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Iraq’s Jihadi Jack-in-the-Box

Middle East Briefing N°38 20 Jun 2014

OVERVIEW

The jihadi surge is the tragic, violent outcome of steadily deteriorating political dynamics. Instead of a rash military intervention and unconditional support for the Iraqi government, pressure is needed to reverse sectarian polarisation and a disastrous record of governance.

Within days, the jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) conquered parts of north-western Iraq and revealed the fragility of a country ruined by sectarianism, hollowed-out institutions and high-level, pervasive corruption. Accumulated grievances of Sunnis in the area meant that ISIL pushed against a house of cards. But its possibilities are limited and a kneejerk international military intervention risks stoking the conflict instead of containing it. ISIL’s advance has highlighted all that has been wrong with the Iraqi government’s Sunni strategy, which sacrificed political reforms in the interest of fighting “terrorism” – a term it has used for all forms of Sunni violence but not for Shiite equivalents. This strategy enhanced polarisation and prepared the ground for the successful jihadi push in the north. International actors collectively failed to exert the necessary pressure on the Iraqi government to change its policy.

Despite their recent conquests, jihadis are not on the verge of storming Baghdad. Nor is an all-out civil war inevitable; it could, however, be triggered by a disproportionate Iraqi Shiite and Iranian response that would cause Sunni ranks to close around the jihadis.

Iran and the U.S. should avoid a precipitate military response. The deployment of Iranian troops, who would be seen as a Shiite-Persian occupation force in Sunni-Arab territory, would bolster the jihadis’ standing further. The U.S., instead of rushing to send advisers, special troops or air power, should lay out plainly what it is willing to do to help Iraq address the ISIL challenge militarily but base its help on the premise that Prime Minister Maliki’s government immediately implements overdue political reform.

Beirut/Brussels, 20 June 2014

 
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