The rise of ISIS in Iraq – 3 mistakes to avoid

How the EU should not respond to the crisis in Iraq

The seizure by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) of continuous territory from eastern Syria to the doorstep of Baghdad poses a grave threat to regional and international security. The group’s consolidation of a pseudo-emirate threatens a new centre of international jihadism and could thrust Iraq – and the wider region – into unprecedented sectarian civil war. Shiite militias are rapidly remobilising and the Kurds have used the crisis to seize the highly disputed city of Kirkuk, long considered a potential trigger point between Baghdad and Erbil. The crisis demands some form of European response, but one that must be carefully measured.

1)      Don’t only focus on counter-terrorism

While ISIS has been at the forefront of the recent anti-government advance in Iraq, it is not acting alone. The military gains are based on alliances between ISIS and a number of disenfranchised local tribes and neo-Baathists, reflecting widespread Sunni disenchantment with the Maliki government's exclusivist sectarian policies. ISIS will ultimately only be defeated if a political deal is struck that peels away wider Sunni support from the group.

Europe must avoid framing the crisis through a purely counter-terrorism lens, even if this is understandably a prime interest. Embracing Maliki's narrow CT narrative will legitimise his military approach and lessen the prospect of necessary reform. The CT solution lies in a political deal and sectarian de-escalation rather than a narrow emphasis on military victory.

There is of course no denying that some form of immediate security response is needed to prevent the fighting reaching Baghdad and Shia religious centres which could result in the unleashing of Shia militias and wider sectarian mayhem. But any military response must go hand in hand with political measures. Appropriate support, particularly through intelligence assistance, from EU states must be conditioned on the introduction of political reform, and clear guarantees that military action will be balanced and discriminate.

2)      Don’t make it about Maliki

The status of Prime Minister Maliki has emerged as a key issue in the crisis, with some voices calling for him to step aside as part of a political deal. However, it is important to recognise that Sunni resentment reflects the structural shift in the balance of power away from them post-2003 and that a new prime minister will not be an automatic panacea.

Rather than focusing on the divisive issue of the prime ministership (particularly given that Maliki won the recent election, securing the highest number of votes of any single politician), the international community should concentrate on supporting the establishment of a more inclusive system of governance that redistributes meaningful authority to Sunnis. Entrenched polarisation and a complete lack of Sunni trust in the Shia-dominated political order means this will probably now necessitate some form of greater federalism for Sunni areas alongside existing KRG arrangements – this does not necessitate the break up of the Iraqi state (or the Syrian state next door).

The lesson of Syria should also caution the West against demanding the removal of a leader without the means or commitment to make this happen.

3)      Don’t ignore the neighbours

Europe should work with the US to secure regional support for necessary political reform. Iran’s deep influence in Iraq means that Tehran will be critical to securing a deal, while Gulf states hold influence with Sunni tribal forces that could be mobilised behind a new national compact. Regional actors should be encouraged to push domestic groups in the same direction, but should nonetheless seek to avoid direct regional immersion as has occurred in Syria. 

It is also clear that developments in Iraq cannot be seen in isolation from Syria, where ISIS has had space in which to build, mobilise and gain access to resources. In the face of the threat now posed by ISIS, Europe must reenergise international efforts to find a solution to the Syria crisis, and recognise that major armed support to Syrian rebels is now less likely than ever given the clear failure of ‘selective and guaranteed’ arming of ‘friendly militias’.

Instead, the Iraq crisis represents an opportunity to leverage much-needed regional support behind a deal in Syria. In addition to shared concerns over ISIS, a willingness by Tehran to draw Sunnis into the equation in Iraq, may offer a path towards similar deal-making in Syria. However, any chance of success will depend on moving away from the failed London 11 and Groups of Friends model and towards a contact group or regional concert of powers that must include the regional actors – from the GCC, Iran and Turkey at the least. The expression of some Western willingness to engage with Iran over the Iraq crisis is encouraging and must be extended to Syria, including by meaningfully testing the Zarif four point plan

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
President, US/Middle East Project

Subscribe to our newsletters

Be the first to know about our latest publications, podcasts, events, and job opportunities. Join our community and stay connected!