Last week, Iraqi Sunni tribes in Anbar Province pledged loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his Islamic State, also called ISIS. Their timing was stunning. Just hours before, at a press conference in Paris, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken had outlined his support for an acceleration of the United States’ training and equipping those very tribes. But next thing he knew, they were parading in front of cameras in full support of ISIS.
Terrible optics aside, these events should not be misunderstood as a Sunni vote of confidence in the “caliph’s” leadership. Rather, they are a manifestation of the Iraqi government’s continued failures.
This is not the first time that Anbar tribes have been forced to submit to ISIS. Back in October 2014, ill-armed tribal fighters in the town of al-Zwaiha, just east of the Euphrates, were forced to cut a deal with ISIS when their pleas for U.S. support were not treated with sufficient urgency. By the time that General John Allen, who is leading the coalition’s war against ISIS, got the message, al-Zwaiha had been overrun.
Today, Sunni tribes are still not being recruited quickly enough or in sufficient enough numbers. And the West is not arming them well enough to take on ISIS. If the reason were simple inertia, it would be worrying enough. In reality, though, failure is a policy written in Baghdad.
When it comes to the recruitment of Sunnis, there are disturbing similarities between the conflict with ISIS and that with al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) a decade earlier. As part of the Anbar Awakening that temporarily crushed AQI, the United States created the Sons of Iraq. This program brought almost 100,000 Sunnis onto the U.S. payroll to fight AQI and to protect the Sunni areas of Baghdad, Diyala, and Saladin from Shiite militia attack.
Baghdad rejected fighters for spurious reasons. If any connection, no matter how tangential, was made to an antigovernment position, the fighter was accused of As the United States wound down its surge and Washington tried to hand over responsibility for the Sons of Iraq to Baghdad, it constantly came up against roadblocks that it was ultimately unable to navigate.
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