Fighting the Islamic State in Iraq

With Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki resisting calls to step down, US military strikes risk having little effect in combatting the Islamic State (IS).

It is clear that military action will ultimately be needed to defeat IS, but if this is to have any chance of success it will have to be accompanied by concerted action against IS by local Sunni actors. IS is not operating within a vacuum – it has forged critical alliances with Sunni groups on the ground aggrieved at the marginalising policies of the Maliki government – and these actors must turn against it if there is to be any prospect of defeating it. This shift can only come about on the back of a new governing pact offering aggrieved Sunnis a meaningful stake in the system.

For the moment, however, the prospect of significant political reform in Baghdad remain slim at best, despite the concerted pressure of Iraq’s religious establishment, Iran and Western powers. Across eight years of rule Maliki has cemented control of the state’s security institutions around his office and with his bloc having won the most seats at the last elections he is now refusing to leave, a position that is now allegedly being backed by Iraq’s federal court.

In this context not only do US military strikes risk little impact in combatting IS – Maliki’s ongoing stay in power will ensure that Sunnis do not switch sides – but they actually risk making the situation worse if viewed as US complicity with Maliki, particularly if they take the pressure off him to stand down, further fuelling IS’s mobilising drive. It is for this reason that President Obama has to date committed to very narrow objectives and limited military action, wanting to keep Maliki's feet close to the fire. The longer the political crisis endures over a new government, however, and with IS’s advance continuing unabated, the greater the pressure Obama will face to escalate US military action regardless of the status of the prime ministership. Already the US is directly arming Kurdish forces, which could itself further complicate deal-making in Baghdad and US ambitions to preserve the political unity of the Iraqi state.

Focus within Baghdad remains on the formation of a new government led by an alternative to Maliki. Given his unwillingness to step down, however, the country now faces the prospect of a second debilitating crisis to accompany the advance of IS – an intra-Shia struggle for power which could itself turn violent, thrusting the country into even deeper turmoil, and further facilitating IS’s advance. And even if Maliki is eventually successfully pushed aside questions remain about just how willing an alternative prime minister will be to reach out to Sunnis given the deep sectarian polarisation running through the country and the shared perception among many Shias that the uprising is dominated by terrorists and Baathists with whom there can be no political deal-making.

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

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