Ever since key Iraqi and Syrian cities fell to the Islamic State last month, the administration has been scrambling to adjust its tactics.
Rather than revamp a failed strategy, U.S. officials now appear ready to rely (at least tacitly) on Iran to help roll back the jihadis. This is especially true in Iraq, where Iranian-backed Shiite militias have proven more effective in fighting the Islamic State than the Iraqi army has.
This is a mistake. True, the ayatollahs are bitter enemies of the Islamic State, but their goals in Iraq differ greatly from those of the United States. The enemy of my enemy isn’t necessarily an ally, even indirectly. That’s because Tehran has little strategic interest in wiping out the Islamic State.
First, let’s review why the U.S. strategy has failed.
Until late last month, that strategy revolved around efforts to retrain divisions of the Iraqi army. Much of that army had collapsed a year ago when the Islamic State took over Mosul, and surrounding Nineveh province, which is largely inhabited by Sunnis.
The initial step of the strategy was to push the Islamic State out of Anbar province in the west of Iraq, home to large Sunni tribes. But the Iraqi army was far from ready to liberate Anbar, let alone Mosul — and won’t be ready to take on the Islamic State anytime soon.
Yet the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, backed by Iran, was unwilling to help Sunni tribes in Anbar that wanted to fight the Islamic State. Around 2,500 Anbar Sunnis got little training and a pittance of light arms, a far cry from the mid-2000s, when Washington armed and backed Sunni tribes who drove al Qaeda out of Anbar.
U.S. officials, for their part, chose not to arm Sunni tribesmen directly or pressure Baghdad strongly to permit those tribes to set up national guard units. Washington maintained the fiction that some Sunni tribesmen could be integrated with Shiite militias that weren’t linked with Iran — a mismatch that never jelled.
Meantime, the Iraqi national army presence in the province was too thin to fight the heavily armed the Islamic State with its convoys of truck bombs. Without U.S. spotters on the ground, American air strikes couldn’t help.
So Ramadi fell, and the jerry-built U.S. plan for liberating Anbar collapsed.
Iran, on the other hand, made certain that its Shiite proxy militias in Baghdad were better armed than the regular Iraqi armed forces. It sent Gen. Qasim Soleimani, a powerful Revolutionary Guard commander, to supervise their operations in Iraq.
In the wake of the Ramadi debacle, Washington has dropped its opposition to the use of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in liberating Sunni territory. The special U.S. envoy on fighting the Islamic State, retired Gen. John Allen, said last week that the militias have an important role to play in Anbar province so long as they “take command from the central authority.” He meant so long as they follow Baghdad’s orders, not Tehran’s.
[The White House said Wednesday the U.S. will send up to 450 more troops to Iraq to boost the training of local forces.]
During my recent visit to Iraq, Kurdish, Iraqi military, and Sunni tribal officials all told me the same story: In Anbar, the ayatollahs’ aim is not primarily to destroy the Islamic State. Rather, they seek to consolidate a land bridge westward to Syria, whose Shiite leader, Bashar Assad, they are supporting. And they want to protect Baghdad suburbs and Shiite holy sites southeast of Baghdad that abut Anbar.
However, Iran and its proxies have little interest in whether the Islamic State continues to rule over Sunnis in other parts of Anbar — or in Mosul. Those Sunni areas do not abut Iran, or Baghdad, or the Shiite provinces of southern Iraq. It isn’t worth sacrificing Shiite lives to liberate them.
In other words, if the Islamic State keeps its caliphate in Mosul, and keeps killing Sunnis, it won’t upset Tehran.
Without a shift in U.S. strategy to help Sunnis directly, the Islamic State will remain in Iraq indefinitely, as its tentacles spread elsewhere. Iraqi Sunnis will be doomed to live under the Islamic State — or risk being driven from their homes by Shiite militias. Under such conditions, it is no surprise that many Sunni tribal leaders are declaring their allegiance to the Islamic State.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
©2015 Trudy Rubin