Iraq’s long-simmering political conflicts and violence erupted in June with the stunning capture of Mosul and advances toward Baghdad by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The collapse of the Iraqi army and the rapid seizure of territory by ISIS took most observers by surprise, but the crisis had been developing for years. This POMEPS Briefing collects more than a dozen recent articles by academics writing for The Monkey Cage and other leading online publications that explore both the immediate crisis and its underlying causes.
ISIS may have been galvanized by the Syrian civil war and insurgency, but its traction with Iraqi Sunni political factions and armed groups has a longer history. Toby Dodge and Zaid Al-Ali each trace the roots of the crisis to the sectarian governance and attempts to monopolize power by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and his heavy-handed response to an emergent Sunni protest movement. The stunning collapse of the Iraqi army is equally rooted in this sectarian governance, as Keren Fraiman, Austin Long and Caitlin Talmadge demonstrate. Removing Maliki would not itself solve the crisis, argues Fanar Haddad, given the urgency of the military challenge to Baghdad and the deeper problems of the Iraqi political order. It is difficult to see how Iraq’s Sunnis could be reincorporated into the political system and separated from ISIS while he remains, however.
How should we understand ISIS, particularly after its declaration of an Islamic caliphate? Thomas Hegghammer argues that the caliphate declaration represented a rational but risky stratagem for the group. Its remarkable use of violence has multiple goals, warns Stathis Kalyvas, and it is far too early to project its ultimate success or failure. The experience of similar groups suggests that numerous problems await the Islamic State as it tries to consolidate its power. The seizure of resources such as cash, oil and water have given ISIS real power, but the rapid infusion of such resources has crippled many other insurgencies, notes Ariel Ahram. Paul Staniland lays out reasons to wonder whether ISIS could be the rare insurgency that can overcome its organizational coherence problems.
There are few obvious policy choices for actors outside of Iraq. A longer U.S. occupation of Iraq would not likely have prevented the crisis, argues Jason Brownlee. Nor, I argue, would a return of U.S. troops make a decisive difference without resolving the underlying political problems, which alienated Iraq’s Sunnis. Andrew Shaver and Gabriel Tenoria present evidence that better services, such as electricity, might entice Sunni communities back into the political fold, at least over the longer term. And while many analysts and U.S. officials have argued for the arming of Syria’s moderate rebels as the key to fighting ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, I note the awkward reality that most of the Arab backers of the Syrian rebels actually support what they see as a Sunni uprising in Iraq.
The essays in POMEPS Briefing #24 Iraq Between Maliki and the Islamic State offer a variety of perspectives on Iraq’s ongoing crisis by leading scholars. Please download and share!
– Marc Lynch, Director of POMEPS
July 9, 2014