In early March, Baghdad started a push to retake the historic city of Tikrit, located in the center of the so-called Sunni triangle, from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). This is a critical first offensive in what will be a larger campaign to wrest territorial control of the Sunni heartland—the Anbar and nearby Nineveh provinces—from ISIS. Some Americans must be feeling a sense of déjà vu; the U.S. military tried something similar as part of the 2006–07 Arab Sunni Awakening. Then, as now, counterterrorism operations combined with efforts to win Sunni hearts and minds required the tough, tedious work of offering the right guarantees and incentives to “flip” key leaders of the Iraqi Sunni tribal region away from the terrorists in their midst.
Still, it would be foolish to assume that Iraqi’s Sunni tribal terrain has remained unchanged since the United States helped to empower the Sons of Iraq to rise up against al Qaeda, ISIS’ predecessor. There is no quick fix to the problem of ISIS in Iraq, particularly given the real changes on the ground over the past few years. Although the battle for Tikrit may be an initial salvo, the Iraqi government forces should not rush from a victory there to Mosul, their apparent next stop in the campaign. Although defeating ISIS in Mosul would deal a decisive blow to the militant group’s envisioned caliphate, the Mosul offensive should wait until Baghdad has achieved greater progress laying the political groundwork with new local Sunni leaders.
Iraq’s central government faces even worse terrain and stronger headwinds than the United States military did during the Arab Sunni Awakening.
First, the former Sons of Iraq have lost much of their appeal within their community, discredited by their association with the government of former Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki and its oppressive rule in Sunni areas. Prominent sheikhs from Iraqi tribes, including Ahmad Abu Risha, Hamad al-Hayis, and Wissam al-Hardan, still organize themselves
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