Fighting for hearts and minds in Anbar Province

Fighting for hearts and minds in Anbar Province

At the height of the Iraq Insurgency, the Sunni Awakening helped see off the Al-Qaeda threat. Duplicating that success to combat ISIS will be much more difficult.

Fed up with Al-Qaeda’s violence, fanaticism, and lack of respect for their leadership, in 2006 Sunni tribes in Anbar banded together to form the Anbar Salvation Council.

The council formed alliances with the United States military and received salaries, guns, and training in return for fighting the Islamists. Given a stake in their future, a means to protect and feed their family, and a viable alternative to Al-Qaeda’s barbarism, civilians signed up by the thousands.

The idea spread and, in conjunction with the U.S. troop surge, the so-called Sunni Awakening Councils became highly successful in cutting internecine violence to a fraction from its 2007 peak. Al-Qaeda was forced from their safe havens in Anbar and sulked off to regroup.

Failing the Sunnis of Anbar

Fast-forward to May 2015. Defying analysis suggesting that $2.44 billion worth of U.S. airstrikes and a coalition of forces had put them on the back foot, ISIS finally took the long-sought goal of Ramadi, capital city of Anbar province in the Sunni heartland of Iraq. The radical group, who can trace their lineage in a straight line to the days when their predecessor was run out of Anbar, now finds itself in much more welcoming territory.

The failure to incorporate the Sunni Awakening councils into the Iraqi political mainstay is the same failure that set the stage for the return of the Islamists. In 2008, the U.S., fighting the ever-present Islamic worldview of America-as-imperialist and desperate to get out of Iraq, handed over financial responsibility for the Awakening councils to the Iraqi government.

Led at the time by the thuggish and partisan Nouri al-Maliki, the government refused to continue paying the soldiers under the Sunni councils, stating they would never incorporate another arm into the Iraqi security apparatus.

The result was that the so-called ‘Sons of Iraq’ found themselves once again without means, cast aside by the U.S. and denied a seat by their own government. And as Anbar is again threatened by radical Islamists, many of the same people that formerly led the charge against them are no longer available, or willing, to join in opposition.

Lost, fled, or supporting

To start, several leaders of the Awakening were targeted and assassinated by Al Qaeda in 2006 and 2007. Of those that avoided the revenge attacks, many have since left the country, fearing that reprisals would eventually reach them.

The effect has been to shift aggregate sympathies since 2007. This is evident also from the support that some tribal leaders have given the militants, including from the largest Sunni tribe in Iraq, a group that was formerly instrumental in the Arab Awakening. Several other groups that once fought the Islamists now seem to be actively supporting them.

The increased appeal may be down to changes in ISIS structure. Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is said to have rebuilt the group’s leadership with many Saddam-era regime loyalists, increasing the group’s appeal to Sunnis, who dominated the Iraqi government during the Saddam years and may wish for a return to the old status quo.

A failed re-awakening

In fact, attempts were made to recruit Anbar Sunnis to fight ISIS in late 2014, but talks ended without an agreement. Presented on one side with what they saw as an unfriendly Shia-dominated government and on the other Sunni insurgents filled with former regime loyalists, tribal leaders hedged their bets.

Their reasoning was also partially based on the increased presence of the Hashd al-Shaabi, the collective term for the militias consisting almost exclusively Shiite forces. While the militias have made a name for themselves as having largely defeated ISIS at Tikrit, they are feared and distrusted by Sunnis.

While this is partially historical and rests upon the brutal years of sectarian violence post-U.S. invasion, it is also partially due to the more recent actions of one Shaabi group that stands accused of Sunni civilian war-crimes in the wake of an operation last summer.

The result today is that Anbar, far from a bastion of ISIS resistance, is made up of a patchwork of tribes and people holding a wide variety of allegiance, support, and suspicion for each of ISIS, the Iraqi Government, Shia militias, and the U.S. Previous counter-attacks against ISIS have benefited from a lack of support towards the group among the cities they’ve occupied, while those coming to oust them were generally welcomed as liberators. The extent to which that will be the case for Ramadi is unclear.

What’s more clear is that the best chance to see off the ISIS threat in Anbar relies on winning the hearts and minds of the province’s Sunnis – Sunnis who feel they’ve been poorly treated all around. ISIS at least seems aware of this – in the wake of recent gains they’ve not only worked hard to re-open services but have also sought out and offered clemency to the same people they may have fought against nearly ten years ago.

There’s also economic reasons to consider. In Mosul, road work is reportedly the most active it’s been since before the fall of Saddam Hussein. If ISIS can bring jobs to Anbar, they’ll have gone a long way to securing support, and showing they can govern territory they take.

On the other hand, Anbar has long been suggested as holding untapped gas and oil reserves that could transform the province’s economic prospects. That can only happen if there is stability and security enough to attract the investment and allow for infrastructure development.

Meanwhile, the ISF and Hashd al-Shaabi sit on the outskirts of Ramadi, plans for a knee-jerk counteroffensive wisely delayed. In mid-May, the former abandoned the city much in the same way it abandoned Mosul last June. The latter is mistrusted, with tribal leaders vocally opposed to their operating in the province. Once bitten, twice shy, as the saying goes. Since the fall of Saddam, the Sunnis of Anbar have been bitten repeatedly.

About Author

Adam Taylor

Adam Taylor is a former energy market analyst for the Canadian government currently working for a high-tech firm in Israel. He holds degrees in biology, sociology and an MA in International Affairs from the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs (Political Economy) at Carleton, Ottawa. You can follow Adam on Twitter @ajaygraytay.