17, 2014 @ 10:45 am

Why does America want to keep Iraq together?

What does America care about in that regard?

#4 Comment By Fran Macadam On October 17, 2014 @ 10:57 am

Yeah, but think of the money to be made by the military-industrial-financialists. Even when it doesn’t work for real American interests, it works for them – “bigtime.”

#5 Comment By Philip Giraldi On October 17, 2014 @ 11:02 am

Thanks for this Peter – lots of good information! It is symptomatic of the fact that the US even when it has good intentions never seems to understand how the game plays out at the ground level. That is due sometimes to poor intelligence but it is more often a perception that the US is able to make up the rules as it goes along and that the people on the receiving end of the policies will of necessity agree. Tain’t so any more.

#6 Comment By Hassan Dibadj On October 17, 2014 @ 1:34 pm

The problem with Peter is his underlying assumption of rationality of all players. The problem with many western, especially American, observers is that they find it too hard to comprehend the very evident cultural problems, and at the same time they can’t resign to leave the region.
Iraq IS the ultimate land of irrational political behaviour fuelled by all kinds of nasty tribal zeal, spite and rigidity. Saddam was representative of this nation. Among them Iraqi Sunnis are the most combative and least compromising faction. Decades of arab nationalism, followed by a blind activism perpetuated by Qatar’s Al-Jazeera and Saudi Salafi preachers (characterized by their intolerance/ hatred of anything cultural, anything slightly sophisticated, anything that is not purely supremacist) only developed the irrational zeal and unrealistic expectations further.
These are a group of people incapable of long term political calculations and especially incapable of imaging a mutually beneficial settlement. That is the truth. However, if it wasn’t for Qatari and Saudi insinuation, they’d be tired by now, or at least would give up their expansionist views and be happy to live in their own sunni dominated area.

#7 Comment By Captain P On October 17, 2014 @ 3:16 pm

Eventually Sunnis will tire of the psychotic repression and violence of ISIS, and turn against it. Perhaps Shia-run Iraq will then seem like better overlords. Alternatively, the Sunnis might expel ISIS on their own and continue to resist the Shia rule. Can we just split Iraq up into three countries already?

#8 Comment By JohnG On October 17, 2014 @ 4:35 pm

This is what empires do, take one side that better serves their short term interests, without taking into account how LONG it takes for the typically victimized other side to stop associating its suffering with the foreign power. If anyone had been serious about pacifying and democratizing Iraq, plans should have been ready going in to federalize the country and have ethnic balance of power. Instead, the removal of Saddam de facto enabled horrendous ethnic cleansing of the Sunni population from large sections of Iraq (and I don’t care whether this was “revenge” for what was happening under Saddam, it still is what it is), and now millions of Sunnis, not just in Iraq but in the wider region, absolutely hate and distrust America. And for perfectly good reasons, courtesy of our neocon class, people who, among other things, saw to it that the Oil Ministry in Baghdad was promptly secured right away but left the famed Baghdad Museum pretty much open for looting. Talk about sensibilities and knowing what to do in a foreign land one is intervening in.

The same long term damage to America’s image has recently been done in Ukraine where the western nationalists (even some unsavory figures) were and still are unconditionally supported and America is more and more distrusted and even hated in the East as a result. And then we wonder how and why Putin is able to extend his influence (our neocon class is his best promoter, it turns), just like we are wondering where the heck ISIS came from. Same thing in Kosovo from where the Serbian population was almost completely cleansed courtesy of our similarly questionable “allies” and then we wonder why they are organizing a military parade for Putin in Belgrade. We have similarly lost the public opinion in Abkhazia and South Ossetia courtesy of John McCain and his reckless advice and pressure on Georgia to reclaim control over these regions by force. And not to mention the mother of all these conflicts and the unconditional support for whatever Israel does, and then we hear that Arabs hate us because of our freedom, give me a break!

America should make sure no rogue nation starts to dominate or threatens Eurasia because that would be a major threat to our national interest. Along these lines, Hitler and Imperial Japan HAD to be fought, so let’s forget all the neocon nonsense about “isolationism” or “moral imperatives” when we say that we have no business intervening in Iraq or Syria. As a matter of what is moral to do, we should help them negotiate a fair ethnic settlement and that’s it. And if the Sunni part of Iraq (and Syira) wants to be ruled by ISIS, so be it, that is probably the best way to get rid of those fanatics anyway. Have them rule some place, that is sure to compromise them, rather than have them “fight America” and be heroes on the Arab street, a recipe for decades of war and terrorism.

PS And don’t get me started on the use of drones across the Muslim world, just think how many enemies THAT monstrosity is creating, we’d better wake up, and soon.

#9 Comment By Charlieford On October 17, 2014 @ 7:12 pm

“That deal, the Awakening, came with assurances that the United States would always stand by them.”

I’d like to hear more about that. Surely, they were also aware of our constant insistence that, “as they stand up, we’ll stand down”?

#10 Comment By Johann On October 17, 2014 @ 8:14 pm

America didn’t stand. Instead, it turned the program over to the Shia government and headed for the door marked exit. The Shias reneged on the deal.

No, its another case where the god of democracy failed. Iraq and other countries with disparate clans and cultures should be set up with checks and balances to prevent domination by the majority. The answer is certainly not that American should have stayed and held their hand.

#11 Comment By Noah172 On October 17, 2014 @ 8:42 pm

Iraqi Arab Sunnis won’t fight ISIS for the US? OK, what about for Gulf Arabs — Saudi, Qatar, UAE? I hear they pay well. Go ask the jihadists in Syria.

And who needs all the Arab Sunnis anyway? Iraq has 15 million or more Arab Shiites, backed by Iran (larger and more powerful than Iraq), plus 5 or more million Kurds, who clearly are willing and competent fighters. Shouldn’t these blocs be enough to shove the 30-odd thousand ISIS fighters back into Syria, to be crushed in the vise of Iran- and Putin-backed Assad?

Can’t the locals figure this out with, at most, only logistical help and some air strikes from America? I just don’t get why the prospect of (for Arab Sunnis) living under Taliban-style lunatics, or (for Shiites, Kurds, and non-Muslims) being murdered and tortured by said lunatics, isn’t motivation enough to go on the offensive.

It’s not like Middle Easterners don’t know how to kill each other without bribes or sweet talk from meddlesome Americans.

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 17, 2014 @ 11:13 pm

It’s hard to know what to say here. As one opposed to both invasions and very dubious that we are going to do what needs to be done to occupy a country – even now.

#13 Comment By Avery On October 17, 2014 @ 11:22 pm

This is pretty close to what I am hearing from professional military analysts, and the wishy-washiness from the White House on this issue speaks volumes. (America’s “allies” in the Middle East seem to have some very odd opinions about ISIS.) A fine analysis from the author of “We Meant Well”, which is a very memorable book.

#14 Comment By msnthrop On October 18, 2014 @ 8:44 am

The Sunni might not fight if offered money, but fewer of them might join ISIS. As long it’s the Iraqi governments money, maybe with some kind of mechanism that required the payments to continue regardless of who the PM is, this could limit ISIS recruitment. As I recall the payment amounts to the Sunni during the surge were about the same as a couple of bombs and as you say, it is the only way, so I say just give them the money even if they don’t want to actively fight.

#15 Comment By Kristina Krovane On November 4, 2014 @ 10:10 am

According to a 1920s Revolution Brigades (Sunni militia) leader, various militias came to the decision “not to support the international coalition against ISIS. They also decided not to cooperate with ISIS either. If the [Iraqi] army or the [Shia] militias attack [Sunni] areas they control though, they will fight both groups.” That said, if Sunni militia won’t fight, we should pull our air support and maybe then these people will fight their own battles. The Sunni are demonstrating a false sense entitlement and are thinking the US will fight their battles if they do not–this will not happen. Wars are not free, and we are not guns for hire. Sunni people step up or suffer the consequences of your own lack of participation in this war.