A divide and conquer strategy in Iraq will only work if it is followed by a comprehensive post-combat blueprint.
“Divide and Conquer,” the classic principle of strategic warfare, has been propagated by many a famous military strategist. Niccolo Machiavelli, for example, in his Dell’arte della Guerra (Book 6 of The Art of War), said : “A Captain should endeavor with every art to divide the forces of the enemy, either by making him suspicious of his men in whom he trusted, or by giving him cause that he has to separate his forces, and, because of this, become weaker.”
Now that the West is struggling with deciding the best course of action in its fight against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, this basic principle could once again be of strategic importance in creating a long-term effective strategy against the group, provided it is accompanied by a very un-Machiavellian emphasis on diplomatic effort and post-conflict planning. The context of the conflict, the structural make-up of IS as an organization and the nature of the group’s allies involved all lend themselves to effective application of the divide and conquer paradigm.
However, to successfully implement this strategy, it is crucial to understand the nature of the conflict, and the many separate issues it entails, on a historical, political, sectarian and even psychological level. Moreover, in order to make the dividing part of this strategy a success, it should be part of a much larger effort to — paradoxically — unite the disparate elements within Iraq society.
Too often still, IS is portrayed as a monolithic entity, consisting of a large number of like-minded individuals, all with a shared agenda, who have somehow managed to miraculously conquer large swathes of land. While its rise was certainly fast and took many by surprise, it is crucial to realize that IS fighters were hailed as liberators by several local communities. Their experiences with the sectarian repression of the Nouri al-Maliki regime over the past years have led them to believe that IS would be the lesser of two evils, and hence many of the disenfranchised Sunni tribal leaders sided with IS against the government in Baghdad.
At a closer look, the current situation in Iraq is actually not one overarching cataclysm, but a catalogue of smaller crises, some political, some regional or economic, and some local or tribal.
However, it is important to remember that their decision was not based on widespread ideological support for IS’s takfiri and jihadi agenda. It is a misconception to see the alliance of Sunni elements with IS as a sign of ideological unity within the organization. Self-proclaimed caliph Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi’s extremist Salafi interpretation of Islamic doctrine, and even more so his autocratic model of governance (IS has “ministries,” a central command and military hierarchy) go very much against the grain of the traditional social structure of local tribal societies, who are attached to their self-government and religious independence.
Instead, this alliance is inherently ambivalent, as it is based on pragmatism and opportunism, not on genuine enthusiasm for IS’s tyrannical regime. A case in point here is the fact that a number of former Baathists and ex-military generals from the Saddam Hussein era have joined IS. Their ideas about how the country should be governed are radically different from what IS propagates as their “ideal state.” Illustrating that these alliances are ambivalent also from IS’s side is the fact that while some former Saddam loyalists are fighting against IS, the organization is simultaneously punishing other Baathists and former Saddam generals, who they consider to be a threat.
IS Beyond Sectarianism
It is certainly tempting to not scratch beyond the surface of the current conflict’s exclusively centuries-old sectarian framework. Indeed, the sectarian aspect always gets stressed by the parties involved; whenever it suits them, that is. Identity politics in this region often serve as a rallying cry, and as a convenient cloak to hide more transient, mundane grievances, such as exclusion from power, repression and a lack of even a modicum of social justice. The sectarian element therefore should not be overstated if we want to truly understand the rise of IS. The group is a decidedly modern phenomenon, risen from the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq (which became the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which in turn became the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which in turn then became IS), and made possible by a context of political and social discontent. While the conflict has by now certainly taken on a sectarian tone, it is not the revisitation of a theological conflict from the 7th century. While Iraqi Sunni elements joined IS for a variety of reasons, none of those reasons were intrinsically based on religion.
At a closer look, the current situation in Iraq is actually not one overarching cataclysm, but a catalogue of smaller crises, some political, some regional or economic, and some local or tribal. Moreover, these conflicts are all driven by a healthy dose of personal interest and opportunism. Sectarian dogmas, even when expressively used as a rallying cry, are just a thin ideological/theological veneer over a multitude of root causes and a complex game of strategic loyalty forging.
The pragmatism and opportunism behind the alliance between the Sunni factions and IS provides an opportunity for the West to break up this coalition by providing the Sunni elements with an alternative that serves their purposes better than their affiliation with IS. In short, we could make them an offer they can’t refuse. President Barack Obama has realized this and has spoken about wanting to recreate the 2007 Sunni Awakening — which countered al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) — in order to break up IS. This would mean that, again, Sunni fighters would be lured away from IS and would become part of newly formed Sunni brigades that would be paid by Baghdad and fight IS. Initially, this strategy was relatively effective in 2007, and combined with the surge approach, it severely weakened AQI and prevented a further escalation of the civil war. However, the subsequent lack of Phase IV stabilization and reconstruction planning for the aftermath of decisive combat operations, along with Maliki’s marginalizing and eventual shutting down of these brigades, meant that soon after the Americans’ departure little was left of this unifying force.
The lack of long-term vision behind this “policy” of the Americans, and their inability to control the sectarian policies of Maliki means that the “Awakening scenario” will be a lot harder to realize this time around. Sunni leaders are very aware of what happened last time, and will be weary of joining such an unreliable partner once more. In spite of these reservations, a number of Sunni tribal confederations have already broken with IS and the beginning of more divisions within the movement can be seen. To maintain the momentum on this development, it is crucial that the international coalition, not just the Americans, do everything in their power to convince the Sunni leaders that past will not be repeated, and that this will be a structural and durable alliance.
Reforms and Political Measures for a New Sunni Awakening
So what is needed to persuade the Sunni leaders that a coalition with Baghdad against IS would be worth a shot? First of all, they should be convinced that this would not just constitute a temporary military alliance, but that the involvement of the Sunni militias against IS will also be translated into a unifying and inclusive political trajectory. Only if the Sunni forces that are currently aligned with IS are truly assured that they will not once again face the wrath of another Shia-dominated government once IS will be contained, will they agree to jump the IS ship. For the US and its international partners, this means committing to much more than providing military training and gently guiding Baghdad. For this strategy to work, it will take strong diplomatic pressures and clear demands for political reform, in return for military assistance against IS. Baghdad needs that military support and it knows it. The US and its coalition partners could and should use this leverage to their advantage.
The West has, perhaps misguidedly, gone beyond the option of just containment, and in view of the current developments it is no longer a question of whether we get involved or not, but to what extent we engage and for how long.
Concretely, a number of reforms and political measures are needed. First of all, Baghdad will have to prove it is more independent from Iran, by reforming the Shia-dominated security forces, who until now have been known for their violent rampages against Sunni citizens. The state’s security forces should be reformed to become manifestly inclusive, with both Shia and Sunni elements represented on an equal basis. Secondly, structural reform of Iraq’s anti-terrorism laws is needed. These laws have until now served as a constitutional instrument of sectarian politics in the hands of the Maliki regime. They have been used to crush every sign of dissent by allowing the indiscriminate arrest of “enemies of the regime” (i.e. disgruntled Sunnis) on the basis of non-existent terrorism charges. These people have been held for years without due process and should — as a sign of goodwill and to neutralize every possible accusation of sectarian abuse — be granted amnesty.
Lastly — and this is perhaps the most important long-term commitment for Baghdad — the Iraqi government, under the auspices of the US led coalition, needs to engage in a constructive political dialogue about future governance with the Sunni leaders who have been forced into political exile over the past years. The only way for Iraq not to fall apart into sectarian turmoil any further than it already has, is for Baghdad to be genuinely committed to creating an inclusive government, to drastically reform the military apparatus and to accede to Western diplomatic guidance on its domestic policies. Will the newly appointed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi be thrilled about this strategy? Probably not. But even Baghdad realizes that at this point in time they need foreign support. For the West, it is crucial to make this support dependent on far-reaching commitment to a sustainable strategy.
Going Halfway as a Recipe for Failure
The US-led coalition is now at a crucial point in the fight against IS. The West has, perhaps misguidedly, gone beyond the option of just containment, and in view of the current developments it is no longer a question of whether we get involved or not, but to what extent we engage and for how long. Any engagement inherently involves great risks — but so would not engaging. The two options were always going to involve different strategic dangers and neither guarantees success in the fight against IS. However, there is one option that guarantees failure: only going halfway.
While strategic air strikes might result in weakening IS operationally and materially, to defeat IS (as far as real defeat is possible) other military and political strategies will be needed. This conclusion will obviously meet with serious objections on the home front of the coalition partners. However, in view of our previous experiences in both Afghanistan and Iraq, we really should have thought about that before we engaged in the first place. Engaging IS militarily has played into the hands of its propaganda machine, but at this point, so will retracting from the fight. Leaving IS after just a few pinpricks will embolden it and, crucially, it will have raised the wrath and determination of the organization without having made any difference strategically. We are now beyond the point of just containment — if we really want to make this something even remotely resembling a success — we will have to go all the way.
Irrespective of how the military strategy will continue, however, serious Phase IV planning and a simultaneous and coherent diplomatic strategy toward Baghdad will be crucial to the success of our involvement in Iraq. While we now focus on military action, we need to put the same amount of energy and time into thinking about a more structural socio-political blueprint for post-IS Iraq. The lack of such a blueprint is what undermined any chance of long-term stability in Iraq last time around. The latest ministerial appointments by Abadi of Khaled al-Obeidi and Mohammed al-Ghabban show that sectarian factionalism is hard to suppress and political inclusivity in Iraqi politics might not be easily realized.
As Machiavelli said: “There is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to introduce a new order of things.” The dangers are obvious, and the stakes are high. But if we want to avoid making the same mistakes again, these are the stakes we should play for.
*[An earlier version of this article in Dutch was published by deFusie.]