Airstrikes on ISIS Won’t Fix Sectarian Policy in Iraq

The new phase of US and coalition airstrikes aimed to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS may not destroy ISIS entirely given its Syrian sanctuary. But it may also have negative effects on the ongoing development and reconciliation efforts in Iraq.

Iraq is deeply divided along sectarian lines and unfortunately sectarian conflicts result in predominantly civilian casualties. The Catholic and Protestant conflict in Belfast resulted in a 90 percent civilian casualty rate. Pakistani’s sectarian conflict has led to an estimated 52,000 (both civilian and combatant) deaths between 2005 and 2010.

Iraq’s sectarian authorities are heavily path-dependent. This presents exiguous opportunities for building and strengthening democratic institutions and procedures. Particularly important in this instant is the concerted efforts by means of military action against ISIS (not just Sunni but radical Sunni jihadists) that feeds current sectarian political dynamics in Iraq. Ultimately the result is the reinforcement and reproduction of divisive institutional arrangements.

If singling out the Sunni sect is bad enough then current international efforts in arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces is even worse. Turkey should be the US’ biggest ally in the fight against ISIS in the region, however it is not. For decades, Turkey has been fighting the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). Currently the US, Canada, and some European allies have been arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Iraq. Consequently, some of these weapons have transcended the border and have landed in the hands of the PKK. This is troubling for Ankara as it is attempting to disarm the group through political negotiations.

The Kurdish independence movement has been re-energized given its successes on the battlefield against ISIS. In the past, various Kurdish factions have fought amongst themselves, however their battle with ISIS has united them under a free Kurdistan cause. Their successes have also been supported by US airstrikes, which in turn has bestowed Peshmerga forces with a sense of vindication and legitimacy. Once the fight against ISIS in Iraq is complete, a renewed insurgency for free Kurdistan insurgency is likely to follow in Iraq or Turkey.

US warplanes striking ISIS positions in Iraq moves away from the necessity of political and institutional reorientation, and purges critical junctures of leading to the establishment of coherent and autonomous civil society. Problematically, the significance of civil society is provisional. It depends on the socioeconomic and political architecture in which it exists.

President Obama’s efforts to avoid exceptionalizing the position and contributions of Shia Muslims sounds a positive note in the US’ approach to the conflict currently waging in the Middle East and as regards ISIS’ violent actions. Following the former-Maliki’s government with the aim of promoting even the slightest efforts to cast sectarian differences aside has become a half-baked endeavor. Obama has departed from locution of legitimizing interests regarding all of Iraq’s communities. And rather than drawing attention to reforming Iraq’s political authority and foster a normative civil society, the focus remains on building the capacity of effective security forces.

Secretary of State Kerry, who recently attended an international conference in Paris, previously visited Baghdad, Amman, Jidda, Ankara, and Cairo. During the course of those visits he received a spirited level of support (from all 10 Arab states) to “destroy” ISIS. A State Department official acknowledged that the Arab states could contribute to the military campaign by providing arms and any sort of training but no mention was made of non-military initiatives aimed at sieving and eventually eliminating traces of support for the Islamic State. The first State Department official highlighted, “I don’t want to leave you with the impression that these Arab members haven’t offered to do airstrikes because several of them have,” noting that the Iraqi’s have to be a “major participant in [any] decision […] It has to be well structured and organized.”

US government and military officials are channeling meticulous attention into their plans regarding ISIS, but little attention has been afforded to any post-reconstruction and reconciliation plans after ISIS is contained and eliminated in Iraq. This near-sightedness will allow for ISIS to become resurgent in Iraq during the sectarian bickering that will inevitability follow.

*This op-ed piece was co-authored with Stewart Webb.

Stewart Webb is the editor of DefenceReport. He holds an MScEcon in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University (UK) and a BA in Political Science from Acadia University (Canada). He is the co-editor of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Modern War (forthcoming, 2015), Taylor & Francis. 

About the Author
Dr. Scott N. Romaniuk completed his PhD at the School of International Studies, University of Trento. He holds an MRes in Political Research, an MA in Terrorism, Crime and Global Security, and an MA in Military Studies (Joint Warfare). His teaching and research specializations include International Relations, Military and Strategic Studies, Security Studies, Terrorism and Political Violence, and Research Methods. He is a Senior Research Affiliate with the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS) and a member of the Conflict, Terrorism and Development (CTD) Collaboratory at Michigan State University.
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