October 22, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Lack of Trust Hinders Second Sunni Awakening

• Coalition airstrikes are intended to blunt the momentum of the self-declared Islamic State (IS) and provide time for a popular Sunni uprising that might never happen given the understandable lack of trust among all sides

• The Sunni Awakening that helped diminish the precursor group to IS in 2006-2009 is the successful outlier in Iraq’s history of tragic uprisings; and it will not likely be replicated since the conditions that allowed it to succeed no longer exist

• To that end, one of the foundational assumptions of the effort to dismantle IS—that the Sunni tribes will soon rise up and oppose IS in a second Awakening—is built on uncertain ground

• Sunni tribal leaders realize there won’t be anything near 2007-levels of support (material, financial, training) if they oppose IS en masse, and after gaining next to nothing politically after the first Awakening, there is no trust in a different outcome for any second Awakening

• Reports of a failed Sunni uprising in eastern Syria are additional disincentives for both Syrian and Iraqi Sunni populations to fight IS, and additional incentive to wait and see what external factors will emerge to change the status quo.

Along with an inclusive Iraqi national government, conventional wisdom states that a popular Sunni uprising is the surest way of rolling back the hold of the Islamic State (IS) over a large portion of the country. Indeed, one of the foundational assumptions of the current international anti-IS coalition is that airstrikes will give time for the subjugated Sunni populations in the provinces of Anbar, Diyala, Salah ad-Deen, and Ninewah to rise up and fight off the IS infection. This assumption rests on uncertain ground, in that is conflates the Sunni uprising of 2007 with what is possible today. The conditions of 2006 are currently impossible to recreate, leaving the question of what is realistically possible.

The Sunni Awakening (or Sahwah) of 2006-2009 has been rightfully credited with helping to diminish violent extremism personified by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its later manifestations of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), and now IS. That success has led to calls for a second Sunni Awakening, in which Sunni tribes again reverse IS gains in their areas, but these calls ignore fundamental differences between 2006 and now. The Sunni Awakening succeeded for two reasons: first, it was massively supported by the U.S. military in equipment, armaments, expertise, training, and, most importantly, in side-by-side guidance. Second, the Sunnis believed that by expelling the extremist groups, they were laying the groundwork for future political power commensurate to their recent past, however unrealistic that was. Both reasons are null in 2014.

Even the most optimistic plans for support of Sunni uprisings against IS are nowhere near 2006-2007 levels. There will not be a U.S. army platoon stationed alongside a Sunni Awakening checkpoint, nor will there be joint tactical operation centers in all the key neighborhoods and areas. Sunni leaders know this and are for the most part reluctant to push their constituencies into battles for which they are poorly equipped and prepared. Airstrikes won’t recreate 2007, though they will hurt IS, giving rise to a situation in which the local actors are waiting for a support that will never come.

In 2014, Sunni leaders have an even further lack of trust in the potential for a palatable political solution. After expending so much during the Awakening and receiving so little in its aftermath, it is unrealistic to expect that the Sunni tribes will fight for the notion of “Iraq” even if the new prime minister is more inclusive than the last. A decade of political displacement followed by political persecution has left an indelible mark on the Sunni that will be difficult to overcome.

This lack of trust in an Iraq that isn’t a Sunni Ba’athist Iraq is at the heart of the challenge. It is the combination of a belief in an unrealistic return to power (or anything close to it) with the truly divisive policies of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki that fueled the eventual rise of IS. Even at its lowest point in 2010, IS survived partly because a portion of the Iraqi Sunni population wanted it to; there were so few other champions of a lost fight worth backing. The Syrian Civil War made IS a powerhouse but Sunni distrust in political redress kept it alive. An anti-IS strategy that depends on reversing Sunni support must first reverse the lack of faith in any alternatives. Airstrikes can diminish the group, but without Sunni buy-in to the strategic goals, it remains a delaying tactic at best.

Reports of a failed Sunni uprising in Abu Hamam, Syria, will not be lost on other would-be uprisers. It further supports the belief that waiting for external factors to change the dynamic is indeed the wisest choice. This is a sensible choice but unfortunate given the primacy of Sunni opposition to IS in the current plan to oust the group. The expectation another Awakening is not realistic and ignores the differences between today and 2006.


Read The Soufan Group's special report on The Islamic State here.


For tailored research and analysis, please contact:

Screen Shot 2013-10-21 at 9.32.42 AM