In the war against the Sunni extremist group known as the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL), Iraq’s Sunni tribes are all the rage. They are the scaffolding around which a broader strategy is being fashioned; they are the commanding high ground on the battlefield’s “human terrain.”

The IS blitzkrieg advance into Mosul and Anbar was partly enabled by festering tribal grievances against Baghdad’s sectarian and exclusionary policies. Slowing and reversing that advance requires redressing tribal grievances and redirecting tribal power against the militant group. This was after all what worked in the first Awakening (or Sahwa) movement, a U.S.-backed tribal uprising against the predecessors of the IS during the Iraq War.

But the conditions today are drastically different. The United States lacks the presence and capacity to cut unilateral deals with the tribes as it did during the 2007 Awakening. It is dependent on an Iraqi government that remains deeply sectarian and lacks sufficient reach into the provinces. For its part, the IS has proven to be a more adaptable and entrenched opponent today than its predecessor was in the mid-2000s, deploying a potent mix of extreme violence and soft power to both coerce and co-opt the tribes.

Underpinning all of this are truisms that often elude tribal enthusiasts: tribal authority is fickle, hyper-localized, often artificially constructed, and therefore hard to fully harness. As things stand, Iraq’s tribes are “divided and completely lack … coordination,” in the words of one tribal leader, Wisam al-Hardan. Moreover, the playing field of today’s Iraq is more crowded than the Iraq of the 2007 Awakening. There are a multitude of suitors (extra-regional states, local governments, nonstate actors) trying to woo the tribes. But the tribes, following time-honored tradition, are likely to play each off against the other, while keeping equidistant from all.

Tribal Strategies of the Islamic State

The Islamic State has resorted to both carrots and sticks to ensure the tribal support it needs to effectively control the areas it holds. For example, in several provinces (wilayat) under IS control, the group has appointed “tribal affairs” officials. These officials reach out to tribes to explain the group’s goals, but they also respond to criticisms and coordinate with local leaders to collect taxes and ensure that people abide by its religious rules. In addition, the promise of basic order and some level of social services has attracted tribes to accept IS rule. Finally, the Islamic State has tried to exploit intratribal generational differences, reportedly promising younger tribal members a greater share of power over the territories their tribes control.

Frederic Wehrey
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on governance, conflict, and security in Libya, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf.
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Despite its pretensions of a “soft-power” approach, the IS still deploys intense violence to coerce and intimidate the tribes. In late June, the group destroyed the home of Anwar al-Asi, a leader of the Ubayd tribe near Kirkuk, after he refused to swear allegiance to the IS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. After another sheikh of the tribe, Wasfi al-Asi, announced the formation of a tribal council to fight the IS, several Ubaydi sheikhs who refused to swear allegiance to the group have been kidnapped and some of them executed. In Syria, after some members of the Sheitat tribe attacked and killed Islamic State fighters, the IS reportedly responded by killing 700 Sheitat men and distributing photos of the dead. Similarly, in Iraq, when the Albu Nimr clan—part of the larger Dulaym tribal confederation—resisted the IS takeover of al-Zwaiha near Hit, the IS has reportedly killed more than 500 members of the tribe and kidnapped Sheikh Hatem al-Guod, a prominent leader in Albu Nimr.

It is important to note that in the historical memory of Sunni tribes, the recent violence by the Islamic State is simply the lesser of two evils. The brutality meted upon the tribes by the Iraqi government is no better and often perceived as worse because of its sectarian character. In the words of one tribal leader, Zaydan al-Jubouri: “We chose ISIS for only one reason. ISIS only kills you. The Iraqi government kills you and rapes your women.”

Insufficient Outreach by the Iraqi Government

The new Iraqi government of Haider al-Abadi initially took several steps to accommodate the tribes and temper the IS’s heavy-handed military campaign in Sunni areas. During his recent visit to Jordan, Abadi also met with several Sunni leaders from the Anbar Province to discuss support for a tribal struggle against the IS. But on balance, Iraqi government support for the tribes has fallen far short of what would be required to turn the tide against the IS in the province.

For example, when the Albu Nimr were running out of ammunition and supplies, they asked the Iraqi government for help. The only support they received was reportedly a helicopter that took surveillance photos and then left. Majed Ali Sulayman, a Dulaimi leader based in Amman, has recently met Abadi and reported that the meeting went “positively.” Yet, he complained that the Iraqi government keeps sending promises about supporting tribes without anything being realized.

Although some tribal coalitions have been formed, such as the “Council of Tribes Revolting against the IS,” Iraq’s Sunni tribes will likely continue to be divided until they receive strong enough support and assurance from the central government—but this does not seem to be forthcoming.

The Iraqi government is likely concerned that arming the Sunni Arab tribes would presage a provincial and sectarian challenge to Baghdad’s authority once the threat from the Islamic State is reduced. Another factor is concern over the fickleness of tribal loyalties: Baghdad fears that weapons and supplies could fall into the hands of IS fighters.

Iran and the Shia Militias

A complicating factor is the power of pro-Iranian Shia militias in Iraq and the Baghdad government’s dependence on them. Even if he wanted to, Abadi could not control the strongest Shia militias, such as the Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezballah. Both groups are deeply entrenched in the patronage network of Abadi’s predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, and trained, funded, and controlled by Iran. The new minister of interior, Mohammed Ghabban, is a member of another Iran-linked militia, the Badr Organization.

While the Shia militias have stiffened government resistance and are effective in the struggle against the IS, they present a major political problem. The Shia militia organizations have a track record of sectarian violence, including kidnapping and killing Sunni civilians, and Amnesty International recently accused them of war crimes. Such abuses by government-linked militias help drive Iraqi Sunnis into the arms of the IS.

Iranian pressure may be another reason why Iraq’s government has so far not provided significant support to the Sunni tribes. The Tehran government is eager to ensure that Abadi remains dependent on its own Shia proxies, rather than on the regular armed forces or Sunni groups. But Iran’s sway is also subject to countervailing currents, particularly the authority of the influential Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who recently called on the Iraqi government to support the Sunni tribes with arms to fight the IS. His exhortation could create greater political room for pragmatic elements in Baghdad to engage the Sunni tribes.

Saudi and Jordanian Involvement

Iraq’s Sunni neighbors, most prominently Saudi Arabia and Jordan, have tried to influence the tribes by providing funds, logistical support, and possible military training. Reports suggest that Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan has been working to lure the Iraqi tribes away from the IS with money.

But while it is something of a tradition for Iraqi tribal leaders to go to Saudi Arabia and ask for financial support, Saudi influence over the tribes may, in reality, be quite limited. Past Saudi support for the tribes in Iraq was typically intermittent, unreliable, and largely unsuccessful in influencing their behavior. While Saudi Arabia did fund some tribes—especially the transnational Shammar tribe, which has strong links to the Saudi royal family—this funding has decreased since the decline of the Awakening movement.

Jordanian intelligence has also long had a close relationship with Sunni Arab tribes in Iraq and many tribal leaders reside in Jordan. The Jordanian government has trained the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in the past and may do so again in the fight against the IS. Indeed, the Saudi-owned newspaper Alsharq al-Awsat reported last month that Jordan is now ready to provide the Anbar tribes with logistical support and training to fight the Islamic State.

In addition, some Iraqi tribal leaders in Jordan belong to tribes that tend to support the IS, such as Zaydan al-Jubouri of the Jubour tribe. Recently, Hamid Al-Gu’od, a tribal leader, wrote an open letter to Jordan’s King Abdullah asking for permission to let the Jordanian military fly members of the Gu’od and Albu Nimr tribes, who are based in Jordan, to Al-Asad air base in western Anbar Province so they can fight the IS. This offers Jordan and other parties a possibility to negotiate with those leaders, in the hope of turning their tribes against the IS and finding new inroads into IS-held territory.

The National Guard Plan

A central pillar for harnessing tribal power is the national guard, a new military structure envisioned as a provincially organized auxiliary force able to incorporate local armed groups into the ISF. In the Sunni tribal regions, it will naturally rely on tribal fighters. According to some statements, the total strength of the national guard will be between 120,000 and 200,000 members. As described by one senior U.S. official, the force is meant to be one ring of a number of concentric security circles comprising the local police, the provincially organized national guard, and the regular army.

However, the national guard project is fraught with risks and the Iraqi parliament has yet to pass a law enabling its formation. Many details remain to be clarified, including its command structure at the national level, the relationship to the ISF, funding and armament issues, and—especially—the integration of Shia militias and the autonomously operating Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga. The project’s national scope is complicated by the very localized nature of tribal authority, which could prevent the tribes from joining en masse. Instances of actual tribal military cooperation with the ISF have occurred largely on an ad hoc basis, through the initiatives of enterprising ISF commanders who have cut deals with local tribes independent of any central direction from Baghdad.

So far, the central government has met leaders from the Dulaym, Shammar, Anaiza, Jubour, Hamdan, and Aqaidat tribes to discuss the formation of national guard forces in majority-Sunni areas. Several tribal groups from IS-controlled areas have also stepped forward to join the national guard, such as the 5,000 volunteers in Kirkuk who follow the Ubaydi leader Asi. On October 13, the Anbar Council announced the formation of the first national guard brigade, consisting of 2,000 volunteers. On October 22, Abadi approved the formation of Ahmad Sadak Al-Dulaym brigade, named after a former police chief who was killed by the Islamic State. The brigade, made of four battalions, would include members of the former Iraqi military.

U.S. involvement will be crucial to stand up the national guard in Sunni areas, both in terms of military support and in tempering the tribes’ suspicion about Baghdad’s sincerity and capacity in implementing the plan. More than 20 tribal leaders in Anbar have been talking to U.S. representatives. A representative of General John Allen, the U.S. official leading the anti-IS campaign, reportedly told several tribal leaders that the old Awakening movement will not be used in the same form again, and that tribesmen should instead join the national guard. The tribesmen he met with included Ahmed Abu Risha, a longtime U.S. ally in the Anbar Province, Hamid Shokah, a leader of the Albu Dhiyab, and Rafe’ Abdul -Karim Al-Fahdawi, a leader of Albu Fahd.

But already, there are signs of misgivings from the tribes about the level of U.S. military support, particularly after the fall of Hit, and U.S. support to Sunni Arab areas has been compared unfavorably to the intense airstrikes devoted to help the embattled Syrian Kurds in Kobane and the Yazidis in Sinjar in Iraq. A potential increase in U.S. military advisers to Anbar would do much to assuage this distrust, but that would likely provoke opposition from Shia politicians in Baghdad who are wary of too much tribal empowerment.

The Implications of Uncertain Loyalties

Broadly speaking, the national guard plan presents a fundamental dilemma for the United States and the Baghdad government: how to devolve security to the local level and empower communities to fight the IS while avoiding the inadvertent encouragement of greater fragmentation in Iraq, the formalization of militia rule, and future military challenges to central authority.

Sunni tribal support for the Islamic State is not immutable and the reasons for the current alignment are complex. The IS may provide tribes with certain services and punish those who are not loyal to the group. But tribes that have aligned with the IS have mainly done so because it is strategically beneficial in their conflict with Baghdad. The tribes are trying to position themselves to negotiate greater decentralization and the removal of Shia militias from their territories, and until that happens, they are likely to stay ambivalent on the issue of fighting the IS.

Ala’ Alrababa’h is a junior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program.