When Islamic State jihadis poured into Iraq from Syria in June and attacked Sheikh Abdullah al-Yawar’s compound, he urged the Iraqi government to fly weapons to a nearby airfield so his Sunni tribesmen could hit back.
But the Iraqi defense minister refused Yawar’s offer, which might have prevented the capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. After Mosul fell, Yawar asked Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to let him recruit tribesmen to police the border and prevent more jihadis from crossing. The Shiite leader told him, “We don’t need your help.”
Yawar’s men fought on, buying their own guns. But in October, Islamic State blew up his home and his huge diwan, where, as a leader of the Shammar tribe, he used to rally hundreds of followers. Sitting in the large, elegant reception room of a home in Amman and dressed in a long, black, pinstriped jalabiya and traditional headdress, Yawar showed me photos of the rubble and of his son who left university studies to join the fight.
“The international community should be directly working with people who want to fight Islamic State,” the sheikh insisted. Yet both the Iraqi government — and U.S. policy — oppose arming tribal leaders like Yawar.
His story helps explain why it is so hard to curb the Islamic State threat to Iraq, the Middle East and the West.
The Iraqi regions seized by Islamic State are populated almost entirely by Sunni Arabs. Many local Sunni leaders view the jihadis as preferable to a Shiite-led government they see as oppressive. But there are also many Sunnis, such as Yawar, who had good relations with the U.S. military in the 2000s and who want to drive out the militants. They need heavy weapons and training to face jihadis rich in arms seized from Iraqi army depots.
However, when Yawar contacted U.S. military officers he knew and asked for assistance, their response was also negative. They told him to work through the Iraqi government. (U.S. policy is to strengthen the Iraqi army, not sectarian forces.)
“I told them the Iraqi government is not interested,” recalled Yawar. “I told them, if you are waiting for the central government, you will wait a very long time.”
Indeed, the Shiite-led Baghdad government, even under the new and more open-minded prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has failed to help Yawar fight Islamic State. Legislation that would let Sunnis create national guard units that would be subsumed under the Iraqi army is going nowhere.
“There is no chance for the national guard legislation,” Yawar said bluntly. He is correct. Iran-backed Shiite political parties oppose any military aid to Sunnis. Yet these same Shiite politicians have funneled funds and arms to Iran-backed Shiite militias, which have become more powerful than the weak Iraqi army.
This creates an impossible situation in which there are no plausible forces to drive Islamic State out of Iraq.
The army, which is being retrained by U.S. and other coalition forces, is far from ready for prime time against the militants, with the exception of limited numbers of special forces.
The powerful Shiite militias do want to drive Islamic State out. But they terrify Sunnis because they have looted and burned in Sunni areas such as Tikrit. If these Shiite militias move into occupied Sunni areas, the locals are likely to resist or flee.
Meantime, Sunni tribal leaders, who can provide critical local manpower and ground intelligence, are rebuffed. Yet Islamic State won’t be uprooted unless local Sunni tribes help drive it out.
I heard complaints similar to Yawar’s from tribal leaders in Iraq’s western Anbar province, where the Islamic State controls substantial territory and nearly captured the capital, Ramadi, last week.
Ahmed Sajer Jasim, a sheikh of the Malahma who wore a business suit to our meeting, told me that members of his tribe fought for 40 days in January 2014 against an Islamic State invasion. “We local tribes and police fought with light weapons and no help from the central government,” he said. “We called the prime minister and minister of defense, but nobody came.” His tribesmen had to flee their homes with their families; I interviewed him in Erbil, Kurdistan.
The sheikh, whose clan allied with U.S. forces against al-Qaida in the last decade, says the tribes need weapons and more coalition air strikes. He shakes his head, adding: “We have been ignored by our friends from the United States, but the (Shiite militias) got help from their friends in Iran.”
Facing brutal subjugation by Islamic State, many tribal leaders are now debating whether to ask the “devil” — Tehran — for help. Yawar believes, and I agree, that the Iran option will provoke more sectarian violence. He still hopes the U.S. will help Sunni leaders with weapons and more air strikes. “Start by supporting some Sunnis on the ground who want to fight and link them together,” he proposes.
“If you Americans will not help us, tell us,” he urges. “People keep asking me why you aren’t recruiting us, training us. The longer you wait, the more Islamic State is expanding.”
Yawar’s last point is essential. The administration should be far more aggressive in drawing trustworthy Sunni tribesmen into the fight by pressing Abadi to act and sending U.S. advisers to help tribal leaders.
If Sunnis aren’t encouraged to rebel against Islamic State, the jihadis are likely to remain inside Iraq for a very long time.