Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Iraqi impasses (2): Sunni side up

The prevalence of rejectionism in Iraq has encouraged insecurity and helped it breed.

Iraqi soldiers walks past the Sunni Abu Hanifa mosque in the Sunni stronghold of Adhamiya on February 5, 2013. AFP PHOTO/PATRICK BAZ (Photo credit should read PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images)

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Best Defense guest columnist

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Best Defense guest columnist

The previous post discussed problems on the Shi’a side that hinder a more general Sunni-Shi’a ‘reconciliation’ in Iraq. Specifically, there is a general reluctance on the Shi’a political spectrum to address basic Sunni grievances on issues such as de-Ba’athification, and the phenomenon of Shi’a militiafication of the security forces has only further sidelined meaningful discussion of reforms to outreach to Sunnis.

However, it does not follow that Iraq’s impasse is solely the fault of the country’s Shi’a. Any analysis must also address the issue of Sunni rejectionism: that is, an absolute unwillingness to accept the post-Saddam order, with aspirations for ‘revolution’ (thawra) in the overthrow of the central government. Such rejectionism is embodied in the fact that none of the main Sunni insurgent brands accepts the notion of working within the system. Rather, believing Sunni Arabs to be at least a plurality if not a majority of Iraq’s population (an erroneous belief), they all currently aim for ‘revolution’ with fantastical notions of the conquest of Baghdad.

Indeed, rejectionism has even more currency than during the height of the U.S. occupation as a perceived failure of the political process for Sunnis has given credence to the narrative of groups that have rejected the idea of working within the system all along, such as the Ba’athist-Sufi Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN), widely considered the second most powerful insurgent group after the Islamic State (IS).

Yet, this rejectionism has also helped facilitate the rise of IS, which initially worked with other Sunni insurgent groups in bringing about the downfall of the major cities of Fallujah, Mosul and Tikrit but has since come to dominate these places at the expense of the likes of JRTN. In one case, that of rival jihadi group Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, the group has been absorbed into IS through pledges of allegiance while the remainder has disbanded and quit the field.

Despite such developments, the prevalence of rejectionism means that the wider insurgency generally remains in denial that the IS phenomenon constitutes a problem, such that there even tends to be avoidance of mentioning IS by name, with no honest condemnation of the worst of IS’ excesses including the targeting of minorities like the Yezidis and Christians as well as destruction of shrines and heritage sites. The JRTN goes so far as to blame the government for these actions. Such denial and lack of attachment to reality can only amount to complicity in IS’ crimes.

With belief in the inevitability of ‘revolution’ and fighting IS not viewed as a priority, the Sunni insurgent groups with their rejectionism and support bases prove a huge obstacle to forming a coherent local Sunni force within Iraq to push back IS. Indeed, they all denounce current premier Hayder Abadi’s National Guard plans and similar hopes to incorporate more Sunnis into the security forces as nefarious schemes aimed at destroying the ‘revolution’ and/or provoking an internal Sunni civil war to facilitate Iranian domination. Meanwhile, the coalition airstrikes targeting IS are presented as being part of a wider international war against Sunnis and Islam.

Not all Sunni groups have avoided speaking frankly about problems with IS, but the results of localized open clashes have never gone in their favour, pointing to the weakness of a lack of a united Sunni front against IS. A case-in-point is the Salafi group Jaysh al-Mujahideen, which openly condemned IS in a lengthy tract issued in January 2014. The group clashed with IS in the locality of al-Karma in Anbar province in August 2014, but was forced to withdraw from the main town. Despite this major loss, nothing points to Jaysh al-Mujahideen members and/or leaders being open to the idea of working with the government against IS.

In sum, Iraq’s current round of major instability may not be as bloody as the dark days of the 2006 civil war, but with so many obstacles on both sides hindering a major accord between Sunni and Shi’a in Iraq, this phase of conflict is set to be a protracted war over many years to come.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a Rubin Research Fellow at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, Israel.


Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1