ISIS and the Importance of Popular Support

A fierce debate on how to destroy ISIS has been going on for years. Some advocate an armed solution to the conflict; others say there should be a diplomatic way out. In this article, I argue that the process of finding a solution must, foremost, focus on undermining the popular support base that ISIS has been able to generate. This can only be done through political means. If ISIS is only destroyed militarily without taking into account its popular support, a new and even more vicious group could arise that would be able to capture the hearts and minds of many people. (Featured Image © Voice of America)

The idea that popular support is a crucial element to initiate and sustain insurgency or guerrilla-like conflict was most prominently expressed by Mao Tse-tung. In his work on guerrilla warfare, he compared guerrilla fighters to fish and the population to the water in which they swim. This analogy succinctly describes the relation between the combatants and the population; just like the fish would die without sufficient water, the combatants would be unable to thrive without the support of the population.

If the local population supports the guerrilla, they provide the militants with the necessary recruits, provisions, ammunition, shelter and information thereby allowing the guerilla to sustain itself. This also means that when support for a militant group wanes, the faction loses all these advantages. Therefore, as Mao would argue, the key to defeating ISIS is to subvert its popular support and to bring it back to the government forces.

Although a highly debated topic, ISIS also has a local base of popular support. While some claim there is absolutely no sympathy for the militant group amongst Sunni Iraqis, there is enough evidence that suggests the contrary. Reports show that while tens of thousands fled Mosul when ISIS laid siege to the city, many of them voluntarily returned after ISIS had gained full control over the city. They claim to have fled out of the fear of government airstrikes as opposed to the fear of the jihadist group.

In its effort to strengthen the ties between the organization and their base of support, ISIS embarked on several goodwill campaigns. The militant group provided schools, basic services, cheap food and gas, which further entrenched it within the local population.

Additionally, several tribes, which constitute an important part of Iraqi society, are known to have pledged their allegiance to ISIS. For example, the Dulaim tribe, one of the largest tribes in the Anbar province, the al-Jumaili tribe and the Albu Ajeel tribe have all been reported to work with and for ISIS.

These tribes come with large followings, many of whom have joined their tribal leaders in their rally behind ISIS. Therefore, there is evidence of local base of support for ISIS which allows them to sustain its war efforts.

Where It All Began

In order to deconstruct the support enjoyed by ISIS amongst local Sunni communities, the roots of the problem must be understood. This process was set in motion with the rise of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2006. Maliki quickly secured his position within the government by forming the ‘Malikiyoun’ – a group of close allies put in key positions within the government to strengthen his grip on the state apparatus.

Since Maliki and his allies are all of Shia descent, this led to the creation of state institutions that governed in favor of the Shia community and discriminated against the Sunni community. This alienated the Sunni community from Maliki’s government even further.

This process of repression and alienation continued throughout the 2010 elections. During these elections, Sunnis attempted to resist these government policies by forging an alliance with different political factions to unite in the so-called Iraqiya Movement and challenge Maliki and his centralization policies. Maliki responded to the newly formed coalition by arresting hundreds of key Sunni candidates from the Iraqiya Movement.

Despite Maliki’s attempts to disrupt the Iraqiya Movement the Bloc won the elections with three more parliamentary seats than Maliki’s list. Iraqiya, a national movement spearheaded by a Shia, received 80% of the Sunni vote and being the only party able to reel in both Sunni and Shia voters, it signaled the possibility of bringing an end to Maliki’s discriminatory policies.

However, after eight months of painstaking negotiations, Maliki was able to form a government without support from the National Movement. Although the National Movement did join later after a push government of national unity, it ended up in a coalition in which it had no real power.

With Sunni politicians excluded from power, Sunnis, who had given up the insurgency for politics, were becoming increasingly alienated from institutional politics. Yet again, the idea of armed resistance to Iraq’s central power had started materializing in the Sunni consciousness.

It was in the aftermath of these elections that Maliki stepped up his policy of marginalization towards the Sunni community. In 2011, protests erupted around the country in opposition to the government.

Maliki answered these protests with violence and a wave of arrests, primarily directed towards  Sunni areas where 600 people were arrested for plotting an alleged Ba’athist coup against the government. Amongst the ones arrested were government officials affiliated to the Iraqiya bloc and other prominent Sunnis thereby resulting in further political exclusion.

This political exclusion led to new protests in 2012-2013 where people demanded an end to the arbitrary use of anti-terrorism and de-Ba’athification laws that were used to marginalize the Sunni community in the political and economic sphere. To legitimize the government crackdown on the protest, Maliki framed the protesters as al-Qaeda operatives to legitimize the government crackdown on the protest. The protesters’ demands were met with brutal violence and marginalization.

Meanwhile in Syria, ISIS had been able to gain ascendancy during the Syrian civil war and expanded its operations from Syria to Iraq to capitalize on the Sunni resentment in the country. With no other peaceful way to challenge Maliki and his incessant repressive tactics, people started supporting the only possible and viable resistance to the regime, ISIS.

Undermining the Popular Support Base

In order to defeat ISIS, the bigoted government policies that excluded the Sunni community from all political power will first need to be addressed; this way we can sever ISIS off from its main source in Iraq, popular support. However, current attempts to put an end to ISIS ironically generated even more support.

First of all, Maliki was replaced by Haider al-Abadi who was expected to be more inclusive. As it turned out, the sectarian Shia parties, such as al-Maliki and al-Abadi’s Dawa party, managed to further consolidate their grip on Iraqi politics. For example, Abadi’s former Interior Minister, al-Ghabban, was formerly involved in a Shia death squad, and is now in control of the Iraqi police forces. It is doubtful that an individual with his reputation will be able to reconcile the differences between the communities.

Furthermore, Shia dominated “popular” mobilization forces do not simply “liberate” towns from ISIS. They also retaliate against the local population for supporting the group, resulting in more grievances and further support for ISIS or a possible successor. The same can be said about the airstrikes by the international coalition. Although they are aimed at ISIS targets, they also cause civilian “collateral damage”, which causes resentment amongst the population and allows ISIS to employ its anti-Western propaganda to generate more popular support.

Instead of using popular mobilization forces and Western bombardments, the process of undermining ISIS will have to come from within the Iraqi political process. I argue that a political solution, hinged on egalitarian measures like inclusive federal government and security forces, is the only possible way to divert popular support away from ISIS and remove the group from the community.


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By | 2017-10-05T13:50:35+00:00 May 7th, 2017|Categories: Impression|Tags: , , |1 Comment

About the Author:

Pieter-Jan Dockx
Pieter-Jan is a graduate in international relations and conflict studies. He is especially interested in terrorism, political violence, Middle East and Indian politics.

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