Iraq’s tribes are the key to defeating ISIL

Iraq’s tribes are the key to defeating ISIL

In early October, militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) tried to storm the Iraqi town of Dhuluiya, about 80 kilometers north of Baghdad. They were repelled by an unusual coalition: Sunni fighters from the Jubouri tribe working with Iraqi security forces and Shiite tribal and militia fighters from the nearby town of Balad. In western Iraq, Sunni tribes recently fought alongside government troops in Haditha to protect a strategic dam on the Euphrates River.

After a decade of civil war and sectarian animosity, tribal leaders in most Sunni areas of Iraq are reluctant to turn against ISIL and trust the central Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Iraqis have bitter memories of the Sunni Awakening, a tribal movement recruited by U.S. troops in 2006-07 to fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq and foreign jihadists. Many leaders of the Awakening were later arrested or forced into exile by the regime of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

But the tribal alliances that emerged in recent weeks in western and northern Iraq are the best hope yet for a revival of a Sunni tribal coalition that could counter ISIL. American-led airstrikes and Iraqi military operations will not be enough to dislodge ISIL from the large territories it has captured since January. The Iraqi government and the U.S. must convince Sunni tribes to turn against ISIL.

After meeting with Iraqi leaders in early October, retired U.S. General John R. Allen, the special envoy to the global coalition fighting ISIL, emphasized the importance of Baghdad’s outreach to the tribes. “The Iraqis are taking stock,” he said, “of the effectiveness of the Iraqi security forces on the ground, how they can marry up with the tribes, and how they can create opportunities for cooperation and combination.”

Iraq’s tribes have a far deeper history than their role during the Sunni Awakening. The tribes of Iraq predate the nation-state by centuries. They range in size from the larger tribal confederations – a group of affiliated tribes, banding together for war – to the smallest units of several clans. Some of Iraq’s tribes are believed to have emigrated north from the Arabian Peninsula centuries ago; many claim members in neighboring Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

A tribe is a social or political group that claims a common line of descent. Politically, the tribe is a form of identity that cuts across lines of sect, ethnicity, geography, and class: many of the larger tribes in Iraq have Sunni and Shiite branches. By some estimates, about three quarters of Iraq’s population post-U.S. invasion either belonged to a tribe or were affiliated to one by kinship ties. This made the tribes an important form of social organization that existed parallel to sectarian identity.

To understand the role of tribes in Iraq, it helps to look at wider Arab history. The 14th-century North African scholar Ibn Khaldun is often referred to as the father of modern social science. In his groundbreaking work, “The Muqaddimah,” he described human civilization as divided between two camps: nomadic and sedentary. He argued that most civilizations begin as nomads – strong, proud, and warlike. But eventually, humans succumb to the temptations of sedentary life, until a new band of nomads invades the settlements and destroys them. And the cycle begins once again. Ibn Khaldun particularly admired the Bedouin tribes of Arabia for their central value of asabiyah, a sense of solidarity, which gives nomadic people an edge over their sedentary brethren.

Hanna Batatu, an eminent historian of modern Iraq, argued that during times of peace and stability, the tribes receded in importance. Civic institutions and urban social networks increased in strength. But in times of war and dissolution, the tribes assumed a greater role.

When Saddam Hussein first rose to power in 1970, he viewed the tribal sheikhs as a threat. But during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, he began to appreciate their usefulness. Soldiers who deserted the army would often return to their tribal areas to hide among their kinsmen. Saddam co-opted the tribal sheikhs by paying them lavishly to turn in deserters and provide conscripts for the war. He jailed and replaced those who refused.

Under the Baathist regime, the tribes began a resurgence. As the county’s justice system deteriorated, and rule of law disappeared, Iraqis returned to tribal law instead of the increasingly corrupt state structures whenever they had a dispute.

After the 2003 U.S. invasion, the increasing lawlessness of the country forced even more Iraqis to turn to tribal leaders and tribal law. Today, the tribes are the best hope for saving Iraq from ISIL – and another wave of sectarian bloodletting.

Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University.