Photo credit © US Central Command / Archives

By Amatzia BaramIn October 2006 and more so since early 2007, more than three years into the insurgency in Iraq the US decided to approach the Sunni tribes in a systematic way for cooperation against al-Qaida. By late 2008 with the Surge and through cooperation with the Sunni tribal Awakening militia under Shaykh Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha the insurgency was essentially over.

Between 2009 and 2011 though the American forces in Iraq gradually ceased their cooperation with the tribes and their shaykhs. The Sunni tribes that had risked their lives in the fight against al-Qa`ida were abandoned.

The Shi`I sectarian government of Nuri al-Maliki, whom the US preferred over the secular, all-Iraqi American-friendly Iyad Allawi began a campaign of marginalization, humiliation and discrimination against the Sunnis, especially in the tribal areas.

The US remained essentially inert.

The Kurds, too, were left to Maliki’s sectarian rule. This led to near-total breakdown of Kurdish-Baghdad relations.

But the Kurds at least had an effective autonomy. The result in the Sunni areas was the resurrection of al-Qa`ida, eventually under the title the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Last June, with mostly passive support of the same Sunni tribes that had fought al-Qa`ida, they conquered Mosul and most of the Sunni areas of Iraq. Then they changed their name once more to “the Islamic State” (IS), or the Caliphate.

The rest is history.

Though it comes late, the present US policy of re-engaging is making sense, but it harbors dangers beyond mere lack of military success. There are already the first signs of an approaching problem: if not immediately re-designing its military policy the US is at a growing risk of enabling ethnic cleansing and appearing as anti-Sunni and pro-Iranian.

The US air-to-ground support for the lifting of the siege that the IS terrorists imposed on the Shi`i-Turkmen town of Amerli in northern Iraq in early September 2014 was in itself a necessary humanitarian decision.

However, because there are many Sunni villages in this territory, by allowing the unruly Shi`i militias to take part in this operation the US planners became implicated in an anti-Sunni ethnic cleansing, in addition to kidnappings and murders initiated by the Shi`i militias. As different from support for the Iraqi Kurds, which justified itself completely, support for Shi`i-controlled Baghdad did not.

Most of the areas that need to be taken back from ISIS are Sunni-Arab areas. In those areas only the Iraqi army and Sunni militias should be allowed to operate on the ground. Luckily there still exist the remnants of the Sunni Awakening militia in al-Anbar under Shaykh Ahmad Abu Risha (his brother Sattar was assassinated in 2007), and on the condition of a change in Baghdad’s policy he is ready to support the Iraqi regime.

In addition, a few more Sunni tribes are inclined to cooperate with Baghdad and the US, provided that they receive guarantees that Baghdad will not renege on its promise of respecting Sunni rights. Parts of tribes like albu-Fahd and albu-Nimr in Anbar and of the Jubbur and Shammar Jarba in Salah al-Din and Ninnewe indicated their readiness to fight ISIS.

But by October 2014 Baghdad is not yet ready for the necessary concession.

In a country that descended to the deepest abyss of sectarian hate and fear there is no other way to keep the country together and give people a sense of security is to make each community responsible for security in its territory through a local National Guard unit.

The Guard, however will have to be financed – like the state army – by Baghdad.

The regular Iraqi state army, while mainly Shi`i, is trusted by Sunnis and Kurds, but not fully so. Ergo, its presence in the Sunni and Kurdish areas must depend on the consent or invitation of the governor of each province.

What about Max Weber’s “state monopoly on violence” (Gewaltmonopol des Staates)? This was what the Americans saw in 2003 as the Iraq of the future. It fitted well into the molds of post-WWII Germany and Japan.

However, Weber’s theory is mere theory based on a generalized Western observation. Iraq’s religious and ethnic divides and the existence of tribal affinities in 2003 made it very different both from Germany and Japan and this is even more the case today.

Admittedly, local National Guard units may result with the complete disintegration of Iraq. This is a bad option. But there are paths between the extremes of high centralization and disintegration.

Many states have found ways to organize local forces as a complement to the centralized military power.  Perhaps the most successful example was the formation of the U.S. National Guard.  Like Iraq’s militias, the National Guard originated as local communities organized for self-protection and self-preservation.

Eventually, going through a few stages, the National Guard became a component of the federal government’s reserves.[ref] See Jerry Cooper, The Rise of the National Guard: the evolution of the American militia, 1865-1920, University of Nebraska Press, 2002.[/ref]

Iraq is not the US, but the same principle, if applied according to the local conditions, is promising.  In fact, this is one of the demands that unite all Sunni factions.

The Kurds already have their National Guard, the Peshmergas, but Baghdad is rejecting their demand that the central government would pay the cost.

Rising to a higher vantage point, not just National Guard units should be encouraged and supported: the only chance of booting ISIS out and keeping Iraq in one piece is if Iraq becomes a loose federation.

Baghdad’s immense oil revenues (around $100bn annually that may be doubled within a decade) coming mostly from the Shi`i south represent a powerful aphrodisiac that may prevent Sunni and Kurdish secession, while wide powers for the provinces will prevent sectarian and ethnic domineering, fear and alienation.

Until a Shi`i-Sunni-Kurdish agreement along these or similar lines is hammered in, American military support for Baghdad must be extremely limited. Any support for Baghdad’s Shi`i-dominated regime beyond the bare minimum of preventing ISIS from conquering Baghdad neighborhoods will create the impression that the US is fighting the Sunnis and serving the interests of Iran.

Finally, Sunni tribal and National Guard units are essential in order to push ISIS out of the Sunni areas not only to prevent ethnic cleansing: they are essential also because there will be no American boots on the ground this time.

The Shi`i-majority national army is no match to ISIS, and the Shi`i militias must not be allowed in and the Kurds will fight only in their own territory.

Unless Turkey agrees to send its military into Iraq (and Syria), something that looks rather doubtful, only Sunni tribes can provide the necessary boots to kick ISIS out.

Dr. Amatzia Baram is a professor of Middle East History and Director of the Center for Iraq Studies at the University of Haifa. He served as an officer and commanded tank units in the Armoured Corps during his regular military service from 1956 to 1960 and while in the reserves. He was ‘on loan’ to the Iraqi desk at Military Intelligence as an analyst when the Iraq-Iran War began in 1980. After release from regular military service he worked on the kibbutz farm, before graduating in biology and teaching sciences at the kibbutz high school. He he decided on a career change following the Six Day War in 1967 and started his education as an historian of the modern Middle East and Islam in 1971. His latest book Saddam Husayn and Islam, 1968-2003: Ba’thi Iraq from Secularism to Faith will be published shortly.