May 28, 2015

CNAS Press Note: Defeat ISIS by Empowering Sunni Population

In response to vigorous debate over U.S. strategy in Iraq following ISIS’ conquest of Ramadi, 20YY Warfare Initiative Director and Senior Fellow Paul Scharre has written a new Press Note arguing that the United States needs to empower the Sunni population.

The full Press Note is below:

ISIS has swept into western Iraq – and continues to make advances in key strategic towns like Ramadi – not because they are militarily impressive but because there are no competent military forces to resist them. Iraqi security forces melted away in Ramadi, as they have elsewhere. Even where ISIS is being pushed back, it is Shiite militias who are advancing, not uniformed Iraqi troops.

Fueling ISIS’ advance is a power vacuum in western Iraq, created by the disenfranchisement of Iraqi Sunnis. Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government has marginalized Sunnis, withholding from them the political, economic, and security benefits of participation in a multi-sectarian Iraq. The Iraqi government never followed through on the promises of the Sunni Awakening, and it is no wonder that Sunni Iraqis do not see Baghdad as standing up for their interests.

The current crisis, far from bringing Iraqis together, is exacerbating sectarian tensions. The Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad has been slow to support Sunni tribes in their fight against ISIS, and Shiite militias are forming the vanguard of the force against ISIS. Where these militias have made advancements, in areas such as Tikrit, atrocities and looting have followed in their wake. The employment of Shiite militias in Sunni-dominated areas risks further driving Sunnis into ISIS’ arms. To defeat ISIS, local Sunni tribal forces are needed, not only to push ISIS back but to maintain security in Sunni-dominated areas afterward and keep ISIS at bay.

The United States must strengthen moderate Sunni tribes against ISIS, ideally through the Iraqi government but outside of the government if necessary. For those tribes willing to stand and fight ISIS, the United States should back them with weapons, training, and U.S. air support. President Obama announced a plan to do so through the creation of a Sunni national guard eight months ago, but these plans have been hampered by foot-dragging from Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government.

Rather than wait for Baghdad, the United States should begin supporting Sunni tribes directly, offering Baghdad the potential to run support through the Iraqi government if and when the government makes supporting Sunni tribes a priority. America’s approach to defeating ISIS cannot be held hostage by Baghdad’s dysfunctional sectarian politics any longer.

Mr. Scharre is available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at, or call 202-457-9409.


  • Paul Scharre

    Executive Vice President and Director of Studies

    Paul Scharre is the Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at CNAS. He is the award-winning author of Four Battlegrounds: Power in the Age of Artificial Intelligence...