It has been more than a year since the start of the US-led military operation against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq. However, IS is still far from defeated. There are many political and military reasons that explain this stalemate. However, the most fundamental challenges jeopardizing the war on terror in these two countries are (1) the lack of legitimate national government and (2) the breakdown of civil society; both of which have created societies organized around sectarian affiliations rather than national ties.
In spite of the many differences between the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts, both countries suffer from very similar structural defects. In both countries, oppressive regimes (Bashar al-Assad’s and formerly, Saddam Hussain’s) have intentionally destroyed civic organizations and demolished civil bonding at the national level, incentivizing bonding at sectarian, regional and ethnic levels. This has created volatile societies that break down the moment the central government loses its iron fist. Indeed that is exactly what happened in both Syria and Iraq.
Both central governments received a blow that destabilized the system and led to sectarian civil war. In the case of Iraq, the authoritarian regime was destabilized by an external factor, the US-led invasion in 2003, whereas the Syrian regime was destabilized as a result of the popular uprising in 2011.
The legacy of Saddam Hussain’s rule has taken its toll on the politics of Iraq. Techniques used to control the public and oppress the majority Shi’i population and the Kurdish ethnicity have led to grievances that divide the society across sectarian and ethnic lines. After the fall of Saddam, the tables turned and Sunnis felt excluded and underrepresented.
The inability of more recent governments of Iraq to form representative and inclusive bodies has resulted in an acute estrangement between citizens and governmental institutions. Indeed, the national army with its Shi’i majority could not hold on against IS in many Sunni areas for this particular reason; the army was not viewed as truly representing or protecting them. In June 2014, IS took control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and met little resistance. An estimated 30,000 soldiers fled when confronted by as few as 800 militants. In May 2015, US defence secretary Ashton Carter warned that Iraqi troops will not be able to defeat IS until they have the will to fight.
The gap between the government and the people is filled by paramilitary groups, which are seen as more representative of the various religious groups than governmental institutions. Indeed, in both insurgencies, the one that followed the ousting of Hussain and the one that came after the rise of IS, the most effective players were Sunni and Shi’i militias respectively.
Similarly, in the case of Syria, the regime did not allow civil society to grow as it was viewed as a challenge to the government. Indeed, even non-political voluntary civil activism was oppressed and deemed as an offense if it was not licensed by the state. To a great extent the regime’s policies have killed political life and de-politicized its population by removing politics from the public sphere. This led to the destruction of the Syrian society and reduced its ability to form freely any civil bonding on a political, social, or cultural basis; especially any bonding that would cut across vertical divisions of society (i.e. sectarian, regional, or ethnic divisions). This has also increased the power of religious affiliations, which, before the uprising were under the control of the central government of Damascus. Once the central government became weaker, religious and sectarian affiliations became stronger and more present in public life.
Contrary to Iraq, the initial blow that shook the oppressive central government came from inside the country with the uprising in 2011. The cracking down on protesters led the country to deteriorate into a civil war whose strongest factions are rallying around those same sectarian causes.
On the ground, the warfare in both Syria and Iraq depends heavily on sectarian militias rather than on national armies that are part of inclusive and legitimate governments. This reflects the governance issues that developed in these two countries as a result of both oppressive governments and prolonged civil wars.
In addition to the military might, defeating IS requires repairing the structural defects inherited from the time of dictatorship. A new form of social contract between the state and its citizens needs to be established in order to provide a new narrative that challenges IS ideology and other extremist groups. This not only requires ‘government to society’ relations but also intra-societal interactions to establish the foundations of good governance and representative leadership.
In Iraq, the first step is to ensure that the comprehensive reforms promised by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi are implemented. In the case of Syria, the first step is to agree on a transitional government relatively acceptable to most of the Syrian people.
Supporting justice and civil society should not be seen as an issue that needs to wait until the war against IS finishes; rather this is a fundamental requirement to defeat IS and radicalism in both Syria and Iraq.