As news came through of the re-capture of the Baiji oil refinery from ISIS, the campaign to drive ISIS from Iraq seems to be in the ascendency. During Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s recent trip to the US, he proclaimed that 25 to 30 percent of ground previously taken by ISIS has been retaken, a claim also espoused by the White House. ISIS has found it difficult to make advances in the face of US airstrikes, though it is exerting serious pressure in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, where intense fighting is taking place. Recent airstrikes have largely focused on targeting ISIS in Iraq rather than Syria and it appears to be achieving results.
Despite this apparent success, the question remains: in the long term, will bombing ISIS out of Iraq alone save the country? Ethnic and sectarian divisions have worsened during the conflict and some experts believe the country is past the point of no return and a three-way partition may be the only solution. These problems go far beyond just defeating ISIS.
The image of ISIS in the West is one of a distinct group, consumed by their own hateful, absolutist ideology. In many cases this may have some truth. Certainly, with recruits willing to come from as far away as Australia, the powerful effect of the group’s ideology is important. For many in Iraq, though, there is a degree of pragmatism in supporting ISIS. The harsh de-Baathification laws, a legacy of the 2003 Iraq war, left the Sunni population marginalized politically. Add to this the insecurity and historic fears of sectarian violence and increasing number of attacks by Shia groups, and support for ISIS can be seen as a rational choice for some Sunnis.
The prominent roles being played by former Baathists in ISIS’s command further demonstrates this point; men such as Fadel al-Hiyali and Adnan al-Sweidawi were important army officers under Saddam and now provide the same function for ISIS. It explains in part why ISIS has been so successful on the battlefield. The Baath party began showing Islamist tendencies in the 1990’s, as shown by the 1993 Return to Faith campaign which put a greater emphasis on Islam in Iraqi life including the adoption of some aspects of Sharia law. It was, however, originally a secular Arab nationalist movement and never adopted the strict Salafi ideology that ISIS adheres to. Baathist involvement in ISIS can therefore be seen as a marriage of convenience brought about by a continuing desire to regain power and the perpetual nature of the de-Baathification laws. The same Baathists were involved in Sunni insurgencies after US occupation, and will continue to instigate violence even after the potential demise of ISIS.
If Iraq is to survive then some form of national reconciliation is an absolute necessity. Perhaps the South African Truth and Reconciliation model, along with the elimination of the de-Baathification laws could prove to be effective in addressing past grievances. Without this there is little chance of preventing the insecurities that plague the country from reappearing in new forms. Atrocities committed by Shiite militias will hinder this process in the long term.
Furthermore, there are many structural problems crippling the country. The effects of war have left many homeless, with 90,000 displaced by fighting in Anbar province in just the last few days; housing and infrastructure in towns like Tikrit has been laid waste; unemployment has almost doubled in the last two years to over 25 percent; the government has a huge budget deficit; and there is an ongoing dispute about oil revenues with Kurdistan. Serious economic problems, such as these, have historically been a breeding ground for ethnic conflicts. With Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish militias now heavily armed, there is the potential for sectarian and ethnic differences to continue violence in Iraq long after ISIS.
So although military aid seems to be helping in the fight against ISIS, is it humanitarian and economic aid that may do more to securing Iraq’s long-term future through establishing the structural basis for a long-term peace. The US last week pledged $200 million in humanitarian aid but it is less than was sought by Prime Minister Abadi and other donors have been less forthcoming.