One policy idea that has emerged in both the Republican and Democratic debates is to arm Sunni militias and use them to combat ISIS. During the Iraq War, the Bush administration used Sunni groups to great effect in their fight against Sunni insurgents and terrorist organizations. This was dubbed the Sunni Awakening, and it took place primarily in Anbar Province around 2007. What made the policy so effective was that it undercut the message of insurgent groups. Specifically, because Sunni civil society was cooperating with the U.S. and the Iraqi government, it was hard for Sunni extremist groups to claim that they were being oppressed or mistreated by the system. Many analysts attribute the Sunni Awakening and the surge with establishing a period of relative stability in Iraq.
Thus, the idea of using moderate Sunni militias is not unprecedented and is based on a previous, relatively effective program. However, it will not work this time. The reason is that Sunni groups have been oppressed continuously since the ousting of Saddam Hussein. The Maliki government that replaced Saddam was highly sectarian and actively promoted Shia power at the expense of Sunni interests. Thus, Iraqi Sunnis have no reason to believe that fighting ISIS now will result in fair treatment later. They tried to work with the Iraqi government once, but their reward was only suppression and mistreatment. The Sunni groups on the Syrian side of the border haven’t been treated much better. Despite making up 60% of the population, they have experienced constant oppression under Assad, a Shia Alawite. While some people have argued that all these groups need is a little more American support, it is hard for me to believe that any of them would help a tyrannical dictator who has been barrel-bombing their community for the past few years.
ISIS poses a strategic challenge precisely because it has exacerbated ethnic, religious, and national tensions in the Middle East: Sunnis versus Shia, Iran versus Saudi Arabia, and barbaric terrorists versus oppressive governments. Solutions will be difficult and complex, and I appreciate that candidates on both sides of the aisle have considered and debated a number of possible policy responses. Of course, some have been more serious than others (see “taking their oil” and “carpet bombing”), but the generation and testing of ideas is important in the policymaking process. Unfortunately, the Sunni Awakening 2.0 concept will never work simply because the very Sunnis we need to help us are the ones that allowed ISIS to rise to power. They did this not because they agree with or support ISIS and its methods, but because they were betting that nothing could be worse than their treatment under Assad and Maliki. While that calculation, in hindsight, was probably wrong, that they were willing to give power to a group like ISIS at all speaks to the fact that Sunnis do not have an incentive to help the oppressive regimes which have been persecuting them for years. Until someone can explain to me how the U.S. can motivate these Sunni militias to move against ISIS, I will operate under the assumption that this policy is nothing more than wishful thinking.