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The false 'Awakening' model to deal with ISIS in Iraq

Given past experiences, the Iraqi government will likely face difficulties persuading armed Sunni groups to separate from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
Members of the Awakening Council, a local neighbourhood guard unit, check the identification of a motorist at a security checkpoint in Diyala province February 10, 2013. Picture taken February 10, 2013. REUTERS/Mohammed Adnan (IRAQ - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3DMLI

The Iraqi government may find it difficult to dissuade armed Sunni groups from fighting alongside the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) without seriously addressing Sunni concerns, including reforming the government and constitution.

The high-profile gains and statements by ISIS, the latest of which is the declaration of a caliphate, might suggest to outsiders that the organization is the only Sunni military force. Yet, many Sunni parties — be they political, tribal or religious — deny this. They assert that ISIS does not represent more than 10% to 20% of the armed forces on the ground, and that the biggest momentum of the military action belongs to the armed tribes and various other factions.

In fact, it's hard to estimate the number of gunmen on the ground. Mezher al-Qaisi, a spokesman for the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries, confirmed there are no reliable figures regarding Iraq's armed factions.

Ahmed al-Dabash, spokesman for the Islamic Army, an armed faction active in Iraq since 2005, said ISIS is not alone on the scene, and consists of only a few hundred fighters. He added that Sunni rebel gunmen and ISIS are fighting a common enemy — the Iraqi government.

During a phone interview with Al-Monitor, Maj. Gen. Moataz al-Hiti, who's affiliated with the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries, explained why Sunni tribes that once fought al-Qaeda — many of whom now make up ISIS — are today fighting alongside it. “What happened is a compulsory convergence between tribes and Sunni clerics who have faced al-Qaeda for years and fought wars with this group that presents itself today as ISIS. The reason behind this convergence is that the Baghdad government has failed for years to convince Sunnis in Iraq that it represents them and that it does not seek to humiliate and kill them,” he said.

Hiti, who said he is a retired general from the former Iraqi army, said he and the majority of the fighters and Sunni officers do not believe in the ISIS doctrine, but they share the same trench now, and it is hard to separate them.

Hiti said there were initiatives to resolve the crisis when it first grew serious in Fallujah in February, but to no avail. “On Feb. 14, 2014, an initiative to resolve the crisis in Fallujah was suggested. It consisted of granting amnesty to Sunni insurgents and to make changes in government policies, in exchange for handing over or fighting the ISIS fighters in the city. However, we rejected it in general, and suggested another solution that includes the creation of safe corridors for the safe exit of the ISIS fighters from Fallujah.”

Hiti said, "There are demands for a government change, constitutional amendment and the abolishment of some laws that Sunnis consider to be issued against them, such as the anti-terror legislation and the de-Baathification law. This is in addition to the fresh start between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, among other claims." Hiti believes such measures will not defeat ISIS, but will weaken its ability to gain support on the ground.

Another suggestion was raised to separate the gunmen from ISIS. According to Hiti, it consisted of issuing an all-inclusive general amnesty, with the criteria of being ready to put down weapons and declare one's belief that Iraq is an independent, unified state governed by civil rule. Such a measure would directly isolate ISIS, which does not believe in the state or national boundaries, and considers democratic elections “blasphemous.” 

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced an amnesty for militants on July 2, except for those whose hands are stained with blood. This step is unlikely to persuade militants to lay down their weapons. In fact, the Iraqi government had announced a similar amnesty in 2008, but the prime minister later admitted this amnesty was a bad choice as it led to the release of murderers and hooligans. 

Political circles and the media have advocated an ideal solution, whereby Sunni insurgents in Iraq would be allowed to fight ISIS as part of a mechanism similar to the Awakening Councils, which in 2006 were formed by the US forces and succeeded in attracting large numbers of gunmen affiliated with various armed Sunni factions.

However, the circumstances that allowed the formation of the Awakening groups are different from the current situation.

The Sunni fighters, not to mention the tribes and most residents of Sunni cities, do not have confidence in such an experience, particularly since the Maliki government clamped down on the Awakening groups, causing widespread resentment among Sunnis.

Furthermore, the relationship between the various armed factions and ISIS has changed since 2006. For the most part, Sunnis are not ready to go to war against ISIS on behalf of Baghdad, the United States and perhaps the whole world. Some Sunnis believe they will not be forced to take up arms against ISIS unless they form their own independent state, or at least a province separated from Baghdad in terms of security mechanisms, or have their demands for reform met by the government.

The idea of a single sect bearing the responsibility for the war on ISIS is not acceptable. The final responsibility for implementing this task falls on the state alone, not on the citizens or the militias outside the scope of the state.

To undermine ISIS, the organization should first be separated from armed Sunni groups that are ready to integrate into the state. Such a separation will not be achieved without a radical reconciliation in Iraq and new transitional justice mechanisms that would convince these factions of the national project.

While not a short-term fix, successfully applying such procedures, and developing them via permanent legal systems, would allow for long-term de-radicalization.

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