This Fight Is About More Than ISIS

Marc Lynch explores how Arab supporters of Syria’s rebels see the conflict in Iraq:

The popular Al Jazeera personality Faisal al-Qasim recently observed to his 1.5 million Twitter followers that the Syrian and Iraqi revolutions were examples of “dressing up a popular revolution in terrorist clothes, demonizing it and opening fire on it.” Former Kuwaiti member of parliament Walid al-Tabtabaie, for instance, supports the “Iraqi revolution” while warning that ISIS “has some good people but is penetrated by Iran” and that “the corrupt in Syria can’t be in the interest of Iraq… they will stab you in the back.”

ISIS is a real threat, without question, a savvy and experienced fighting organization with a clear ideology, significant financial resources and a proven ability to attract foreign fighters to its cause. But this Arab counter-narrative shouldn’t be ignored.

The sharp divide between an American debate that focuses exclusively on ISIS and an Arab debate that focuses on a broad Sunni rebellion starkly evokes the similarly skewed discourse in the first few years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. From 2003 to 2006, U.S. officials and media often reduced the Iraqi insurgency to “al-Qaeda” and regime dead-enders, thus vastly exaggerating the importance of al-Qaeda in Iraq, delegitimating the political grievances of the Sunni community and missing opportunities to divide the insurgency. Heavy-handed, indiscriminate military responses informed by these views helped to fuel the insurgency.

Another major reason this matters:

These Arab narratives about what’s happening in Iraq shouldn’t be taken at face value, but listening carefully to them might help to avoid a counterproductive American foray back into Iraq. Inside Iraq, a broadly based Sunni insurgency, which commands the support of non-ISIS tribes and armed factions, would reinforce the case for why pushing Maliki for serious political accommodation before providing military aid is the right policy (Petraeus, for what it’s worth, agrees).

True, getting rid of him might not solve Iraq’s problems, but the crisis won’t be overcome without significant changes, which he seems highly unlikely to make (and nobody would trust his promises to do so after the crisis has passed). The point is not to appease ISIS, which could care less about such things, but to break the alliance between ISIS and some of its current Iraqi Sunni allies by giving them a reason to opt back into a political system in which they have largely lost faith. On their own, airstrikes and military support of Maliki without the prior delivery of real political change are likely to only push the various strands of the insurgency closer to ISIS. Political reform isn’t a luxury item that can be postponed until the real business of military action has been conducted – it is the key to once again dividing ISIS from those larger and more powerful Sunni forces.

Ali Kheder’s list of “the players actively fighting across Iraq today” further illustrates the folly of viewing the recent bloodshed as merely a fight between the Iraqi government and ISIS.