Iraq’s Sunnis Likely to Fall Out Once ISIS Campaign Runs Its Course

Many of the Sunnis that back the offensive against Iraq’s government don’t share the Islamists’ vision.

An Iraqi flag adorns an Iraqi soldier's uniform as an American soldier and his interpreter speak with a farmer in Taji, March 10, 2006
An Iraqi flag adorns an Iraqi soldier’s uniform as an American soldier and his interpreter speak with a farmer in Taji, March 10, 2006 (USN/Michael Larson)

The coalition of Sunni militants that has taken control of much of the northwest of Iraq could soon start to fray, experts predict. Few share the purist interpretation of Islam and Islamic law that its leading fighting group advocates.

Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) shocked Iraq’s government earlier this month when they took control of the country’s second city, Mosul. Backed by Sunni militias and tribes that have long felt marginalized by their Shia rulers in Baghdad, the group has since focused on consolidating its gains by conquering territory and border towns close to Syria — where it is also active, battling the regime of President Bashar Assad.

However, it could struggle to impose its rule. The American Interest‘s Adam Garfinkle argues, “Fanatics are not so good at governance, as Al Qaeda in Iraq proved some years ago, and they are not much better at holding together ideologically heterogeneous coalitions.” The Sunni factions are currently united in their opposition against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government but once the campaign has run its course, Garfinkle predicts, the alliance will probably fall apart.

The geostrategic consultancy firm Wikistrat similarly predicts that “ISIS will find it a challenge to govern a landlocked ‘Mesopotamian Caliphate’ while facing Shia enemies on its eastern and western flanks.” In the report from a crowdsourced simulation the company recently conducted, its senior analyst Jeffrey Itell writes, “While Sunni Iraqis may accept ISIS control and the constraints of strict sharia law in return for peace and stability, experience indicates that tribes will chafe under such rule, leading to intense rounds of internecine conflict and suppression.”

The Islamic state ISIS seeks to erect on the frontier between Iraq and Syria, spanning the Sunni lands between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, will likely remain both unconquerable by the outside and ungovernable from within, according to Wikistrat.

At the same time — and especially if no viable political alternatives emerge — analysts expect ISIS, at least coherent internally, to remain a dominant player, given its access to high powered weapons and stolen cash.

“They point to the lessons of Syria’s three-year old civil war, where a unified [ISIS] leadership steamrolled other groups and entrenched itself as the force to be reckoned with in western Syria,” the Reuters news agency reports.

In Iraq as a whole, a stalemate is likely unless the Shia get significant military support from Iran, the United States or both to fight back ISIS. For now, says Wikistrat, “Iraq’s three components” — including the autonomous Kurds in the northeast — “appear capable enough to defend their territory but weak enough not to encroach on each other. Efforts made to reunite Iraq will probably be fruitless.”

The author is a contributing analyst for Wikistrat.