Yaroslav Trofimov writes: Two years after Islamic State launched its blitzkrieg on Iraq, exploiting Sunni Arab grievances there and in neighboring Syria, the militant group is steadily losing ground in both countries.
But, instead of local Sunnis reclaiming their lands, forces dominated by other communities — Iraq’s Shiite militias, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, and the Alawite-run Syrian regime — are inflicting these defeats.
On the only occasion where Sunni Arab rebels attempted a major offensive against Islamic State in recent months, in Syria’s northern Aleppo countryside along Turkey’s border, it ended in a rout and a further loss of territory — partially reversed this week — to the self-proclaimed caliphate.
All of this raises a question: How meaningful are the recent victories if the root cause behind the emergence of Islamic State remains, and as more Sunni towns such as Fallujah become devastated by the fighting?
Fallujah seemed largely pacified following the campaign against al Qaeda in Iraq a decade ago — only to succumb to Sunni Islamist extremists again as the Shiite-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad turned to sectarian repression.
“We could be looking at a Groundhog Day scenario,” warns Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank close to the Democrats. “The campaign seems to be going well militarily, but it may have extreme costs in the long run. The biggest risk is the re-emergence of radicalism in a few short months, or year or two.”
So far, the few areas repopulated by Sunni Arabs, such as the city of Tikrit, have remained largely peaceful — in part because they are still garrisoned by Shiite militias, with relatives of suspected Islamic State members banned from returning. As more towns become liberated in Iraq and Syria, however, exercising that kind of control will be harder.
A backlash in those areas against victorious Shiites or Kurds would allow Islamic State to keep recruiting new fighters and bombers for a renewed insurgency, warns Robert Ford, a scholar at the Middle East Institute who served as U.S. ambassador in Syria and deputy envoy in Iraq.
“If that happens, the fight against Islamic State doesn’t end, it just morphs into a different kind of battle — and the terrorist threat to the West doesn’t go away,” he says. [Continue reading…]