Media coverage of recent military advances by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is misguided. Many analysts and pundits have focused exclusively on ISIS and its military gains without giving proper attention to the context in which these events emerged. What some observers have failed to point out is that there have been clear, tangible indications over the last year, at least, that Iraq’s restive Sunni provinces would sooner or later erupt in violence. ISIS has taken advantage of the political strife and civil unrest intensifying over the years in these areas. The militant group’s victories are symptomatic of deepening Sunni dissatisfaction with the Iraqi government. What we are witnessing today is an amalgamation of many different factors at the center of which is an urban uprising against the prevailing order in Iraq. Such a conflict cannot be solved militarily—no matter the amount of bombs or missiles President Obama may decide to use. Even if a large contingent of troops were deployed, the fundamental problems would not be addressed. These root causes can be traced back to American actions and policies instituted in the early days of the invasion, in addition to the sectarian rule of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, which further exacerbated the situation.
One of the first palpable signs of Sunni unrest surfaced in May of last year when peaceful protestors took to the streets of cities across Iraq. Surprisingly, media reports and analysis of the recent events in the country fail to mention these early protests, which were unmistakable precursors to the current violent uprising. Iraqis set up camps, in the spirit of the Arab Spring, in Ramadi, Fallujah, Kirkuk, Samarra, Mosul and other Sunni-majority cities in protest, demanding the end of the sectarian policies of Maliki’s government. Interestingly, these same cities today are either in ISIS control or have been threatened by the militant group.
Protestors demanded the government stop using of confidential informants, allow former Baath Party members to get jobs and receive pensions, and that it release innocent detainees rounded up in security sweeps. Many of the issues highlighted by the protestors find their root in the policies instituted by the United States during the hey-day of the invasion. In particular, the policy of de-Baathification caused the most anger among Iraq’s Sunnis. De-Baathification surgically and comprehensively removed all Baath party members, many of whom are Sunni, from the military and other government bureaucracies. The result was everyone from prominent generals to high school teachers suddenly were without a livelihood. Furthermore, the dissolution of the army, which was the second act by U.S. appointed head of the provisional government in Iraq, Paul Bremmer, fed the insurgency that terrorized the country over much of the last decade. There are reports that former members of Saddam’s military have become a crucial part of ISIS and are one of the main factors in the group’s success. ISIS has achieved its stunning victories through alliances with various local Sunni groups, many of which consist of former Iraqi soldiers.
Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has only inflamed the state of affairs over the years through his sectarian rule. When the coalition of Sunni tribal militias, known as the Sunni Awakening, successfully defeated al-Qaeda and brought the Iraq war to a close, many former fighters expected to be rewarded with jobs or positions in the Iraqi security forces. Promises were made, but they rarely came to fruition. Disgruntled, rebuffed and angry, armed men with combat experience were left high and dry by the government, which was not interested in creating inclusive, national institutions. Even those Sunnis who willingly gave up their weapons for a chance to enter politics were similarly turned away. In fact, Nouri al Maliki has taken an actively hostile stance against Sunni politicians. He has excluded them from the political process at every turn.
Maliki’s divisive nature was underscored by his government’s approach to ending the protests that had, by that point, spread throughout the nation. The camps were disbanded with brute force resulting in the deaths of dozens of protestors. The atmosphere amongst Iraq’s Sunni population in the aftermath of the disbandment was decidedly tense. Open calls for violent rebellion were common.
In the coming months the sectarian divisions in Iraq will be reinforced. Whatever token inclusiveness that remained in its armed forces and government apparatus will likely be eliminated as Iraq’s Shiite-led government closes ranks and battles the Sunni militants. What we are witnessing today are results of a misguided war started on false pretenses. But even in the execution of that war, American policies—Bush Administration policies—have proven disastrous for Iraq. An intervention now, no matter how comprehensive, will not easily solve the underlying causes of this conflict. It will likely make matters worse. Thus, it’s crucial we properly contextualize the conversation about Iraq because any American action will be deeply consequential.
Ahsan Sayed is a recent graduate of the Macaualay Honors College at the The City College of New York.