June 30, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Iraq’s Walk Back From the Brink: What it Would Take

  • Tomorrows deadline to choose a new Iraqi prime minister can be the first step towards finding a solution to the current crisis
  • Choosing a prime minister able to work across sectarian and political bloc lines is the most important step Iraq can take right now to avoid sectarian war
  • With a unifying figure replacing the extremely divisive current Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, the Sunni tribes will have political cover and more incentive in a second step to strongly oppose The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which has exploited Sunni despair at al-Malikis rule
  • Regional powers need to take the third step of understanding that the current crisis is too explosive to be a source of leverage against each other, and then act with relative unity against extremist currents moving across the region
  • On June 29, ISIS renamed itself the Islamic State that has now restored the caliphate ushering in a new era of international jihad—a remarkable proclamation which should further unify regional countries against this borderless threat.


Iraq has a realistic chance to walk back from the brink of sectarian war if it chooses, by using the urgency of the situation as momentum to push past years of political stasis that has fueled the crisis. The solution would need to create a political and social environment more conducive to cooperation than confrontation.

Signal Meaningful Intention to Address Sectarian Divide by Replacing al-Maliki

Replacing al-Maliki is the most critical step towards redressing the crisis. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is immensely influential in Iraq, has publicly pressed the country’s political blocs to agree on a new prime minister before the start of the new legislative session tomorrow, on July 1st. This statement provides political cover for rival factions to nominate someone less divisive than current prime minister Nuri al-Maliki. It also provides al-Maliki with a face-saving way of stepping down were he to decide to put national stability over personal and sectarian ambition. The removal of al-Maliki would signal to everyone, not just the rightfully wary Sunni, that Iraq’s political leaders not only intend to move away from the destructive sectarian rule of al-Maliki but are actually doing it as well. The next prime minister will indeed be Shi’a but he mustn’t act in a way that excludes and thus alienates Sunnis and Kurds. Nearly all hopes for moving Iraq not just away from the brink of disaster but towards the promise of stability rest upon taking this first step.

Supporting Sunni Tribal Opposition to ISIS

ISIS has germinated for years in the Sunni tribal areas of Anbar and Diyala provinces, surviving more off the local hatred of al-Maliki than local support for its violent ideology. As was the case in the 2005-2008 Sunni Awakening, or Sahwah, it will fall to the Sunni tribes to, en masse, oppose ISIS extremists and rout them from the area. With al-Maliki in power, ever determined to see even moderate Sunnis as mortal threats to his regime, Sunni leaders had little incentive to fight the enemy of their enemy, even if they abhorred ISIS tactics and beliefs. However, removing al-Maliki also removes this reluctance and provides Sunnis, finally, with something to fight for instead of only something to fight against. This needs to happen in short order.

It is important to note that even with the recent ISIS advances, the group’s ideology is quite alien to Sunni Iraq, which is relatively moderate and secular in comparison to other countries in the region. It is not Iraq itself that inspires the rise of such hateful groups but rather the corrosive effects of persistent conflict and tension, domestic and foreign.

Like the first, any second Sahwah movement will need support, and this time it can be the Iraqi government that steps in with help. A moderate and less conspiratorial-minded prime minister will understand that empowering Sunnis doesn’t mean placing them back in power, or taking power away from Shi’a. Armed militias are never a long-term solution—and inevitably become a source of instability—but since the primarily Shi’a Iraqi army has been unable to fight ISIS and gain Sunni loyalty, Sahwah groups will have to step into the breach. Bringing these groups back into the national fold will be a vital step after the immediate crisis has been contained.

Getting the Neighbors to See the Dangers of Their Designs

Iraq’s neighbors have not helped the situation. The country has been seen by both Iran and Saudi Arabia as a proxy battleground for their fights over sectarian advantage and regional influence. By viewing every action in the region and in Iraq in particular as a sectarian chess move, Iran and Saudi Arabia have missed the fact that the chessboard is completely on fire. Rhetoric matters, and the rhetoric from official channels as well as social media makes it nearly impossible to cooperate and legislate. Al-Maliki and the civil war in Syria, which needs to be de-coupled as much as possible from Iraq’s conflict, do bear much of the blame, but so do Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Jordan, which has the most to lose if Iraq continues its descent, might help moderate Saudi Arabia’s position, since the two are relatively close and both struggle with internal extremism. Amman might convince Riyadh to at least come to the table in terms of talking about Iraq as Iraq and not an extension of Iran. Turkey, which has belatedly but finally begun to see its tacit support of extremist groups fighting against Bashar al-Assad in Syria as a threat to Turkey and the region, will also be instrumental in walking Iraq back from disaster.

In a remarkable proclamation on June 29, ISIS announced it dropped the “Iraq and Greater Syria” part of its name, now goes by “Islamic State,” and its conquest are “the restoration of the caliphate.” By announcing the erasure of borders and the beginning a “new era of international jihad,” the group is directly threatening surrounding countries. This development by a group clearly deluded with its own propaganda but with actual victories to back it up should further unify the region against the threat and the conditions that allowed it to rise.

Tomorrow is an important day for Iraq’s future. The necessary steps towards rectifying the crisis are difficult but not impossible, and they must be taken in short order.



For tailored research and analysis, please contact:

Screen Shot 2013-10-21 at 9.32.42 AM