Wedge Issues

Wasn’t ISIS Supposed to Fall Apart by Now?

A year ago the Americans and their allies hoped they could divide and conquer the so-called Islamic State. But their policies, if anything, have made it more united.

07.17.15 5:00 AM ET

ISTANBUL — U.S. officials have started mapping out the complicated network of family and clan ties of the Sunni tribes of northern and eastern Syria as part of a methodical effort to separate the so-called Islamic State from its allies and begin building a force better able to fight it on the ground, according to political activists in southern Turkey who have been asked to assist.

“They are looking at everything, who is connected to whom, who could be enticed to split from the extremists, what this tribal leader gets from ISIS, how another has daughters married to ISIS emirs,” says one activist based in the border town of Gaziantep who asked not to be identified by name. “They are looking at everything.”

But the activists say Washington should have been prioritizing efforts to disrupt the extremists by dividing the Islamic State from the Sunni populations a long time ago. Today, they hold out little hope there will be a quick unraveling of the alliances ISIS has forged. They point to the less than enthusiastic take-up by eastern Syrian tribesmen of U.S. invitations to join the so-called “train-and-equip force,” which U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has told lawmakers currently consists of only 60 recruits.

“It was assumed too much that the tribes would react to the brutality of ISIS—the beheadings and torture,” says a British intelligence official based in Turkey. For all of the 24/7 Western media coverage of the medieval barbarity of the extremists—the decapitations and immolations, the drownings and crucifixions—there remain plenty of Arabs in the caliphate who are resigned to ISIS rule, fearing the alternative will be the gang-warfare chaos of other rebel-held territories.

“At least there is some order,” said Ahmed, a 31-year-old barber and father of three small boys, as he waited recently with his veiled wife to cross back from Turkey into Syria at the Akcakale border gate.

Ahmed claims that life under ISIS in the Syrian border town of Tal Abayad, which was seized last month by Kurdish-led forces, wasn’t that bad. “If you left them alone, they left you alone.” For most conservative rural folk ISIS rules are not hard to observe, he says.

A key problem for the U.S.-led coalition to prod an Awakening into life lies with the lack of trust and suspicion of Washington’s intentions as well as its ability to deliver on promises in the near term or subsequently.

The great hope of Washington policymakers, dating back at least a year, has been to replicate another Sunni Awakening—the 2006 uprising by a tribal alliance that drove al Qaeda jihadists out of Iraq’s Anbar province. But that was underpinned by years of on-the-ground U.S. military presence and frequent face-to-face meetings to court local sheikhs. Trust was built up. And Sunni leaders eventually sided against the al Qaeda-led insurgency as a result of highly transactional deal: Washington promised cash, weaponry, and that Sunnis would not be shut out from the running of the country or Iraq’s security forces.

The U.S. delivered on the first two but not on the third, thanks to the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki, which broke a promise to incorporate the Awakening fighters into Iraq’s army and pay them salaries. That sparked widespread Sunni anger across Anbar that was compounded by the government’s pursuit of hard-line Shia sectarian policies.

So the principle of once bitten, twice shy is at play here. Since the winter, Sunni tribal sheikhs have urged the U.S. to arm them or to get the Baghdad government to do so. They say they need weapons, not training. But that hasn’t happened, despite frequent statements by new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi that a Sunni uprising against the jihadis in Anbar is a key to success. Under the latest Obama administration plan, weapons distribution will remain up to Baghdad.

Trust also seems in short supply among the leaders of a new tribal alliance who are considering mobilizing against ISIS.

London’s Independent reported recently that a dozen leaders of the Coalition of Syrian Tribes and Clans held talks recently with the UN’s special envoy for Syria, Steffan de Mistura, and U.S. General John Allen, President Obama’s special envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State. Allen was partly chosen for the envoy’s job because of his background in Iraq, where he was deputy commanding general of Marine forces in Anbar during the Awakening, and in the past he has made no secret of his frustration at the slow pace of trying to shape a new Awakening.

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This time around, Allen did not get a ringing endorsement from the tribal leaders. They told the Independent that while they were considering mobilizing against the Islamic extremists, they were determined not to be manipulated by foreign powers and were angry with coalition support for the Syrian Kurds and Iraqi Shia forces.

“Why are they providing air cover to the Kurds and Shia fighters in Iraq and not us? We told the Americans that we will consider what they have to say when they give us equal treatment,” said Ayid al-Utayfi, head of the Utayfiat clan of the Annaza tribe. So, no weapons, no air cover. Why should the tribes on either side of the border rise up against the well-armed extremists—especially when they know how viciously ISIS will respond?

Suspicion of Kurdish self-rule intentions in Syria, where Arabs fear the Kurds will form a breakaway state, and of Shia power in Iraq, as well as Iran’s military role, is complicating the task of ushering in a second Sunni Awakening. So is the idea, rampant among the Sunni Gulf States, that the nuclear deal with Tehran will lead to a de facto alliance. In the field, the more the U.S. relies on the Kurds and Iran-directed Shia militias, the deeper the suspicions frow. Tribal sheiks in western Iraq say the U.S. is handing Iraq to Iran; in northern and eastern Syria they see the beginnings of a Kurdish state.

And ISIS encourages the sectarian hostility by its own relentless violence against Shia and other minorities, as well as by broadcasting “ethnic cleansing” allegations against the Kurds and scaremongering about what Kurdish fighters will do when they arrive in Arab villages. In the days before Kurdish-led forces captured the Syrian border town of Tal Abayad last month, ISIS panicked the town’s Arab population by warning that Kurdish fighters would run amok. Thousands of Arabs fled to Turkey and despite reassuring Kurdish appeals only a small percentage have gone back.