Academic journal article Geopolitics, History and International Relations

Extremism and Ethnicity: A Crucial Interface of Contemporary Geopolitical Strategy to Be Better Addressed by International Policy

Academic journal article Geopolitics, History and International Relations

Extremism and Ethnicity: A Crucial Interface of Contemporary Geopolitical Strategy to Be Better Addressed by International Policy

Article excerpt

1. The ISIS Lesson: Ethnicity Is Key

The fight against ISIS seems to be an ongoing rollercoaster - and the lessons have still to be learned. .After the recapture of Tikrit at the start of April it seemed that the so-called "Islamic State in Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), or emphatically just "Islamic State" (IS), had lost large parts of its oil fields and was in retreat on most fronts according to internal reports of the German Secret Sendee {Bundesnachrichtendienst) of April 8, 2015. But after the fall of Ramadi and the conquest of Palmyra in the second half of May, the situation has once again worsened, showing the remarkable capacities of the militia's military leadership. Given that the recent successes of the extremists seem to be once again at least partly the effect of ethnic divisions, some intermediate lessons of the case can and should be formulated despite the ongoing fight that will probably take years to bring to an end.

First, among the lessons of the furious rise of ISIS and its conquest of vast areas is the importance of ethnic factors. The exceptionally rapid conquests of ISIS in Iraq would not have been possible without the support of local Sunni tribes who feel repressed by the national Shiite majority. Despite prior conflict between Sunni tribes and early organizations of ISIS since 2006, one starting point for pro-extremist mobilization was the perceived exclusion from power which led many regional Sunni leaders to the conviction that the government of Nuri al-Maliki (2006-14) was an ethnic and religious dictatorship, where the only means to survive was to fight. As the Subject Matter Expert (SME) Elicitation Summary Pentagon Report on ISIS of JulyNovember 2014 rightly asserts, after the ousting of Saddam Hussein, the implementation of a democratically approved government and the eventual withdrawal of Western troops until December 2014,

Power in Iraq was primarily held by Shia backed factions. Iran in particular held great sway over events in Baghdad. While the Kurds represented a relatively smaller group within the population, their level of unity and organization made them a very effective bloc within the Iraqi power structure. The Sunnis, however, were not united, and were subject to actions by other factions born of fear of Sunnis returning to power... ?We (the U.S.) threw them (the Sunni tribes) under a bus. We didn't deliver them any kind of protection or political autonomy or self-determination in any way. We gave them back to the tender mercies of Maliki, and we know how that ended up. And they have all rushed back to the skirts of ISI(S) in a sense... '

Islamic radicalization in the name of an alleged ancient "purity" was not the origin. Instead it was a consequence, not least to create a platform for unifying the different Sunni tribes on a common ground, mindful of their strongly differing personal relationships with the leaders of IS who are believed in the majority to be representatives of the old Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein. Their ability on the battlefield has been demonstrated in the strategic counter-offensives on Ramadi and the conquest of the al-Thirtar dam in April, in the midst of the offensive of the Iraqi army.

The participation of Shiite militias in the recapture of Sunni core areas including Tikrit in March 2015 - equipped with Iranian weapons and with the massive participation of Iranian "counselors" alongside the regular Iraqi army - further contributed to give the conflict elements of an ethnic and religious confrontation between Shiites and Sunnis. Moreover, the withdrawal of some Shiite militia from the front of Tikrit in protest against Western airstrike support underscored that the conflict keeps a (probably unintended, but in any case counter-productive) flavor of potentially not being about the Iraqi nation in the first place, but about predominance of ethnic and religious groups over each other.

Consequently, the Iran-supported Iraqi army offensive since 2015 was read by many as being about Shiite dominance over Sunnis, not about reconquering and unifying a functional state against fanatics. …

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