June 1, 2015 | The New York Times

Sunni Tribes Need Arms and Support to Fight ISIS

While American officials point their fingers at the Iraqi military’s shortcomings, the Islamic State’s recent conquest of Ramadi is a U.S. policy failure. The United States still has an opportunity to turn that around, but the window is rapidly closing.

Ramadi had for years been a symbol of the errors made by ISIS’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq. The Awakening movement — in which Sunni tribes rebelled against Al Qaeda’s excesses during Iraq’s civil war — was announced in Ramadi in September 2006. The anti-Qaeda uprising served as a model that was exported throughout Iraq, with the U.S. military playing a key role. This method of tribal engagement was central to Al Qaeda’s defeat in 2007-08.

It is thus natural that U.S. officials hoped Sunni tribal engagement could similarly counter the Islamic State. But the U.S. was slow to arm the tribes, even after ISIS launched an offensive in September 2014 that captured several Anbar cities. This offensive culminated in the massacre of over 700 members of the Albu Nimr tribe.

There had thus been indications for at least eight months that ISIS might overrun Ramadi, as well as grisly warnings about what the group would do should it capture the city. This situation should has spurred the U.S. to step up its tribal engagement efforts.

The U.S. failed to do so, deferring to the Iraqi government’s suspicions of Sunni tribal power. The result is that the Sunni tribes could not counter ISIS’s advance on Ramadi, and feel betrayed once again by former benefactors, just as they felt slighted when they were not incorporated into Iraq’s security forces following the Awakening’s success.

The slaughter of Sunni tribesmen after Ramadi’s fall has demoralized them. According to regional press reports, the tribes are considering laying down their arms and declaring neutrality in the fight between ISIS and the Iraqi government. With each perceived betrayal of the Sunni tribes, engagement becomes more difficult. The U.S. should make it a priority now.

The U.S. should pressure Iraq’s government to provide arms, ammunition and other support to tribes like the Albu Nimr and al-Jabouri that are fighting ISIS. And if Iraq is unwilling to assist them, the U.S. should provide such support as arms, medical supplies, equipment and money to the Sunni tribal leadership, bypassing Iraq’s government.

In a world where substate entities like tribes or terrorist groups are increasingly important, the U.S. should be willing to forge some alliances that aren’t of the typical state-to-state variety. Doing so effectively involves maintaining relationships with nonstate allies, rather than garnering a reputation for helping allies only when the situation requires, and then abandoning them once short-term American interests are satisfied.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @DaveedGR

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