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5 questions every presidential candidate should answer: ISIS edition

July 31, 2015

By Michael Rubin

While the roots of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, ISIS, Daesh) may predate the Iraq War, it was its rapid conquest of Mosul, Tikrit and other Sunni Arab-populated areas in Iraq that brought it to the forefront of the policy debate. At first, the White House dismissed ISIS as “the jayvee team.” As, however, the group consolidated control, forced the Christian community to flee their homes, enslaved Yezidis, declared a caliphate and threatened both Baghdad and Erbil, US policymakers refined their policy. On September 10, 2014, President Obama announced a new strategy “to degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. Nearly a year later, however, ISIS remains in control of large swaths of both Iraq and Syria, and will probably continue to control significant territory into the next administration. How candidates answer the following questions should elucidate how they understand the Islamic State, the threat it poses, and what strategy the United States should pursue:

1. Who was responsible for the rise of the Islamic State?

Foreign fighters might have flocked to Iraq and Syria, but were they alone responsible for the rapid rise of the Islamic State inside Iraq? Would the Islamic State have taken hold had the United States not precipitously withdrawn from Iraq? At the same time, could the Islamic State have succeeded in seizing Mosul, Tikrit, and other territories without the buy-in of some Sunni tribesmen, Baathists, and veterans of the Saddam-era Iraqi army? Subject to debate, however, is this: whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sometimes sectarian policies precipitated the Sunni Arab Iraqis’ rejection of Baghdad, or whether ideological refusal to accept the empowerment of Shi‘ites preordained Sunni cooperation with the Islamic State. The question of motivation is important. To believe political grievances to be responsible for the rise of the Islamic State implies that the resolution of those grievances, for example with a more magnanimous policy in Baghdad, would undercut Sunni support for the Islamic State. However, it would not explain the rise of the Islamic State in an exclusively Sunni country like Libya, nor the resonance that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s call for a caliphate has had with foreign fighters from more than 90 countries. Regardless, should Baghdad make concessions to Sunnis under fire?

Likewise, while sectarianism is an issue, is the root of sectarian discord Shi‘ite discrimination against Sunnis, or rather Sunni rejection of Shi‘ite political power? Who, for example, has been responsible for dozen of car bombings in Baghdad, both before and after the rise of the Islamic State? Could cooperation between senior Baathists and the Islamic State suggest that Iraqi Shi‘ite leaders were right all along that re-integrating Baathists into the government would pose a security risk? The Sunni tribes might not have been alone in having enabled the rise of the Islamic State. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) may have provided some weaponry to the Islamic State,  in order to use them as a means to weaken the Maliki government (with whom the KRG was locked in contentious negotiations.) This raises a broader question about whether the KRG is committed to defeating the Islamic State entirely, or merely driving it out of territory the Kurds hold or seek. The answer to this impacts the nature of US aid and assistance.

Read the full article at the American Enterprise Institute: 5 questions every presidential candidate should answer: ISIS edition

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