As Kurd-dominated SDF captured Baghouz, the last enclave held by Islamic State east of Euphrates in Syria, the celebrations have begun. Since there are no enclaves left to be liberated inside the Syrian Government’s controlled areas west of Euphrates, the liberation of Baghouz essentially means that Islamic State, or Daesh, as it is called colloquially, have no territorial control left. These celebrations, though understandable, are premature.
The primary lesson that the rise and spread of Islamic State taught us was that a group like Daesh doesn’t germinate in a vacuum. It has been lent succour to, and has been nourished by a phenomenon that people don’t want to openly discuss. This phenomenon is the ‘Sunni sense of victimhood.’
After the fall of Saddam Hussain and his Baath structure, the de-Baathisation campaign that followed was given bad PR from the very beginning. While the structure was cleansed of Baath elements irrespective of the sect of those cleansed—evident in the cleansing of several thousands of Shiites as well—the majority of those who were ousted were Sunni. This was no surprise as Baath essentially was a Sunni-dominated structure in Iraq. However, in the minds of a large section of sectarian Sunnis—who had enjoyed uncontested power since the 1960s—they were being wronged against.
This was around the time US occupation forces in Iraq were facing renewed Sunni insurgency. The top leadership of US forces, unable to counter the insurgency, came up with a dangerous plan. They not only started giving credence to this false sense of victimhood, but they also started doling out cash to these warlords—many of whom were Saddam’s generals. It is now a verifiable fact that the Bush administration paid Sunni insurgents amounts to the tune of a quarter of a million dollars a day not to attack US forces in Iraq. Over 75,000 members of an insurgent group “Sons of Iraq,” that simultaneously collaborated with the US Forces as well as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), were being paid $10 a day each not to attack US troops. Around the same time, western press, always at the service of the empire, started using words like “marginalization” and “disenfranchisement of Iraq’s Sunni population” rather too liberally. All this gave succour to the Sunnis who were already feeling wronged against. The concoction ultimately led to the creation of the Islamic State.
A decade and a half later, as Daesh is struggling on its last legs, the scene is repeating itself. The same keywords are again being branded. The same false sense of victimhood is once again reinforced. The Maliki Government of then is now replaced with a new villain, Popular Mobilisation Units or Hashd al Shaabi.
Countless stories—most of them concocted out of thin air—are being churned out to suggest that the “evil Shiites” of Hashd are exacting retribution on the “innocent Sunnis” of Anbar and other provinces. These stories, once again generated by the western press, are sinister in nature: not only in what they reveal but more so in what they hide.
Some stories of retribution against the families and collaborators of Islamic State are indeed true. However, what is not true is their association with Shiites. Most of the casual readers don’t even know that Hashd has Sunni brigades formed out of Sunnis who ran away when Islamic State captured Northern and Western Iraq, and whose families were killed or tortured. For example, the 51st Brigade that was accused of atrocities in the al-Shirqat region is a Sunni Hashd brigade. Same goes for the 56th Brigade operating in Kirkuk/Hawija Triangle. The 88th Brigade in Salah-ad-Din province and the 90th Brigade operating in Nineveh Province are also Sunnis in their composition. Therefore merely writing “Hashd” while not qualifying the sectarian composition of those who have committed atrocities is sinister. And this has already started bearing fruits.
Sources close to this writer in Iraq have started reporting about the appearance of a Sunni insurgency in the regions liberated from Daesh where aggrieved Sunnis were being repeatedly told that they are being victimised by the “evil Shiites.” For example, in Diyala province, north-east of Baghdad, Sunni insurgents from erstwhile Daesh have managed to recreate a “durable support zone” in the Diyala River Valley area. In the same province, south of the town of Baqubah, closer to Baghdad, insurgents have created a sustainable attack-and-transit vector.
Reports also suggest that ex-Daesh militants are trying to gain support base for their sleeper cells in Northern and South-Western Baghdad. This junction is important as this is the centre of operation against Daesh in the provinces of Diyala and Anbar provinces.
In the mountains north of Mosul, scattered elements of Islamic State are active and are trying to connect with the sleeper cells left inside the city of Mosul following its liberation.
It is important to understand here that most of these areas correspond with those from where reports of real or perceived retribution on Sunnis are being pushed by the western press and their aides inside Iraq. Neo-Baathist groups are Jayesh al Naqshbandiyah and 1920s Revolution Brigades have once again restarted founding footholds in some Sunni towns. Sources say that these groups have been using documentaries and reports published by the western press in trying to convince the Sunnis that they are being oppressed. This has become what is called a perfectly symbiotic relationship. Just like it was in the days after the fall of Saddam. Many newspapers owned by Sunni strongmen have once again started using divisive nomenclatures like “Safawi” and “Ajam” for Shiites. Those slightly polished use euphemism like “Southerners.” All this dovetails perfectly with the new Gulf-Arab-Israel-US alliance’s targeting of Iran through hybrid warfare. While this grouping might have lost the political battle in Baghdad to the Iranian interest, it is not giving up.
The end-goal remains same: to convince the Sunnis that they are being oppressed by the Shiites even though it was essentially Salafi Sunni Daesh and its Sufi Sunni allies Naqshbandiyas who left a trail of blood and destruction in Iraq and Syria in the last eight years or so.
The territorial presence of Daesh has ended. But by no means, it is the end of Daesh. Till the time a perceived Sunni sense of victimhood is given credence to, Daesh or one of its avatars will be just around the corner.