The battle of Anbar and the future of Iraq and al Qaeda, Part Two

The Sunni of Anbar

The grim strategic situation facing Iraqi Sunnis today parallels that of ten years ago when they were beset by powerful enemies in al Qaeda but also US troops and Shia militias. The solution, albeit a short-lived one, came by allying with US troops in the Anbar Awakening. Of course, this option is no longer available as the US will never send ground troops back into Iraq. Three options remain.

First, the Sunnis can ally, if only briefly, with al Qaeda. Several reasons make this at least plausible. The two forces once jointly fought the US, and both oppose the Shia government in Baghdad. Al Qaeda franchises in Mali, Sinai, Yemen, and Pakistan have won measures of support from tribes disaffected by their central governments. Anbar is home to many Salafi networks whose austere interpretation of Islam resonates with al Qaeda beliefs, and many inhabitants of Fallujah today express at least grudging respect for al Qaeda fighters for opposing Shia rule. However, al Qaeda over the years has greatly angered Anbar tribes, especially the vast and militarily powerful Dulayim confederation. Following the 2003 US invasion, al Qaeda pushed aside Dulayim leaders and imposed their own rough administration, driving the tribes over to the American side in the Anbar Awakening. For their collaboration the leaders suffered immensely from al Qaeda reprisals, especially when the Americans withdrew from the province.

Second, Anbar Sunnis can request financial and military assistance from the Shia government. Baghdad will be wary of such support as it could strengthen Sunni tribes and militias, not only against al Qaeda but also against Baghdad, setting the stage for a war of independence. This, however, may be judged inevitable and even preferable to the deadly bombing campaign al Qaeda is waging against the Shia. This option would pit al Qaeda against the Sunni tribes in western Iraq, perhaps leaving the rest of the country more secure.

Third, a longer-term option may emerge as Anbar Sunnis ally with Syrian counterparts in anti-Assad rebel movements who can no longer hold the cities along the Mediterranean coast and must retreat to the border with Anbar. Such an alliance could develop into an autonomous region straddling the Syria-Iraq border, independent of both Damascus and Baghdad. It will enjoy considerable support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf principalities who dearly wish to break Iranian-Shia power now stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon.

© 2014 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst, author of The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of The Samson Heuristic.

4 comments to The battle of Anbar and the future of Iraq and al Qaeda, Part Two

  • Synoia

    Such an alliance could develop into an autonomous region straddling the Syria-Iraq border

    Not a chance. That’s where the Kirkuk-Mediterranean oil pipelines run.

    Option 1 it is, with the exclusion of the word “brief”.

    • JustPlainDave

      In terms of functioning pipelines, I think you’ll find that’s “pipeline” in the singular. Even then the trade references I see indicate it’s working significantly under design capacity.

      • Synoia

        Haditha is the choke point. It’s too valuable a possession not to be disputed in scenario (3) above.

        Pipeline run west to the Med and apparently south to the Gulf. I can’t speak to what is working, or what may be being placed back in service. It has been a very long time since I was there.

        • JustPlainDave

          You need to be very wary as a western analyst of arbitrarily assigning significant explicatory and predictive value only to what you see. We have access to pipeline maps, pipelines are of readily comprehensible strategic value – pipelines are a factor we as outsiders can understand. There are dozens and dozens more factors that we don’t understand. Those factors are very likely to have much greater power as predictors than pipelines.

          Personally, I think the most likely scenario is that at least some of the Anbar tribes will hedge by tolerating the presence of al-Qa`eda aligned groups, so long as they don’t become too unruly and look to be getting more powerful than the tribes think they could ultimately handle. This is going to be significantly more difficult for them than it had been previously, as ISIS seems to be more powerful than they had thought, seems to be showing more independence than they had hoped, and is now able to operate cross-border at a much higher level.

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