Shitanshu Shekhar Shukla
Wanted: A Sunni Coalition Against ISIS

The creation of an anti-ISIS coalition led by the Sunnis is easier said than done. The West is the last entity that would know how to put such a coalition in place.

The strategies meant against ISIS are faltering because they lack substance. No strategy can achieve the intended success without a grand Sunni force. Money and rhetoric are poor substitutes for a workable strategy. Both US President Barack Obama and leading Republican candidate for presidency, Donald Trump, have missed the woods for trees. Trump is only serving the Islamic State by calling for a ban on Muslims entering America. His call will alienate the Muslims, while whatever domestic support he enjoys at home for the statement won’t be enough to make him the next president.

The ISIS doesn’t want anything more than every Muslim in America (and Europe) to feel alienated. It won’t need to recruit anyone in an alienated country. Acting on his own, an alienated Muslim could be a lone wolf on the prowl. Alienation is deconstruction of an identity, wrecking the raw nerves. The consequences take their own course down the deathbed.

If Trump is wrong, so is President Obama. Only partially, though. He is not wrong in saying that the only way to sustainably defeat ISIS is with a coalition. Moderate Sunni Muslim forces should stand up against ISIS in Iraq. Similarly the Sunni spiritual leaders should delegitimize the ISIS message everywhere. Iran can play a stellar role here if it supports an equitable power-sharing agreement in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites. It will transform the Sunni Arabs. They will not take ISIS as their shield against Shiite Iran. But it is indeed a long shot to expect from Iran a big turnaround as this.

The ISIS has survived airstrikes and Special Forces for longer than feared. The victims are free to waste time and energy. In his speech last week, Obama made virtues out of patience and persistence. Who can disagree? But where is the substance of the strategy? The Sunnis themselves are the best to lock the ISIS in a war that can’t be sustainable otherwise.

But the problem is that a strong, reliable, indigenous Sunni ground force doesn’t yet exist in Iraq or Syria. Though the US is trying to fix this since the fall of Mosul in 2014, it is yet to meet with any meaningful success. Yet, Obama’s insistence on local forces as central element to anti-ISIS battle is difficult to understand. According to celebrated columnist David Ignatius-

If he means Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria, yes, they’ve performed admirably. In Kurdish areas. They don’t want to clear and hold the Sunni heartland of the Islamic State, nor should they. If Obama is talking about the Shiite-led Iraqi military, its performance is still just barely adequate, even backed by US air power, and it is disdained and mistrusted by the Sunnis of Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul. If he is talking about the Islamist brigades in Syria armed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, it is not yet entirely clear whether they are friend or foe.That’s the problem. All our allies in the coalition that wishes to take down ISIS want the very thing we want, but not as their first choice; as their second choice!

Thomas Friedman writes-

Kurds are not going to die to liberate Mosul from ISIS in order to hand it over to a Shiite-led government in Baghdad; they’ll want to keep it. The Turks primarily want to block the Kurds. The Iranians want ISIS crushed, but worry that if moderate Sunnis take over its territory they could one day threaten Iran’s allies in Iraq and Syria. The Saudi government would like ISIS to disappear, but its priority right now is crushing Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen.

The Saudis are wary about leading the anti-ISIS fight. According to a recent Brookings study, 1,000 Saudi youth have joined ISIS as fighters. Saudi Arabia is also leading the world in pro-ISIS tweets. Everyone knows the priority of the Russians in Syria. Though pretending to fight ISIS, the Russians are in Syria to protect Bashar al-Assad and defeat his moderate foes.

To compound the problems, the Sunnis have not yet forgotten the US invasion of Iraq. So they continue to hold grudge against the US and the cobbled coalition. The government in Baghdad, dominated by Shias, is reluctant to approve a Sunni “national guard” with real power. When the Congress recently authorised a $500 million plan to train and equip a largely Sunni force to fight the Islamic State in Syria, instead of the five thousand expected, only a few hundred signed up and they too, walked into a trap only to be savaged by jihadists in northern Syria.

A way out is to apply more pressure moderate Sunni forces to join the anti-ISIS fight, arm-twist the Saudis and other Sunnis into delegitimizing the ISIS, deploy more US and NATO Special Forces. The international financial institutions also have an equally huge responsibility to disproportionately invest their energies into a dream of a quieter world.